Documentary Review: The funnyman as he saw himself — in 1969 — “The World of Peter Sellers”

Here’s an interesting artifact I stumbled upon while prowling the free streaming channel Tubi (it’s also on Youtube), a 1969 British TV special that’s a piece of “How I see myself” autobiography from Peter Sellers.

Documentarian Tony Palmer (“Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire,” “Margot,” “Testimony”) was just starting out when he filmed “Will the Real Mr. Sellers…?” aka “The World of Peter Sellers,” getting Sellers’ mentor and “Goon Show” pal Spike Milligan to narrate it.

“Peter’s a freak, NOT a a genius. Which makes him even more unique.”

It is, as one would expect, a sympathetic/always-take-the-star’s-side appreciation, with full Sellers participation. The film has artistic pretensions and self-consciously artsy touches, and it makes a fine if less trustworthy take on the actor than Peter Medak’s embittered (with just cause) but sympathetic “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” documentary of earlier this year.

Sellers vamps through “bits” for the camera, about his current life, his travels and the making of the film that was just then coming out, the all-star satire “The Magic Christian.” He horses around on a Cunard ocean liner, the QE 2, on the set of the film, in public appearances and the like. He kvetches about his heart attacks (graphic surgical footage is inserted), drives his Rolls Royce with the top down and revels in the freedom from pressure, the press and the public that having his own private yacht, the Victoria Maria, gave him.

Milligan enthusiastically narrates the project, getting into the “only child” and his relationship with his mother.

“He was always looking for the security he got from his mother…To him, the world seemed like a violent attack by the world on him and this comfortable life his mother created.”

Milligan insists there was an almost therapeutic “freedom” to Sellers’ work in the free-form “Goon Show,” the precursor to Monty Python, freedom lost thanks to the “idiots” Sellers had to deal with once he cast his lot in the cinema.

The narration sees Sellers’ growing paydays and power as “planned revenge” on such “idiot producers…idiot managers…idiot BBC officials,” and every person who ever saw things differently in a script, on a set or in the tabloids.

Given Sellers’ decidedly mixed track record in film, that is both disingenuous and revealing. He sought big paydays, and as Medak’s film suggests, lost his cool and turned diva when they didn’t turn out as critically-acclaimed blockbusters. And he was a very wealthy martyr about it.

“I tend to approach people now very warily, in case they’re going to clobber me. I find I get clobbered a lot.”

There’s all this wonderful footage of him goofing around during the “Magic Christian” shoot, snippets of the finished film (the Lawrence Harvey as “Hamlet” burlesque is still funny). The mercurial talent is obvious, his ability to improvise “bits,” to sling accents and mimic “types” almost unrivaled.

He was a Robin Williams who refused to be “on” all the time, unless “on” meant that posh accent he affected as his public persona for chat shows.

But it is Milligan’s insightful narration — spoken in 1969 as if Sellers was already dead — which gets at the man, protecting him and revealing him at the same time.

“Can you encompass a man’s life in 50 minutes? Do you think by doing that you will, in any way, help him? In Peter’s case, he’s mostly defenseless…He desperately needs to be left alone, and knows he cannot.”

Despair for Peter Sellers trap, Mulligan sermonized, a lucky clown whose “only compensation was his money.”

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, with plenty of off-color humor

Cast: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Raquel Welch, Lawrence Harvey, Richard Attenborough

Credits: Directed by Tony Palmer, narrated by Spike Milligan.

Running time: :50

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