The Man, the Goon, the Actor and the Freemason
(Some of this content refers to certain items of music. These tracks have been embedded, ( from YouTube for your entertainment)
Richard Henry Sellers, better known to us as the inimitable and uniquely talented Peter Sellers, was born on 8th September 1925, at Southsea, Hampshire. In fact, he was almost born on stage, as his mother, vaudeville artist Peggy Sellers, started her labour contractions in the middle of her act. She was an all-round singer and dancer and was back on stage within two weeks with Peter in her arms crying loudly to the applause of the audience.
Just a year earlier, in 1924, his father, William Sellers, a pianist, had been Initiated into Chelsea Lodge No 3098, which would ultimately influence Peter’s own reasons for joining Freemasonry.
William and Peggy’s first child, a son they named Peter, died in infancy, but they persisted in calling Richard Henry by his deceased brother’s name. That could no doubt be a contributing factor as to why, in later years, Sellers could become any character to anyone. But sadly, he could never ever be himself.
This was very evident in 1958, when during an interview on Canadian Television, asked, “You have played so many very different characters in your career, who is the real Peter Sellers?”. he paused, as tears visibly came into his eyes, as he slowly lowered and shook his head. “I don’t really know,” he answered.
As a child he accompanied his parents on the variety show circuit, learning his stagecraft, which would prove invaluable in years to come. His first appearance was at the age of five in the drama “Splash Me” at the Windmill Theatre. The Windmill Theatre was unique since it was allowed to have full nudity exhibited by its female performers, by the Lord Chamberlain, the Government Censor, provided that they did not move. To create an illusion of movement, large fans were installed in the wings of the stage blowing air across it. This proved successful until a new female performer was hired. Unfortunately, or not, she was endowed with a superabundance of pubic hair which became evident when she adopted a bending-over pose. The outcome was that the theatre was closed until the lady had an enforced “haircut”. He later returned to the Windmill after being demobbed. Quite a lot of comedians started their careers here, including all the Goons (Sellers, Milligan, Secombe, Bentine, but not all at once), Frankie Howerd, Bob Monkhouse, Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock, Bruce Forsyth, Arthur English, Tommy Cooper and Barry Cryer.
Sellers had become a versatile performer, excelling at dancing and drumming. In his early years, he regularly toured with jazz bands playing the banjo and ukulele. On the first musical piece selected he played the ukulele on a track for Steeleye Span’s 1975 Album, “Commoner’s Crown. He also interjected some Goonery into the track.
During an interview, on Michael Parkinson’s T.V. show in 1972, he claimed that his father had taught George Formby to play the ukulele. He then performed one of Formby’s songs whilst playing the instrument himself.
Peter’s family were poor and he had many memories of being in the back seat of a car, as they went from venue to venue, almost as often, he recalled, as he did moving homes to avoid paying the rent. The comedian, Bob Monkhouse, recalled a story of Sellers offering to buy a reel to reel tape recorder from him, as he was buying a better machine. Monkhouse used the machine to record his jokes on. After many months, having not received payment, he tried to contact Sellers, only to succeed in speaking to his mother Peggy, who informed him that he would not be paid as the machine was faulty and had been thrown away. His childhood was incredibly sad, especially when his parents sent him to a catholic school, run by the “Brothers of our Lady of Mercy”. He was the only Jewish boy in the school! And not many people know that!
“Not many people know that”, this comment has always been attributed to the actor Sir Michael Caine, but it was actually conceived by Sellers whist mimicking the actor, for an answerphone message.
In 1943, at the age of seventeen, he was obliged to enlist and chose the R.A.F. but was restricted to ground staff due to his poor eyesight. He had tours of India, Burma, Germany, and France. It was during his R.A.F. years that he joined the Entertainment National Services Association (E.N.S.A); this allowed him to carry on with his drumming and of course his comedy. It was here that he learnt to create characters. With the use of a false moustache and an educated voice, he would often bluff his way into the Officers’ Mess, where he struck up a friendship with Michael Bentine, a friendship which that would continue after the war, especially with the Goon Shows. After his discharge in 1948, he supported himself by doing stand-up routines in variety theatres.
It was at this time he also became a Freemason and was Initiated into the Chelsea Lodge No 3098, on 16th July 1948, probably due to his father being a member and his being a “Lewis”. He was Passed in January 1949 and Raised in November 1951. He never attended any meeting after his raising but remained in “Good Standing” right up to his death. Sellers also had his sights set on getting into radio and using his mimicry, he telephoned BBC producer Roy Speer, pretending to be none other than Kenneth Horne, star of much loved radio shows as “Much Binding in the Marsh”, “Beyond our Ken” and “Round the Horne”. Speer, of course was more than happy to talk to the famous Kenneth Horne. Sellers finally admitted who he was, but nevertheless Speer gave him an audition, just for his cheek, resulting in his first radio work with comedian Ted Ray in “Ray’s a Laugh”. Sellers, however, will always be remembered for his most famous radio work, “The Goon Show”, which ran from 1951-1960. There was a further show, which was “1966, The Goon Show reunion”.
The Goon Shows were devised and written by Spike Milligan with a range of collaborators, including Eric Sykes and Michael Bentine, one of the original Goons. However, this was not to last as eventually there was an irrevocable split over the content of the scripts. Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe had become firm friends whilst serving in the army during the war – Royal Artillery (Spike) and Royal Signals (Harry). Gunner Milligan’s first encounter with Secombe was during the battle of Monte Casino in Italy. The Germans were besieged in a monastery perched on a high plateau and the only way to fire on them was with howitzers. A howitzer is an artillery piece that fires shells almost vertically. Milligan’s unit accidentality allowed the gun to roll off a cliff, under which Secombe was sitting in a wireless (Radio) truck. He later recalled, “Suddenly there was a terrible noise as some monstrous object fell from the sky quite close to us. There was considerable confusion, and in the middle of it all the flap of the truck was pushed open by a young, helmeted idiot, who asked “Anybody seen a gun”. It was Milligan”. Secombe’s reply was “What colour was it?”
And so, began that most memorable friendship. Sometime after that, Spike met Peter Sellers at the Hackney Empire in London, where Secombe was performing, and the three became close friends. The group first formed at Jimmy Grafton’s London public house called “Grafton’s” in the late 1940’s. Grafton was a BBC producer. Sellers had already debuted with the BBC. Secombe was often heard on “Variety Bandbox”. Milligan was writing and acting in the high-profile BBC show “Hip-Hip-Hoo-Roy” with Derek Roy. Bentine had just begun appearing in Charlie Chester’s peak time radio show “Stand Easy”. The four clicked immediately. “It was always a relief to get away from the theatre and join in the revels at Grafton’s on a Sunday night,” said Secombe later.
They took to calling themselves “The Goons”, taking the name from the characters in an early black and white Popeye cartoon, inhabiting an island on which he was shipwrecked, eventually, being saved by his ubiquitous tin of spinach. The Goons started recording their pub goings-on with a tape recorder alleged to having been “unlawfully obtained” from Bob Monkhouse, as mentioned earlier. The BBC producer, Pat Dixon heard a tape and took an interest in the group. He pressed the BBC for a long-term contract for the gang and the BBC agreed and “The Goon Show” was born, but as “Crazy People”. On 28th May 1951, Sellers, Milligan, Secombe and Bentine aired under that name. No expense was spared for what might have been thought a low-level experimental programme – the Ray Ellington Quartet (who stayed for the whole series), harmonica player Max Geldray (ditto), Stanley Black and the Dance Orchestra and the Stargazers, an everywhere singing group. There was another further Goon Show in 1985, the very last Goon Show of all”.
Sellers had a passion for cars and the first car, which was used by the group, was a dilapidated Austin A90 Westminster, which was plagued with rust and nicknamed “Spotty Minnie Bannister”, after one of their characters. He, with his new found wealth, was always buying cars for himself and as presents for friends. Particularly, the actress Nanette Newman, the wife of the actor and director Bryan Forbes. Sellers was a predatory womaniser and had been trying to seduce her and had bought her an E Type Jaguar. He also bought one of the first six-wheel-drive Range Rovers, which he delighted in showing off, by crashing through fences and chasing livestock across muddy fields, often being shot at by angry farmers.
In the Goon Shows, you could hear a large amount of supposed violence directed at the character “Bluebottle” played by Sellers. This travelled the Atlantic Ocean to be copied by the “Three Stooges” in their films.
By this time Sellers’s acting career had taken off and he had a number of small parts in films from about 1950 until breakthrough in 1955 when he starred in “The Lady-killers” along with Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Danny Green , Jack Warner, Katie Johnson and Herbert Lom, with whom he was later to star in “The Pink Panther“ film series. This led to another memorable part in in the film “I’m All Right Jack”, a 1959 British comedy film directed and produced by the Boulting Brothers. The film was a sequel to the Brothers’ 1956 film “Private’s Progress”, and starred Ian Carmichael, Dennis Price, Richard Attenborough Miles Malleson and Terry-Thomas, who uttered those immortal words, when describing Sellers’ character, “The man’s an absolute shower, he sleeps in his vest”. In the film, Sellers played one of his best-known roles, as the trade union shop steward, Fred Kite, and won a Best Actor Award from the British Academy.
In 1960, he finally began receiving international attention for his character portrayal as Indian doctor “Ahmed el Kabir”, in “The Millionairess” with Sophia Loren. It was rumoured, at the time, that they were having an affair. This was later alluded to on the Michael Parkinson show by Sellers himself, and later by Spike Milligan, who having immersed himself too long in the hospitality or Green Room, drunkenly stated live on TV that “Sellers was “f^!^*%g Sophia Loren”. This matter is still unconfirmed. The film inspired a comedy single, which spent fourteen weeks in the charts reaching No. 4. That single was of course “Goodness Gracious Me!”
This was followed by another hit single, “Bangers and Mash”, which had five weeks in the charts and reached No. 22. When you listen to the song, pay attention to the reversal of characters halfway through.
After further roles, with James Mason in “Lolita”, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their last “Road” film, “The Road to Hong Kong”, his major breakthrough was in 1963 with a role with which we most associate him today and had the theme tune:
“The Pink Panther” was a series of comedy films featuring the bungling French detective, Jacques Clouseau, obviously a revamping of the well-known undersea explorer, Jacques Cousteau. Clouseau is a French word which means “small croft” but has become internationally adopted as meaning bungler. The series began in 1963 with the release of the film of the same name. The role of Inspector Clouseau was originated by, and is most closely associated with, Peter Sellers. Most of the films were directed and co-written by Blake Edwards, who is married to the British actress, Julie Andrews. (Remember “Mary Poppins” and “S.O.B.”). Edwards has an enormous library of “outtakes” from his films, which include 22 of a scene where Sellers enters a lift and breaks wind. which causes uncontrollable laughing and giggling. The notable theme music was composed by Henry Mancini. Despite its use in the titles of most of the films, the “Pink Panther” is not a character, in the film, but a large, valuable and fictitious diamond.
Sellers followed the success of the first “Pink Panther” film in 1964, with what is considered to be his greatest involvement, not least because he played at least 5 characters. The film, of course was “Dr. Strangelove or how I learned to Love the Bomb”. Fate, however, dealt him a cruel hand, as also in 1964, aged 38, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack, He only just survived with his heart having stopped completely He was supported by his wife, Britt Ekland, whom he had recently-married and who had rushed to his side. However, he chose to consult with faith healers rather than medical practitioners. By 1965, he was back in the British charts again for seven weeks, reaching No. 14 with a parody of a Beatles song set to the voice of Sir Laurence Olivier’s Richard III.
Sadly this was followed by a less successful period in which his films failed to be popular and by the mid-1970s his reputation had taken a definite fall. A third film in the “Pink Panther” series in 1975 restored him to the top of his profession. This was followed by the fourth in 1976 and the fifth in 1978. During this time, he also had a series of television appearances, culminating in his appearance on the “Muppet Show” dressed as Queen Victoria, wearing a Viking helmet, a girdle and one boxing glove. Kermit took one look at him and said, “Relax, and just be yourself!” To which Sellers replied, “There is no me! I do not exist! There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed”.
1977 saw his second major heart attack, resulting in his being fitted with a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat. Once again, he refused to slow down or to have open-heart surgery which could have considerably prolonged his life. There is speculation that his heart problems were caused by him inhaling the drug Amyl Nitrate, during sexual intercourse. However, it is not available on prescription!
1979 proved to be a much better year as he was awarded a Golden Globe for his role as a meek and mild gardener who became president of the United States in the film “Being There”, which also starred Shirley MacLaine. He was nominated for an Academy Award and given a BAFTA for best actor.
In 1980, he had arranged a reunion dinner in London with his “Goon Show” partners, but on 22nd July, just days before the dinner, he collapsed from a massive heart attack in his Dorchester Hotel suite and fell into a coma. He died in the Middlesex Hospital in London just after midnight on 24 July 1980 aged 54. He had been scheduled to undergo major heart surgery in Los Angeles later that month.
Peter Sellers always had a difficult personal life: he often clashed with fellow actors and directors. He was often described by others as difficult and demanding and it has been said that he caused physical and emotional hurt to each of his three wives and children. He told Parkinson in 1974 that he was not easy to live with and claimed that his divorce from his first wife, Anne Howe, was due to a romance with someone he worked with. He never said who it was but indicated that it might have been Sophia Loren, as mentioned earlier.
Unfortunately, he suffered from all the insecurities of fame including, at times, alcohol and substance abuse, particularly, the Amyl Nitrate. He also had long bouts of depression spurred on by a deep-seated anxiety of artistic and personal failure. He was indeed a brilliant comedian but like most of them a very sad man.
In his 54 years he made some 65 films, released 5 singles which all made the top 75 singles charts, and also released 6 albums mainly containing comedy pieces using his great talent for voices and this does not include his “Goon Show” recordings. He was nominated twice for an Academy Award, four time s for a Golden Globe , four times for a BAFTA and although the “Oscar” eluded him, as stated previously he did win a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and several other of the film industries awards. Finally. mention has been made about the astonishing career of one of Britain’s funniest comedians and comic actors. His highs and lows, his ups and downs, his many films and awards and recordings, and the human cost of much of his success.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: but let us, as Freemasons, always be generous to the memory of Brother Sellers and “shed a tear of sympathy for the failings of a Brother”, and recall the many happy hours we have enjoyed “in his company”, through the mediums of film, television and radio.
Finally, I was torn what recording to finish on. However, I decided on two. The first epitomises the sad clown often portrayed by Sellers. You Tube – “Peter Sellers – All the things you are”. One wonders if Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein ever imagined it like this. The second I heard on the radio whilst driving home and had to stop and listen. It was so “Goonesque” that I had to include it, which I hope will bring a smile to everyone’s face. “Major Dennis Bloodnok’s Rock and Roll Call Rumba”.