Archive for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

Page Seventeen II: The Second Story

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2021 by dcairns

As usual, seven passages from seven page seventeens. I’ve recently enjoyed the rather mysterious short stories of Walter De La Mare. It was particularly fun to read Missing, a story narrated in a tea shop in a heatwave, while being in a cafe in a heat wave. So when I picked up WDLM’s novel of possession/reincarnation The Return from the St Columba’s Bookstore, I turned eagerly to page seventeen to see if it would offer me a suitable extract.

To my surprise I found a previous reader had bookmarked the spot with a scrap of paper. One the paper were the haunting words S.W. BRITISH CHAIN FREQUENCY GROUP 1B. Printed in green ink that closely matched the green hue of the Pan Books paperback itself. On the inside front cover the book was stamped WARDROOM LIBRARY H.M.S. SEAHAWK, and since S.W. can stand for shortwave, it seemed possible that this little piece of paper dated from the book’s use as light reading at sea.

On page seventeen I encountered a character called Sheila, which is my mother’s name. Here’s the passage I’ve selected, along with six more from six different volumes.

Lawford shut his mouth. “I suppose so–a fit,” he said presently. “My heart went a little queer, and I sat down and fell into a kind of doze–a stupor, I suppose. I don’t remember anything more. And then I woke; like this.”

I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder–I believe she stole it from her mother’s Spanish maid–a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingles with her own biscuity odour, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing–and as we drew away from each other, and with aching veins attended to what was probably a howling cat, there came from the house her mother’s voice calling her, with a rising frantic note–and Dr. Cooper ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove–the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since–until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.

Mr. Hutton was aware that he had not behaved with proper patience; but he could not help it. Very early in his manhood he had discovered that not only did he not feel sympathy for the poor, the weak, the diseased, and deformed; he actually hated them. Once, as an undergraduate, he had spent three days at a mission in the East End. He had returned, filled with a profound and ineradicable disgust. Instead of pitying, he loathed the unfortunate. It was not, he knew, a very comely emotion, and he had been ashamed of it at first. In the end he had decided that it was temperamental, inevitable, and had felt no further qualms. Emily had been healthy and beautiful when he married her. He had loved her then. But now – was it his fault that she was like this?

To kill or not to kill an insect is a decision which faces several characters. It is morally all the more indicative as the act involves no retaliatory consequence, because it is a matter of impulse rather than reflection, wile from conventional viewpoints it has no moral significance. Thus the insect motif sometimes suggests a reverence for life. But this reverence is amused and sardonic, and has its markedly un-Schweitzerian aspects. The sudden death of an insect can also imply that a man can died a abruptly, and as unimportantly.

In the folklore of the doppelganger (German for double-goer; defined by the OED as “wraith of a living person”) to meet your duplicate is a premonition of death. Sellers, who had visited Roger Moore on the set of The Man Who Haunted Himself, must have felt as if he’d toppled headlong into a similarly horrific plot. As The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, on Sellers’ orders, was being re-re-re-written throughout the night, by teams of hacks, belletrists, ex-playwrights, and just about anybody who could stay awake and hold a pen, this was exactly an element which was worked in at the last moment (though it was lost again when the film was edited after Sellers’ passing). As Sellers intended it (and he through the leaves of the script other people had concocted to the ground, in order to improvise it), the rejuvenated Fu, and Taylor as Nayland, were to walk off into the sunset together, the opposites reconciled, the doubles united. ‘You are the only worthy adversary I ever had, Nayland. They were the good old days. We can recapture them and start all over again.’

‘I admit I can’t make him out,’ resumed Barker, abstractedly; ‘he never opens his mouth without saying something so indescribably half-witted that to call him a fool seems the very feeblest attempt at characterisation. But there’s another thing about him that’s quite funny. Do you know that he has the one collection of Japanese lacquer in Europe? Have you ever seen his books? All Greek poets and medieval French and that sort of thing. Have you ever been in his rooms? It’s like being inside an amethyst. And he moves about in all that and talks like – like a turnip.’

Suddenly I found myself lying awake, peering from my sandy mattress through the door of the tent. I looked at my watch pinned to the canvas, and saw by the bright moonlight that it was past twelve o’clock–the threshold of a new day–and I had therefore slept a few hours. The Swede was asleep still beside me; the wind howled as before; something plucked at my heart and made me feel afraid. There was a sense of disturbance in my immediate neighbourhood.

Postscript: Fiona is now reading The Return, and in conversation with friend and Shadowplayer David Melville Wingrove she has learned that it was HE who originally donated it to the charity shop where I found it…

The Return by Walter De La Mare; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Gioconda Smile, from Mortal Coils by Aldous Huxley; Luis Bunuel by Raymond Durgnat; The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis; The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton; The Willows, from Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood.

Crossing the River

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2021 by dcairns

I’m not 100% but it’s entirely possible that the references to “crossing the river” in THE OPTIMISTS (OF NINE ELMS, 1973) take in Egyptian mythology about the journey to the land of the dead. At any rate, it’s a deliberately death-haunted film, with Peter Sellers in old-age makeup as an impoverished music hall entertainer befriended by a couple of scrappy kids.

Writer-director Anthony Simmons had been planning the film, based on his novel, for years — Buster Keaton was pencilled in originally. I found myself wondering how heartbreaking the film would have been with Stan Laurel — a near-impossibility, of course. Sellers is perhaps too theatrical to really move you. Here he’s walking around in a Loachian realist environment, in a Stuart Freeborn false nose and teeth (the teeth have a very subtle effect, the nose sticks out) and special hump-soled shoes to give him a rolling walk.

The film has some stupendous credits — George Martin scoring, Lionel Bart songwriting, though Sellers also plays some authentic old numbers his father taught him. His father also taught George Formby, and there’s a Formby standard in there — I bet nobody cleared the rights. G. Martin’s film scoring career was intermittent, but he seems to have plunged in wholeheartedly around this time, doing PULP and LIVE AND LET DIE close to it.

This was viewed in our weekly watch party. Regular participant Donald Wisely wisely said, “Really liked the shot early in the film of the helicopter hovering over the Thames. It looked a vision of the London that was coming, where it was all finance and property, but no actual productive industry. As a piece of understated social commentary, and possible prophetic vision of, the decline of Britain this film deserves to be better known.”

The kids are great, though their naturalism tends to point up Sellers’ schtickiness. But I guess he’s playing Old Sam as a man immersed in his old routines as a shield against bitter reality.

The film is about death, though Sam is still going at the end. Only the dog dies. But at one point we cut from Sellers standing in the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery — a true thing I never knew existed — to the Dorchester Hotel, where he would have a massive fatal heart attack, alone, seven years later.

I first became convinced that Simmons knew what he was doing when the kids are playing in Thameside landfill and the little boy disappears from view. As his sister looks about frantically, every POV shot features some piece of crumbled, crushed debris that looks, for an instant, as if it could be a small boy’s body. Terrifying.

Fiona’s re-reading The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis, so I picked it up and read the OPTIMISTS stuff, but of course I also turned to page seventeen. There, Lewis speculates on Sellers meeting his stand-in (or doppelganger) just before his fatal heart attack, and also mentions that Sellers had just visited Roger Moore on the set of THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. He notes the eerie coincidence of the film’s director, Basil “room for one more inside”, Dearden perishing in a car crash at just the same stretch of motorway where Moore’s character is killed (maybe twice). He fails to note that Moore himself was a Sellers doppelganger, even though his actual doppelganging hadn’t happened yet: in CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, Moore, using the pseudonym Turk Thrust, plays a reincarnated, plastically-surgeoned Inspector Clouseau.

We might pass the future scene of our own deaths a thousand times without knowing it, or shake hands with our fatal double.