this is an essential documentary for all who thank heaven for the second greatest comedian of the sound era. As a biography it is pretty negligible, especially compared to BBC's mighty three-part Arena special of a few years back. 'The Unknown Peter Sellers' substitutes for painstaking research, letters, analysis, context etc., a join-the-dots, point-by-point tabloid narrative, fleshed out with clips, platitudes from 'friends' and 'insights' from the 'experts'. Sellers was a man of many parts except his own! Even though he was a comic genius, he always wanted to be a serious actor! He starred in a lot of 'eye-on-the-cheque' dross! Well, did you evah?
In between the cliches - Peter's music-hall parents brought him on stage when he was a month old. He roared. It wouldn't be the last time he'd make an audience laugh etc. - the actual reality of his life is lost. His marriage to Britt Ekland, for example, is dismissed in two lines: they got married; they split up. The documentary begins with a contrived attempt at narrative, drama and tension - why was Peter Sellers, the most famous and highest paid comic actor of the 1960s, box-office poison and physical wreck by the early 70s, reduced to 'humiliating' advertising work? When we actually get to this point, it is glossed over in a couple of lines, and our hero is quickly bouncing back to huge success in the Pink Panther sequels. This IS an American documentary, after all.
So, even though there is no attempt to even acknowledge the anguish of being Peter Sellers, to plumb his narcissism and sadism, to note that his best performances, as Captain Mandrake and the President in 'Dr. Strangelove', as Quilty in 'Lolita' and as Chance the gardener in 'Being There' were the result of 'straight man' self-effacement (the film doesn't even mention 'Lolita', arguably his finest film); but does give Shirley Maclaine room to perform her premonition act; 'Unknown' is, as I said, essential. Interspersed with the familiar clips are previously unseen footage from the Sellers archive, dismal, forgotten early films which now seem quite funny, private sketches (including one hilarious film noir spoof), footage of the Goons at work, Oscar-nominated shorts, which leave you slavering for more, and urging editing of certain unyielding reminiscences. Best of all is a mid-50s TV show, directed by the godlike Richard Lester, 'A Show Called Fred', which, dumbfoundingly, IS pure Monty Python, fresh, incongruous, demented, hilarious. I demand its complete airing immediately.
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