The Unknown Peter Sellers (2000) Poster

(2000 TV Special)

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Alice Liddel14 August 2000
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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Ignores the personality and looks at the career, and is a stronger documentary for it
bob the moo3 January 2005
Peter Sellers is one of the most famous British comedians of recent times. Having made one of the greatest comedies ever (in Dr Strangelove) and having changed the face of British comedy after WWII with the Goon Show, it is easy to assume that this career was one easy succession of hits, famous films and choice roles but it really wasn't. This film looks at his career development and shows clips from some films and TV series that have been pretty much unseen since he made them in the 1950's etc.

The title implies that this documentary will delve into the personality and private life of Sellers, however nothing could be further from the truth. Rather the "unknown" in the title is more about aspects of his career than his personality and, for this focus it is actually much better. The film traces his early career which many of us will already know (The Goons), but it also shows and discusses films and TV series that few of us will have heard of, much less seen. This is all interesting and complimented by talking head sections with plenty of interesting and personal contributions.

The American accent from Applegate is a bit grating (pardon the slight pun) but I got used to it quite quickly and the extra voices all helped to cover his weaknesses. Of course this very career focused film may put viewers off and may not do anything for real fans who are familiar with his career but it was very interesting to me – albeit a little tragic at times. The focus did help it because it didn't get sucked into gossip and personal issues – it stayed with the things we are interested in (the films) and buoys that up with personal recollections. For me the highlight was the note about Dr Strangelove – I knew about Sellers playing Kong and the pie fight ending but I didn't know that it was Spike Milligan who suggested the ending that made the cut.

Overall a very good film that is focused and better for it. We get a good look at his films and career that never gets sucked into personality but instead keep to the facts while getting those that knew him to add insight and personal touches. His career was harder than I thought and it was interesting, although in my heart all I want to remember are the highs of the Goons and Dr Strangelove.
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Only concerned with his work, and that's rather refreshing
SnorrSm198919 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Peter Sellers was often described as a "comic genius," and nearly as much a "difficult person." The biographies covering his problems as a married man and father have been many, and arguably reached its peak with the film THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS (2004), in which Geoffrey Rush played the role of the comedian. Of course, I did watch the film and enjoyed parts of it; as a big fan of Sellers I cannot help being somewhat curious about the other aspects of his life. Even so, my interest in a stranger's marital problems is usually ephemeral at most (and I hope that's so to others as well). What I really want to know more about is the talent that initiated my interest in this person in the first place. In that regard, the Rush-film disappointed; it did acknowledge Sellers's talent (would be hard not to) but never tried much to trace its roots.

Thankfully, we do have this documentary, THE UNKNOWN PETER SELLERS. Here, we are provided with interviews with friends and colleagues such as Spike Milligan, Shirley MacLane, Michael Palin and David Frost, as well as excerpts from films throughout Sellers's career, many of which had not been seen in decades. The film takes us back to the early 50s, when Sellers first found fame on British radio as part of the Goon Show, and through his first fumbling attempts with film, before becoming an international star in the 60s after the success of THE PINK PANTHER and DR. STRANGELOVE. Then his shocking decline in the early 70s is covered, when he was suddenly forced to appear in commercials in order to make an income, until his triumphant comeback as Closeau a few years before his death. The interviews share a respectful tone, and are almost solely concerned with Sellers's extraordinary work as a comedian, which I find to be rather refreshing after the Rush-film. There are more than enough celebrity scandals to fill the papers every day. A talent like that of Peter Sellers, however, cannot be duplicated. (This review was later updated and revised, Dec. 2012)
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Most worthy praise!!!
Addalena25 April 2000
FABULOUS documentary, chock full of little known extremely interesting and funny details and clips! Want to know the alternate endings of "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"? Find out about the movies that none of us have gotten to see. A MUST SEE for EVERYONE!!!!
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A fairly good run through Peter Sellers career
Red-Barracuda11 January 2015
This Peter Sellers documentary is one that never delves too deeply into what made him who he is and it is very light on material relating to his private life. I don't know too much about that but have always been aware he wasn't the easiest character in real life. I reckon this documentary would have benefited from featuring at least a little on this to put everything into more context. What it is really about is his work, from stage to radio, onto TV then movies and latterly to adverts. His career covered so much ground that gaps have to be left but it did seem quite poor that nothing whatsoever was mentioned about his performance in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), a role where he was especially fantastic. Also, it would have been at least interesting to have highlighted some of the later movies that the documentary suggested were bad and which he only did for the money - a documentary, after all, works far better when it doesn't just focus on the good but the lesser moments too.

One thing it did do very well though was to show clips from early TV and movie work that have barely been seen since. This stuff was fascinating seeing as it's the only place most people will ever see this material. There was also a clip shown from a later obscurity called A Day at the Beach – a film co-written by Roman Polanski and one he had to leave due to his wife Sharon Tate being murdered while he worked on it. This film became effectively lost for decades. Its unusual details like these that are most successful about this documentary. Unsurprisingly a lot of time is spent on Sellers most celebrated work such as The Goon Show, Dr. Strangelove, the Pink Panther series and Being There. Despite the familiarity of these, there are varies bits of interesting trivia revealed for all of them. Unfortunately, there is no archive interview material featuring the man himself and instead we have to make do with contributions from all manner of people who worked with him; some are more worthwhile than others shall we say. Overall, this is a good enough look at Sellers work. It could have been a lot better but it should offer something for anyone interested in the man's career.
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