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Trial and error

In my youth I was never much of a Peter Sellers fan. My father considered him a fine mimic but doubted if his film legacy would last. I found neither the Goons nor Inspector Clouseau that amusing, but silly, unlike Prince Charles who reputedly laughed so much at a Goon show he wet his next door neighbour.

However I have reconsidered my judgment over the years and reckon him between 1959 and 1964 to have acted in memorable films.  In I’m all Right Jack in which he played the union man Fred Kite he was quite brilliant and having established himself  he showcased his considerable talent by often creating 2/3 roles in the same picture as he did in Lolita, Dr Strangelove and The Wrong Arm of the Law, in which he  was a cockney villain and a French couturier. The first Clouseau film A Shot in the Dark was hilarious.

It was around this time he acted in Trial and Error which I saw the other day on DVD. It’s taken from the John Mortimer play The Dock Brief, in which a barrister who has has no clients is assigned a hapless defendant, played by Richard Attenborough, who is accused of murdering his wife because her laughter drove him mad. Sellers has all the swagger, the mellifluous utterances and the presence of a great advocate, except he was not one but instead dependent on clearing Richard Attenborough to kick-start his career. It fails as a film as it is transparently a play, with most of the action in the cell with the two main actors and, though billed as comedy, it’s actually a rather sad examination of how two losers become dependent on one another.

After  his first heart attack in 1964, induced by stimulants to aid his lovemaking to Britt Elkland, Sellers was never quite the same force and Blake Edwards resurrected both their careers with the remakes of Clouseau.  He was  said to be difficult to work with, but much of this emanates from his two children by his first marriage to Anne Hayes, Michael and Sarah, who were all but cut out of his will. His main beneficiary was Lynne Frederick, his fourth wife. She died aged 39 and the money passed to her child and her director husband Barry Ungar. Being There, in which Sellers played the gardener Chauncy, showed the talent had not deserted  him. However, he never reached the consistency of success and acting eminence of those five years. Ironically, by 1964 another English actor had come along – Michael Caine – who over a  five year cycle starred in Zulu, The Italian Job, Alfie, The Ipcress File and Get Carter. He had a more even career but he too produced his best films over a relatively short period.

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts