Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

I've just reread the first four books of Spike Milligan's war memoirs, and I've decided it's strange that I'm such a big fan of them and of things like Monty Python's Flying Circus, but I know almost nothing about the Goon Show. Spike Milligan is a huge figure in British Comedy, but I mostly think of him as "the guy that wrote those war memoirs I devoured when I was thirteen." I actually just found out he wrote three more, and I've never seen them. To understand how crazy that is, you'd have to understand just how much of my daily conversation is peppered with quotes from the ones I have read. I got them when my family was vacationing to London in, I think 1984, and I can't imaging how many times I've read them. Just try mentioning Basenjis around me and see what happens. Anyway, my image of Spike is either that or the old man who appears briefly in Life of Brian and History of the World, Part I, which seems like it skips the part he's famous for.

Okay, so I've decided to get a sense of the Goon Show (the spiritual predecessor of Monty Python, and I expect it had an influence on the Firesign Theatre as well), which was mostly Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe. Naturally, the main thing I'm doing is listening to actual Goon Show recordings, but there are movies I could be watching. First up: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, in which Geoffrey Rush plays Sellers.

I was hoping to learn a bit more about Peter Sellers, since I've enjoyed so many of his movies. Unfortunately, this is one of those biopics where they feel obliged to his every single high point, so it skips merrily from the Goon Show to Sellers getting a film career to him winning a war to the Pink Panther movies, etc. etc. The only insight into Sellers is that the movie feels that he was an unhappy, angry person. It also seems to feel that the role he was closest to was Chance the Gardener in Being There, but that character is much more centered than the movie's version of Peter Sellers.

I didn't learn much about the Goon Show years, because that period takes up about two minutes of screen time. There's a very short scene of a Goon Show broadcast in which various catchphrases are shouted out (from what I can tell, this is a pretty accurate description of every Goon Show broadcast), and that's it. The characters of Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe show up from time in the movie, but don't have any dialogue after the very beginning. It's weird.

It's also weird that they keep having "Sellers" (i.e. Geoffrey Rush) taking on the part of other characters and speaking directly to the audience. Like, just after his mother dies, Sellers appears dressed as his mother and talking and acting like his mother, talking to the audience about Peter Sellers. It's kind of hard to explain, and it's probably not worth the effort.

It is a good movie for lovers of cameos: Stanley Tucci is Stanley Kubrick, John Lithgow is Blake Edwards, and Stephen Fry is some kind of psychic advisor. Oh, and Charlize Theron looks just like Britt Ekland! It's not everyone who can look just like Britt Eklan and Aileen Wuornos.

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