Peter Sellers – Swingin’ when you’re winning
Peter Sellers excelled in films, radio and TV over a long and glorious career. He also released some brilliant virtuoso comedy records.
Songs For Swingin’ Sellers,
Parlophone PMC 1111,
Peter Sellers like many other comedians before and since was an insecure and neurotic man. Whether or not his many achievements and talents brought him any great or lasting happiness it is hard to know. I suspect not. What he did leave behind after his death in 1980 aged just 54, was an amazing comic legacy that is unrivalled in its range and its accomplishments. Three Oscar nominations, numerous BAFTA wins and some iconic performances on TV, radio and film only manage to give a small idea of the scale of Peter Sellers’ magnificent abilities. He also left behind a family divided and bitter by his behaviour, and a will that still divides and frustrates them to this day. Such sordid details are best left to The Daily Mail though I feel.
Peter Sellers was born in the Southsea area of Portsmouth in 1925. His parents Peg and Bill were both vaudeville entertainers, who toured the country playing in musical revues. Peg sang and Bill was a musician specialising in the piano and the ukulele, an instrument which Peter would also later master. Peter Sellers made his first debut onstage at the age of just two weeks, paraded to the appreciative audience of The King’s Theatre in Southsea where his father was appearing. By the age of three he was already performing in his own right, regaling audiences with his take on the Albert Chevalier number My Old Dutch.
After the family moved to London, Sellers attended St Aloysius College in Hornsey. It was a Catholic school, and seems an odd choice for a young boy whose parents were Jewish on his mother’s side and Protestant on his father’s. In fact there are probably at least a couple of dozen sitcoms just waiting to be written about that peculiar arrangement. After being bombed out of their house in the London Blitz, the Sellers family moved to Ilfracombe in Devon where Sellers’ uncle managed the Victoria Palace Theatre. Here Peter would develop his stage craft and pursue with some cacophonic gusto a musical career on the drums.
In 1943 Sellers joined the RAF. With his eyesight not sufficient enough to allow him to fly aircraft, a career needed to be found for the shy young serviceman. The profession on his official papers was listed as ‘entertainer’ and so with true military efficiency he was very quickly shipped off to India to tour with the legendary Ralph Reader’s RAF Gang Show. With a mixture of comedy, impressions and frantic drumming, Peter Sellers kept the troops entertained successfully until he was demobbed in 1946. Back in civilian life, he carried on with comedy and wisely left the drumming to others. A stint in the infamous Windmill Theatre and a spell supporting Gracie Fields at the London Palladium gradually built up his profile back in England.
These appearances led to Sellers being booked onto a number of BBC radio shows, notably the popular Ted Ray series Ray’s a Laugh. As documented in many places over many years, this then led to him throwing his lot in with three slightly mad ex-servicemen friends from a pub he used to frequent to form The Goons, possibly the single most influential modern comedy troupe there is.
On air, Sellers was the powerhouse behind the Goons. Milligan provided the scripts certainly, and Secombe provided enthusiasm and raspberries, but so many characters were brought to life by the vocal talents of Sellers that it is hard to imagine the show existing without him. Sellers seems to have only been comfortable inhabiting another character, playing a scripted role that allowed him to conquer his shyness and hide his true feelings. He would go on to create many definitive roles over the next thirty years, showing a diversity and range that few actors, comic or otherwise, have ever matched. The rest, as they say in every good cliché ridden career résumé, is history.
Songs For Swingin’ Sellers was Peter Sellers’ second album, released in 1959 a year after his debut The Best Of Sellers. Like its predecessor, and despite its title, Songs For Swingin’ Sellers does not actually contain many songs. It does though start with a very well delivered song, namely the velvety smooth You Keep Me Swingin’, credited on the album to a ‘Mr Fred Flange’. Flange was in fact Matt Monro, who with his career languishing in a fairly deep slump by the late 50s recorded the track for Sellers to imitate and practice singing to. So impressed was Sellers with the resultant effort though, the track stayed on the album as it was. The producer of the album, that jolly old knob twiddler man George Martin again, saw to it that Matt was signed immediately to his Parlophone label where he would go on to enjoy a much lauded career resurgence in the 60s.
Other songs do occasionally poke their tiny little heads up and muscle in on the action between the lengthier sketches. Sellers’ old music hall number My Old Dutch is given an outing, with Peter singing as a decrepit old codger in a style that is ridiculously overwrought and maudlin. The song’s denouement of an actual Dutch wife emerging from the kitchen to berate the singer is a wonderfully daft payoff that never fails to amuse me. I Haven’t Told Her, She Hasn’t Told Me (But We Know It Just The Same) sees Sellers revisit another old vaudeville favourite, this time with his trusty ukulele and without so much as a trace of a silly voice or daft punch line in evidence.
The sketches performed on the album are typical Sellers. Just as in many of his films, if there is limelight, then Peter Sellers needs to hog it. The only other artiste even so much as allowed to raise a whisper on the record is Irene Handl, famous for playing cuddly grandmas throughout much of her career and quite the most barmy comedienne of her generation. These two titans of British comedy are brought together most successfully for Shadows on the Grass, a warm and comforting comic sketch written by Handl, which sees her batty old widower seduced by by Sellers adopting a French accent straight out of the comedy foreigners Christmas selection pack. Irene Handl, here playing an elderly temptress from Dalston (aka ‘the Frinton of E8’), has the best of the repartee and delivers some wonderful malapropisms. Given Sellers’ many later neuroses and megalomania, it’s a refreshing example of generosity on his part.
Other than The Critics, where Handl also appears reviewing books that neither she nor Sellers have managed to read, every other voice (male or female) is Sellers. In The Contemporary Scene 1 for instance the female interviewee Miss Lisbon and the bluff irascible Major Ralph she is sent to interview are both played by Sellers. As is the dim-witted pop star (Cyril Rumbold aka Twit Conway) that the Major appears to keep locked up in his house. Just the names of the equine stable of pop stars are a wonderful exercise in silliness from writers Ron Goodwin and Max Schreiner. Who can fail to want to hear the hits of acts revelling in names such as Lenny Bronze, Clint Thigh and Matt Lust, or not to watch the performances of such unlikely groups as The Fleshpots or The Muckrakers?
Other than Schreiner and Goodwin, Dennis Muir and Frank Norden handle much of the remaining writing duties, with the exception of the penultimate track We’ll Let You Know, which is written by Sellers himself. Here, Sellers plays both the forgetful old duffer of an actor single-handedly destroying Shakespeare’s reputation, as well as the disdainful wearied casting director more intent on gossiping in a muted whisper to his chums than listening to the act. The fact that the actor goes by the name ‘Warrington Minge’ should alone make this album an absolutely essential purchase for any lover of innuendo and comedy. Quite what contemporary audiences made of that ludicrous moniker back in the 1950s is anyone’s guess.
So, if booking into a hotel under the name ‘Warrington Minge’ isn’t amusement enough for you, here is Peter Sellers singing George Gershwin. Take it away Mr Sellers.