“If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.”
There’s a certain sadness to the above self-evaluation by Peter Sellers. It reflected an uncertainty about his own abilities that translated to a frequently melancholy element to many of Sellers’ screen performances, even those considered his comic masterpieces. Many of those date from his early British period before 1964’s Dr. Strangelove really confirmed him as an international star. It’s perhaps that sad undertone that made Sellers’ comic screen characterizations so unique compared to other comics, contemporary or otherwise.
Sellers was born in 1925 and first rose to prominence in Britain after the Second World War through his participation in “The Goon Show.” This radio program, on the air from 1951 to 1960, was a collection of off-the-wall comedy sketches to which Sellers lent his considerable talents with a number of unique characters. Modest film work also came his way, but his first really good part was in 1955’s The Ladykillers. Some two-dozen films later brought him to Dr. Strangelove, which aroused director Blake Edwards’ interest in him. Their collaborations included The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark (both 1964), and The Party (1968). Other highlights of this period included What’s New Pussycat? (1965), The Wrong Box (1966), and The Magic Christian (1969). The 1970s was a period of poor choices — many made strictly for the money — and it was only with 1979’s Being There that Sellers seemed likely to revive his career. Unfortunately, it was too late. Poor health had dogged him from the mid 1960s when he suffered from a heart attack. A final fatal attack occurred in 1980 when he was only 54 years of age.
Few of Sellers’ many fine British films of the late 1950s and early 1960s have readily been available on home video in North America. Anchor Bay has taken a big step towards rectifying that situation with a recently-released DVD box set of Sellers’ films, entitled The Peter Sellers Collection. Titles included in it are: The Smallest Show on Earth, Carlton-Browne of the F.O., I’m All Right Jack, Two-Way Stretch, Heavens Above!, and Hoffman. Carlton-Browne of the F.O. is available exclusively in the box set. All the others can also be purchased individually.
The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) — A young couple, Matt and Jean Spencer, inherit a decaying cinema called the Bijou located in the backwater town of Sloughborough. Seemingly inherited along with the theatre are its ancient staff consisting of projectionist Percy Quill, cashier Mrs. Fazackalee, and janitor/usher Old Tom. In an effort to try and sell the old theatre at a reasonable price to the town’s only other theatre owner, the Spencers clean it up and reopen it as a going concern, but things don’t quite work out as planned.
Carlton Brown of the F.O. (1958) — Gaillardia is a former British colony long forgotten by the British Foreign Office. When the discovery of valuable ore deposits raises the interest of the Russians, British influence over the small state is threatened and the Foreign Office dispatches inept Cadogen de Vere Carlton-Browne to represent Britain. Actual control of Gaillardia is maintained by its openly corrupt Prime Minister Amphibulos, with whom Carlton-Browne opens negotiations. These he hopes will lead to a reaffirmation of British influence. Carlton-Browne is so inept, however, that his efforts lead to a revolution in Gaillardia, sparking a confrontation with the Russians. Carlton-Browne must hastily restore the situation before the Gaillardia situation turns the Cold War hot.
I’m All Right Jack (1959) — Young Stanley Windrush attempts to secure a job as an industry executive, but after failing at several possibilities, finds himself the pawn of his Uncle Bertram. Bertram and his partner Cox have cooked up a crooked scheme to extort money from a foreign government. By causing a strike at Bertram’s factory, which has a manufacturing contract for the foreign country, the work would then be forced to switch to Cox’s plant where it would be done at a higher cost, with Bertram and Cox pocketing the difference. Stanley will be the unwitting instrument that will cause the strike. And so it happens, as Stanley sees all sorts of slackness at his uncle’s factory and eagerly tries to promote efficiencies. This annoys the factory’s chief shop steward, Fred Kite, who calls a strike. Unfortunately for Bertram and Cox, however, the workers at Cox’s plant also go on a sympathy strike and soon the entire country’s shipping and transportation systems are shut down. A climactic confrontation occurs when all the parties agree to a television debate on the issue.
Two-Way Stretch (1960) — Dodger Lane and his cellmates live a life of luxury at the rather liberal Huntleigh prison. Their prison sentences are nearing the end when an old crony, Soapy Stevens, comes for a visit and proposes a diamond heist with a foolproof alibi. Dodger and his mates will sneak out of the prison unknown to the guards, steal the jewels, and then sneak back into prison — all on the day before they’re scheduled to be released. Things appear to be progressing nicely until a new guard, Sidney “Sour” Crout, is assigned to the prison, one who seems intent on actually making the prisoners do as they’re told rather than whatever they want. Despite this setback, Dodger plans to go ahead with the heist with the outside able assistance of a cellmate’s mum, his girlfriend, and Soapy.
Heavens Above! (1963) — The Reverend John Smallwood is assigned in error to a wealthy parish whose life is dominated by a popular sedative/laxative company. In his quest to help the needy and bring parishioners back to God, he first of all invites a family of village layabouts to live with him in the parish manse and then challenges the comfortable upper class villagers to use their wealth to really help others in need. Soon the whole town is in an uproar and eventually the needy, the greedy, the church hierarchy, and even the government are angry with him. Then the church hits on an idea that may resolve the situation, but see Smallwood physically closer to God than he might have expected.
Hoffman (1970) — Middle-aged businessman Benjamin Hoffman blackmails a young female office associate, Janet Smith, into spending a week with him at his home. At first, she is repulsed by his obsession with her, but is still strangely enough drawn to him that when she has a chance to get away, she chooses not to. Eventually, she finds that Hoffman’s behaviour has been shaped by the loss of his previous wife and she finds that the increasingly pathetic Hoffman is starting to cause feelings of attraction in her.
A Peter Sellers character on radio could be completely crazy or bizarre, but his screen characterizations were frequently gentler, relying on the humour of situation and juxtaposition with normal, everyday people to elicit laughter. Sellers continued to rely on his deep repertoire of voices, but his characters were often self-effacing rather than in-your-face, and the aforementioned melancholy strain often made one feel as much sad for them as amused.
A good example of this comes in the first film (chronologically) in the box set. In The Smallest Show on Earth, Sellers is film projectionist Percy Quill. The part has minimal dialogue, relying more on visual humour, particularly Quill’s efforts to keep the ancient projection equipment running in the face of faulty electrical circuits, constant film breakages, and the vibration caused by trains passing by just outside the theatre. A lasting image from the film is that of Quill valiantly hanging onto the projector as the room about him threatens to shake to pieces. For the part, Sellers (who was 32 at the time) is realistically aged with graying hair, a graying brush-like moustache, and wire-rimmed spectacles from which he seems to spend much of his time staring out self-consciously while wringing his hands. Sellers’ role is but one of several important supporting ones in a film that is every bit as good a paean to the magic of the small-town movie theatre as is the more recent Cinema Paradiso, but gets its point across in much less time. The other two supporting roles worth noting are those of Mrs. Fazackalee, played by the incomparable Margaret Rutherford, and Old Jim, played by veteran Bernard Miles. The nominal stars of the film — Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as the young inheritors of the old theatre — are both fresh and enthusiastic in their roles. Watch out for a poignant scene in which Quill and Old Jim are discovered sitting in the empty theatre enraptured by a silent film while Mrs. Fazackalee provides the musical accompaniment.
Carlton-Browne of the F.O. is more of a Terry-Thomas film than anything else. As the title character, Carlton-Browne, the gap-toothed Terry-Thomas plays the typically pompous, silly-ass, seemingly-unaware-of-his-own-ineptitude British character that he tended to specialize in. Seen 45 years after it first appeared, the film appears to have lost much of the amusement value it may have had. I suspect only die-hard Terry-Thomas fans will find any significant entertainment in it now. Peter Sellers plays the corrupt Gaillardian Prime Minister and is decked out in a white suit and oily-looking black moustache and hair in a manner that reminds one of an updated version of a sleazy central-American villain. Sellers seems to be having a good time in the role, but it never really takes off, generating a few mild chuckles at best. Look for familiar faces such as Miles Malleson as the ancient British resident advisor in Gaillardia and Raymond Huntley as the British Foreign Minister. The film was originally released in the U.S. under the title Man in a Cocked Hat.
I’m All Right Jack is a different kettle of fish entirely. This is a witty, intelligent poke-in-the-ribs at trade unions in particular and labour-management relations in general that manages to hit all the marks unerringly. The film comes from the Boulting brothers (producer John and director/co-writer Roy) who had made a name for themselves with a series of popular comedies. (Private’s Progress , Lucky Jim , and The Brothers in Law  still hold up today; Carleton Browne of the F.O., as already discussed, doesn’t.) I’m All Right Jack relies on several Boulting regulars such as Ian Carmichael as Stanley Windrush, Dennis Price as Uncle Bertram, Richard Attenborough as Cox, and Terry-Thomas as the personnel manager. It also adds fine cameos from the likes of Margaret Rutherford and Raymond Huntley, but despite this wealth of talent, the film undoubtedly belongs to Peter Sellers. His chief shop steward with the clipped moustache, Fred Kite, reminds one of Hitler in his well-fed, salad days — beefy, blustering, and contemptuous of the current (management) regime. His shocked looks of righteous indignation whenever he perceives the slightest slight against the union are priceless. Yet, as well as our laughs, he manages to elicit our sympathy for the glum, blinkered life he lives and in so doing helps to elevate both the character and the film itself. The British Film Academy awarded Sellers its Best Actor award for the year as a result.
Probably the broadest comedy of the box set is Two-Way Stretch, in which Sellers clearly has the main role as “prison king” Dodger Lane. There’s no hidden agenda to this film; it’s just straightforward, funny nonsense with Sellers at his most overt comedic best and no melancholy side in sight. Able support comes from Bernard Cribbins and David Lodge as Dodger’s cellmates, Wilfrid Hyde-White as Soapy, Lionel Jefferies as Crout, and Irene Handl (frequently seen in Sellers’ films of this era) as Cribbins’ mum. The film is sometimes viewed as a companion piece to The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), which stars the same main players.
A somewhat lesser-known film from 1963 is Heavens Above!, which offers a change of pace for Sellers. He plays the newly appointed parish priest, the Reverend John Smallwood, much like a straight man. He walks through life with a smile on his face, just wanting to be good and do good, but he is virtually oblivious to the fact that everything he touches seems to backfire with the whole town being turned on its head as a result. The film is an incisive satire on religion and British society, with the Church of England hierarchy particularly coming in for a skewering. The film has the usual excellent supporting cast with Cecil Parker as Archdeacon Aspinall and Eric Sykes as the layabout Harry Smith most memorable. Irene Handl shows up again, as does reliable old Miles Malleson as a psychiatrist and Ian Carmichael as the other Reverend Smallwood. The film was the last really top-flight production from the Boulting brothers.
The last film in the set is a bit of a fish out of water. It’s a 1970 film called Hoffman — a rather curious dramatic piece for Sellers in which he plays the blackmailing businessman. This is basically a two-person character study (the young woman is played by Sinead Cusack) featuring excellent performances. Unfortunately, the situation the film depicts is rather bizarre and cannot sustain an almost two-hour running time. The whole thing just becomes tedious after the first half-hour or so. As for Sellers’ character, he basically starts out as almost ghoulish but ends up as merely pathetic. The film’s conclusion may be satisfying for him, but from the audience’s point of view, it seems merely contrived. Possibly Sellers is as close to playing himself here as any film he appeared in. How unfortunate in this case then that the vehicle is much less than the driver.
As with Anchor Bay’s other recent British releases on DVD (The Alec Guinness Collection and The Carry On Collection, for example), the company has had access to excellent source material courtesy of Studio Canal, and the result is a very fine looking set of 1.66:1 anamorphic transfers. The first five of the films are black and white, and all look sharp and virtually spotless with the exception of an occasional vertical line. Deep blacks, clean whites, and generally good shadow detail characterize them all. Edge halos are not a concern. Hoffman is the only colour film and it too looks quite good, though perhaps not quite as sharp as the black and white transfers. Colours appear accurate if a little pale, reflecting the somewhat subdued-looking palette employed.
The soundtracks are all Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and with the exception of Two-Way Stretch provide a satisfying rendition of the films. Dialogue is clear and free of background hiss. The volume on Two-Way Stretch requires boosting and loses some clarity in the process. There is no subtitling provided, although there is closed captioning.
The supplementary content in the box set is slim. A very fine text biography of Peter Sellers is provided along with a selected filmography. This is repeated on each disc. Theatrical trailers for I’m All Right Jack and Hoffman are included on those particular discs. As is usually the case for Anchor Bay, each case contains a cardboard insert that has a film poster reproduction on it.
Anchor Bay’s Peter Sellers Collection is a fine tribute to the British comedian/actor. It contains four quality films (The Smallest Show on Earth, I’m All Right Jack, Two-Way Stretch, Heavens Above!), one comedy that has not aged well (Carleton-Browne of the F.O.), and one misfire that does feature a fine Sellers performance though (Hoffman). The transfers are of a high standard, although I would have wished for a little more supplementary content. For example, an audio commentary on at least one of the films would have been welcome. Recommended.