BOOK REVIEW / Jaws drop and fists clench: Christopher Bray on a biography of Peter Sellers which uncovers the cruelty behind the Inspector Clouseau mask: The life and death of Peter Sellers - Roger Lewis: Century, pounds 20

PETER SELLERS was seriously screwy. Spike Milligan, his long time colleague, thought him 'psychiatrically cruel'. Each of his four wives suffered violence at his hands. After one argument Sellers piled his Rolls Royce into a wall. When his wife wouldn't take back what she'd said he reversed the car into another wall. Only his mother and a few sycophantic hangers-on has ever had a good word for him. During the four years he worked on this book, Roger Lewis lost count of the people who told him they ended up hating Sellers.

They hated him because he was forever disrupting their work. Within hours of arriving at a shoot Sellers would be demanding the dismissal of highly respected people. On the set of The Magic Christian he reduced John Cleese to a fumbling wreck. On What's New, Pussycat? he refused to shoot his scenes with Orson Welles (they had to be spliced together on the editing bench). Other talents scared Sellers; if he thought a scene was being stolen from him he would cough or splutter or fall over - anything to ruin the take.

There was good cause for his nervousness. If ever a talent was oversold, then Sellers' was. Although he made the odd classic, most of his movies were embarrassingly mediocre. He just wasn't that funny. And so he tried to make out that he was a frustrated great actor. He genuinely believed that because he could turn in a near facsimile rendition of Olivier's Richard III, he ought to be doing Shakespeare. Around the time of his death it was fashionable to say that Sellers never got the parts he deserved. Not so. He turned down the chance of working with Satjayit Ray and with John Huston, who wanted him for the title role in his Freud: The Secret Passion. It didn't turn out to be a great film, but think what Sellers, with his melancholy self-regard, could have brought to it.

Instead, he went on and on reprising Inspector Clouseau - and even here he wasn't the stuff of belly-laughs. Slapstick is all about humiliation, but with Sellers you find yourself looking not at the expression on his face but at the assorted brickbats. When a colleague asked him what made for funniness Sellers counselled standing still and doing nothing (a technique he claimed to have learned from Alec Guinness). It's a good piece of advice, but Sellers never heeded it. Watch any of his movies again and you'll see that he is always doing too much - dropping his jaw, clenching his fists, swinging at the hips. He lacked the self-confidence that a great screen actor needs - the courage just to be.

Hence the impersonations and disguises. It's a critical commonplace that Sellers was a hollow man, but what is often overlooked is that this meant he could only give hollow performances. There was nothing human at their core. All he had was some funny voices - fine on the wireless, but largely uncalled for in the movies. In Up The Creek he plays a seedy incompetent creaming money off the Navy - a role in which Will Hay would have been hilarious. Sellers, however, contrives to muff most of the laughs with a ponderous and purposeless begorrah accent. 'He was such an inventive mimic,' said his friend Wolf Mankowitz, 'he assumed he didn't need scripts.'

Roger Lewis argues that Sellers was born an impersonation: he was the replacement for a brother who had died in the cot a year earlier. From the start, mum - the Jewish fusspot of cliche - exiled dad to the spare room, and until his teenage years Sellers shared her bed. They were a theatrical family and Sellers grew up friendless, living out of a trunk on the rep circuit. Throughout his life he was happiest in hotel rooms, more comfortable with gadgets, cameras, sound systems and cars than he was with people. Once, while living in Hampstead, he threw a party only to disappear onto the Heath so that he could call people up on his new radio phone. That moment crystallises Sellers: distanced, yet desperate for the mechanics of communication.

Lewis concludes this huge semi-chronological, semi-discursive biography with the idea that Sellers was evil. Maybe. What is certain is that the book suffers from most of its subject's faults. It is self-indulgent, pompous, repetitive and wilfully swinish. Here is Lewis on Terry Thomas - a victim, be it remembered, of Parkinson's Disease: he 'died on January 8th 1990, with an unanswered letter from me amongst his dribbled-on effects'.

Not even the Sellers we are treated to in these pages deserves the following rumination. Lynne Frederick, Sellers's fourth wife, rushes to his death bed convinced that he is hanging on long enough for her to see him: 'Perhaps, in one final crazy decisive deed, he intended gathering himself enough to spit in her eye?'

Has Lewis spent so long in Sellers company (25,000 hours he claims) that he is mimicking him? Perhaps this is not too fanciful a notion, since Lewis also spends a deal of the book trying to impersonate other people - most obviously Sir Kingsley Amis. Like Amis, Lewis peppers his text with four-letter words. Unlike Amis, Lewis is out simply to shock. A scene from I'm Alright Jack is pointlessly described thus: 'Hitchcock comes to Kite's place to see if the fucker can get the other fuckers back to work.' An old-time comedian is advised that he 'can fuck off back into the ether again as soon as you like, pal'. What most offends about this is not the foul-mouthedness, but the prose. The word 'again' in that last quotation is not only redundant, it doesn't flow.

Woody Allen once joked that his one regret in life was that he wasn't somebody else. In his introduction, Lewis says that as a child he loved Peter Sellers because of what he saw as his effortless ability to become other people. After labouring through this nasty and near interminable book, one begins to see why Lewis would want a change of character.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home