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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.