The return of the Pink Prankster

`He wanted life to be a movie with the dull bits edited out.' peter lydon, director of a new Arena profile, explains the fascination with Sellers

When Peter Sellers had his last fatal heart attack at the age of 55, many mourned a man whom they felt had been cut down with still so much to give. Others close to him had a different view. Their sadness was tempered with the thought that maybe his life had simply run out. Sellers had had a go at everything, and succeeded beyond most people's wildest dreams - from Fifties suburban radio star to hippie superstar to Seventies comic icon. This was paralleled with a private life that unravelled like some tragi-comic soap-opera. He had packed so much into his life, had gone through so many highs and lows, that in the end death was the only novelty left.

During this whirlwind life he had met and befriended a bewildering army of people - some fell by the wayside, many stuck with him to the end. We interviewed 40 people, but could easily have talked to 100. Many claimed they knew the real Peter Sellers, others that he was impossible to know. What does come through in these testaments is a picture of a man driven by the impulse of the moment.

Real life was a place that Sellers confronted with deep unease, so he filled it full of distractions. His gadgets, his cars, even his relationships with women, were barriers against the tyranny of the present.

He wanted life to be a movie where the dull bits were edited out. His own home movies, which form the basis of our trilogy, may have been a response to this, a means of condensing reality, shooting it and splicing it into a more exciting package. They help to reveal a man who did things to amuse himself, irrespective of what people might think, who never considered the consequences of his actions.

The secret of his consistently unconventional behaviour is that, even though he lived life at the frontier of experience, he never learnt from it. So while his behaviour appeared to get madder, crueller, funnier, it was more that the canvas had got bigger.

The British actor, Graham Stark, who first got to know Peter Sellers after the war, told me that he and other friends in a way lived through him. Sellers added a certain dangerous spice to the lives of those he came into contact with. This is clear when they share their stories; they form a kind of band of survivors. None of them would ever have really wanted to be Sellers, but neither would they have missed the experience of knowing him.

Our present fascination is an extension of what Stark was saying. Today, with Sellers' turbulent life laid out before us like that of no other actor, we can all join this happy band of survivors and live a bit of Sellers' life vicariously. We can look on with amusement, horror and bewilderment from the relative safety of our own lives as Sellers' consistently unconventional behaviour is unfurled before us.

That is really what these stories here are about. They are stories that ended on the cutting-room floor because even three hours of television can't quite contain everything that one would like to say about Peter Sellers.

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