A tale of one man and his cine camera

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The Independent Online
In one of the repeated images of Arena's "The Peter Sellers Story" (BBC2), a somewhat extravagant tribute to one of the century's great home movie directors, you see the comedian behind an early cine camera, half his face obscured by turret lenses, the other half an unreadable blank. I couldn't work out why this picture carried such a frisson of unease until I realised that it reminded me of a famous still from Peeping Tom, Michael Powell's queasy account of a serial killer who films his victims as they expire, run through by the sharpened leg of his camera tripod. Sellers was as obsessed with filming as Powell's fictional killer. His first wife recalled life with him as "cables everywhere" and he appears to have recorded everything, whether he was at work or engaged in the off-stage performance he knew as "relaxing". It was as if he only existed on film. Sellers was a voyeur of his own life, nose pressed to the window, envious of the warmth within.

If he hadn't been, it's doubtful that Arena would have devoted three long episodes to the career of a British character actor, however talented that actor was. (Spike Milligan has a much better claim to have reinvented British comedy, for example, but he is only a walk-on here, a brilliant young gurner never at a loss for a stupid face.) The movies provide the justification - and the huge bulk of the material - for the grandiose scale of the end-product. You can understand the thinking behind this. Permission to use the films only came after prolonged legal complications, so ideas about their value probably grew in direct proportion to their inaccessibility. Besides, such an archive provides a unique opportunity for a film portrait. The images are an unusually pure form of autobiography, with the accent on the "auto", that mechanical observation which can't be retrospectively tweaked into something more admiring.

So while the films provide some corroboration of his friends' fond memories - the anecdotes of Sellers as prodigious human chameleon - they have no sentimental interest in the creation of legend. And what's surprising about them, apart from their sheer quantity, is how amateurish and unfunny Sellers' private jokes could be. They aren't really the gags of a comic genius but those of an enthusiastic schoolboy, playing with a new toy. Indeed Sellers's extended childhood was the principal revelation of this first episode. He confessed to Michael Parkinson, well after his success in Hollywood, that he still carried an autograph book around with him, soliciting signatures from stars he had eclipsed. Another colleague recalled his obsession with making plastic models - when Revell issued a new battle- cruiser he would be on the phone at once, planning an addition to the fleet. He could be a spoiled child too, disabled by his mother's infatuation. He became so bored while appearing in Brouhaha, a political farce directed by Peter Hall, that he started ad-libbing, to the consternation of other cast members. "It's not enough, in this business, to have talent," said Hall owlishly. "You have to have talent to handle the talent." True, no doubt, but such a head-prefect thing to say that it made you realise, against the melancholy, disapproving grain of the film, what a rare virtue childishness can be.

I hope that Fry and Laurie haven't been ill-served by their move to BBC1, a short voyage that can instantly turn respectable audience figures into underperfomance. It would be an injustice because their comedy is literate, alert and pointed - unlike much television humour, it is not too dumb by half. For my taste they both have charm too - despite a touch of self- indulgence here and there - but I can't help wondering whether these thoughtful jokes will convert the heathen, rather than just offer succour to those already converted.

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