Woooooooooh!

Did Peter Sellers really talk to ghosts, as a new Channel 4 documentary suggests? It's all true, says his biographer Peter Evans, who recalls the haunting of a comic genius

In 1966, two years after he suffered a massive heart attack in Hollywood – he had been clinically dead for two-and-a-half minutes before a vision of his mother beckoned him back from the grave – Peter Sellers asked me to write his official biography. He promised his complete cooperation: "Whatever you want, Pete, just ask. Anything. Anything. And write it your own way.'' What doubts I may have had about some aspects of the project were overcome by his enthusiasm, sincerity and complete trust in me. My agent negotiated an impressive American advance, and I embarked on what Sellers promised would be a "great adventure into the unknown.''

Well, it turned out he was right about that.

Shortly after I signed the contract, I got a call from the film producer Charles Feldman, who had resurrected Sellers' career after his heart attack by casting him as a screwball Viennese psychiatrist in What's New, Pussycat, having personally underwritten the liability because no insurance company would accept the risk. The gamble had paid off handsomely at the box-office for Feldman, who promptly re-engaged Sellers to star in his spectacularly misconceived James Bond spoof, Casino Royale. The production was not a happy one, and they had fallen out.

Since I was also writing a screenplay of Charles Morgan's Sparkenbroke for Feldman, I expected his call to be about the script, and was puzzled when he began the conversation by asking whether Sellers had mentioned Dan Leno to me. The only Dan Leno I knew was the 19th-century English music hall comic, and so far, I told him, his name hadn't come up. It will, said Feldman mordantly. He refused to

elaborate, but since Leno had been dead since 1904, it did not seem to be a matter of any great urgency and I let the matter drop.

Sellers and I continued to work together through the spring and summer of 1966 on what he now liked to call The Life. He was honouring our agreement, he even seemed to be enjoying himself. I had shown him some early pages, which he professed to like, and all appeared to be going well.

But on 12 September, while I was on holiday with my family on Comino, he sent a letter to my London home informing me that he had "given a very great deal of thought to our proposed project on my life story, including dying and everything, and I have a strong feeling that this is not the time to do it ... I won't bore you with the whys and wherefores: enough that you know, in the words of Fred Kite [the militant shop steward he had played in the Boulting brothers' comedy I'm All Right Jack] that: 'I have withdrawn, meditated, consulted, convened and my decision has been democratically arrived at.'"

My secretary read it to me over the phone in tears. Nevertheless, I had by this time discovered enough about his betrayals and changes of heart not to be completely surprised by this abrupt volte-face. He'd had few relationships, either professional or personal, that hadn't come a cropper at some point. But I had spent nine months on The Life: I had a contractual commitment, had quit my job as show business editor and columnist on the Daily Express (then a broadsheet, at the peak of its popular success and paying powers), and wasn't prepared to be dumped with such casual condescension.

I flew to Rome, where he was preparing to shoot The Bobo. I arrived unannounced at his villa on the Appian Way. It was 10 o'clock in the evening; he was just sitting down to dinner with Britt Ekland – his co-star, and imminent ex-wife – in a vaulted, candle-lit dining room: he at one end of a refectory table long enough to land a small aircraft on, Britt at the other, like unhappy lovers in a Gothic romance. A place was set for me halfway down the table. Neither enquired why I had come.

Inexplicably, Sellers spoke with a Spanish accent, using a Castilian "th" for the "s" sound, as in "parth the thalt, pleath.'' I could only imagine that he was trying out a voice for Juan Bautista, the inept ex-bullfighter he was to play in the new film. But given his sensitivity about personal matters, and the unusual atmosphere that permeated the evening, I felt it wiser to ignore what might also have been a newly acquired, genuine speech impediment.

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After Mrs Sellers had gone to bed, I brought up the letter and the purpose of my visit. He looked puzzled. "What letter? Oh, that letter. Well – you underthand...'' he said, oblivious of how profoundly the lisp deterred serious conversation.

I didn't understand at all, I told him. After a long discussion, the idea of the biography began to excite him all over again, and eventually The Life was back on track.

Before I left Rome the following day, we had lunch at the roof restaurant atop the Hassler Villa Medici. "I'm sorry I put you through that bithineth, Pete,'' he lisped when the coffee came. "It wathn't my idea. It wath Dan Leno'th.''

Thanks to Charlie Feldman, and Sellers's medium Estelle Roberts, whom I had interviewed, I was now on to Mr Leno, and able to handle this statement with some equanimity. Introduced to Leno by Mrs Roberts's spirit guide, a North American Indian called Red Cloud, Sellers had developed a touching trust in the old pantomime dame's professional judgement and only rarely argued with him. "Dan told me not to do that bloody film (Casino Royale) for Charlie and I didn't lithen to him,'' he said miserably, attesting to Leno's acumen.

Leno, who regretted writing his own autobiography when he was the age Sellers then was (42), had advised Sellers that my book should wait at least another eight or nine years. Leno didn't object to me per se, Sellers assured me, only to the timing of my book. Leno had had a mental breakdown and died, after a brief comeback, three years after the publication of his autobiography, Hys Booke, and was now very superstitious about things like that, Sellers explained.

Nevertheless, he promised to stand up to Leno on this occasion. "Dan'th going to make a futh, but I have to draw a line in the thand thumwhere,'' Sellers said with no indication that the lisp owed anything to his comedic sense.

Leno didn't take it lying down, of course, and the book was on and off again several times in the following months. When Sellers' mother, Peg, died during the making of The Bobo, she apparently intervened on my behalf. Alas, she was no match for Leno, who continued to be a figure of consequence in Sellers' life. Eventually, Sellers suggested that I should continue the book without his active participation. Dan, he said, couldn't object to that. This struck me as breathtakingly mistaken but agreed that it was the best way forward.

A few months after The Mask Behind the Mask was published to some acclaim in 1968, Sellers came to my house in London for lunch. He hadn't read the book himself, he said, but Peg had been in touch and told him that she liked it a lot. "She said I shouldn't listen to Dan so much,'' he admitted, the lisp now mercifully cured. It was then that I made the mistake of telling him that Leno had lived not far from where we were.

He wanted to go there at once. I had to attend a black-tie drinks party that evening, and agreed to take him there on my way.

It had been a hot day, and Sellers was dressed in a striped sailor top and a pair of baggy khaki shorts, cut a few inches below his knees, a fashion less seen on the streets of South London than it might be today. When we reached the house in Kennington – one man in a dinner jacket, the other wearing short pants, and dark glasses, both driving Mini Cooper S-types (Sellers's was mauve, with purdah-glass windows, and wickerwork doors) – we were greeted with understandable suspicion by the woman who came to the door.

Before I could begin to explain the reason for our visit, the psychic pull of Leno became too great for Sellers, who pushed passed the woman and rushed into the tiny hallway. "Dan. It's me, Pete,'' he called out, flinging open doors, rushing from room to room. "I know you're here. Talk to me, Dan.''

This was before the days when booze and dope sometimes caused him to hallucinate and his behaviour was as unnerving to me as it clearly was to the woman of the house.

"It's Peter Sellers, the actor,'' I explained, keeping it as brief and factual as I could. "He is a great admirer of a man who once lived here.''

The woman said she didn't care who he was, she lived here now, and he had no right to barge into her house, and if he didn't get out at once she'd call the police.

Eventually, I persuaded him to leave. But not before Leno had got in another dig at me. "Dan isn't at all happy with that book of yours,'' Sellers told me reproachfully.

"But Peg likes it. And she's told you not to pay attention to Dan," I reminded him.

"Peg's my mother. She likes anything I'm in,'' he said sharply.

At the beginning of 1980, he asked me to send him a copy of The Mask Behind the Mask. He had continued to insist that he would never read it and I expressed my curiosity.

"Dan Leno's read it again and says it's much better than he'd first thought,'' he explained, deadpan. Time magazine was writing a cover story on him, he added, and Leno had suggested that he should send the reporter a copy of my book to help her understand him better.

I sensed a rapprochement between Leno and me. Give my regards to Dan, I told Sellers the last time we said goodbye, after we'd had lunch at the old Empress restaurant in Berkeley Street, Mayfair.

"I will,'' he promised with sudden poignancy. "But I don't talk to him very much anymore.''

A few weeks later, on July 24, 1980, Peter Sellers died for the second and last time.

'The Paranormal Peter Sellers' is on Channel 4 later this year

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