Thursday, 24 July 2014

Radio Lives - Peter Sellers

If I had to choose my Desert Island Movies then amongst the collection would be a film starring that great comic actor Peter Sellers. But not a Clouseau or the tour de force that was Dr Strangelove. Nor the Boulting Brothers films that catapulted him from radio star to film star. No, it’s the film where Sellers, as Dodger Lane, plans to break out of jail and commit an audacious robbery in Two-Way Stretch. The perfect rainy day movie. 

Sellers’ entertainment grounding was, of course, on the airwaves of the BBC; part of the phalanx of young comedians who came through the wartime ENSA and Gang Show route.

Famously it was Peter gift of mimicry that got him his first broadcast. Friend and scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton recounted the story in The Goon Show Companion:

Impatiently waiting to hear the result of an audition, Peter decided to take a short cut and rang Roy Speer, producer of the popular Showtime programme. A leading comedy partnership at that time was Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne. It was the latter’s voice that Roy Speer heard when he answered the phone. After enthusiastically recommending one Peter Sellers as an artist, the voice of Horne handed over to the voice of Murdoch to endorse this opinion. Roy was suitably impressed – until Peter’s nerve gave out and he confessed his true identity. However, he’d done enough to convince Roy, who invited him for an interview. On July 1, 1948 Peter made his radio debut. 
That appearance on the Light Programme’s Show Time – presented by Dick Bentley and billed as “a weekly parade of Variety’s up-and-coming attractions” - kick-started Peter’s radio career. Other broadcasts that year included guest spots on Henry Hall’s Guest Night, Starlight Hour and The Harmaniacs. He was also reunited with Ralph Reader, of The Gang Show fame, in the Home Service show It’s Fine to Be Young – billed as “A Show of Youth”.

In 1949 there was the proto-Goon Show comedy show on the Third Programme. Third Division starred Sellers, Secombe and Bentine along with Robert Beatty, Benny Lee, Patricia Hayes, Benny Hill, Carole Carr, Margaret Lindsay, Robert Moreton and announcer Bruce Belfrage. Sadly none of these Frank Muir and Denis Norden scripted shows survive but perhaps the best known sketch, Balham – Gateway to the South, was re-recorded for the 1958 LP, The Best of Sellers.    

Like Third Division much of Sellers’ radio work has been lost – even The Goon Show has over 100 missing episodes – but he remained a regular voice on the BBC throughout the 1950s, in parallel to his burgeoning film career.

His big break in radio, and one that gave him regular work over five years, was providing all manner of funny voices on Ray’s a Laugh. Starring wise-cracking Ted Ray it first aired on the Home Service in April 1949 and was seen as a direct successor to ITMA – Tommy Handley had died in January of that year.  In each episode Ray would encounter lots of comic characters voiced, in series one, by Sellers, Fred Yule (who’d worked on ITMA), and the fraternal partnership of Bob and Alf Pearson.
One of Sellers’ characters was a small boy known as ‘Soppy’ with the catchphrase “Just like your big red conk” and there was a fruity old girl who would giggle and say “My name’s Crystal Jollibottom, you saucebox!” Later there was the friendly Russian ‘Serge Suit’ (this was certainly no sophisticated comedy).

Peter worked with Ted Ray over five series, from 1949 to 1954, on about 190 shows. Alongside him the cast also included Patricia Hayes, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor. Connor would go on to provide all the comedy voices, such as Sidney Mincing, when Peter left to concentrate on the Goons and by now Ray’s a Laugh was more of a domestic comedy – Ted Ray with his radio wife Kitty Bluett – than a sketch show.    
Here are a couple of excerpts featuring Sellers with Crystal Jollibottom from series one and an American character Al K. Traz in series five.

In 1950 there was an aborted attempt to find a star vehicle for Peter with the show Sellers’ Castle. Jimmy Grafton takes up the story:
To accommodate the zany characters of the others, Spike and I chose as a setting a ramshackle castle owned by “the twenty-second (FX:SHOT.SCREAM), I beg your pardon, the twenty-third Lord Sellers”. To assist his impecunious lordship in raising money for the maintenance of the estate, Mike was to play a crazy inventor, while Alfred Marks was an impresario with a singing protégé, Harry. Spike was his usual Eccles character (“Who are you?” “I’m a serf.” “What’s that man doing on your back?” “Da- serf-riding.”). Also in the cast were Janet Brown, Peter Butterworth and Robert Moreton. The script of Sellers’ Castle contained a story line with a historical flashback to one of Lord Sellers’s ancestors. In retrospect, the dialogue was a mixture of craziness and corn, but the whole thing had a shape and was tailored to the various talents in evidence at the time. Faith and optimism also played their part!

Graton organised a private recording of excerpts from the script to present to the BBC. To link the excerpts he called on “a fellow officer from my regiment”, the BBC announcer Andrew Timothy, who would, of course, go on to be the resident announcer in the early Goon episodes. Producer Roy Speer was happy with what he heard and the BBC organised a pilot. Unfortunately the show was assigned to Jacques Brown rather than Speer, who insisted on recording with a studio audience. When presented to a radio planning meeting the show was rejected as “too crazy”. Ironically a year later the go-ahead was given for Crazy People, though this time with a studio audience.
Incidentally the Wikipedia page for Peter Sellers quotes Adrian Rigelsford’s 2004 biography (I don’t own a copy) and lists eight episodes of a series titled Sellers Market that aired in 1950. The only reference I can find to this title is that it was part of the Third Division programmes and was a spot in which he played all the street traders.
A very detailed billing for The Goon Show
on 15 February 1955

Meanwhile here’s a selection of radio shows that did make it to air, with the exception of The Goon Show for which there’s any number of books and websites:
Bumblethorpe: Sellers replaced Valentine Dyall in the second episode of this Home Service series broadcast on 19 November 1951. In the cast were Robert Moreton, Avrill Angers, Kenneth Connor, Graham Stark, Spike Milligan, Denise Bryer and Alfred Marks.

The Hundredth Boat Race: “in which Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley become involved in Boat Race Day on the towpath”. Broadcast live on the Home Service on 2 April 1954. Also with Arthur Askey, Valentine Dyall, Arthur English, Joyce Grenfel, A.E. Matthews, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, John Snagge, Terry-Thomas, Ralph Wightman, Jack Hawkins, Rudolf Offenbach, Noel Johnson and Frank Marchant.

The Lid off the BBC: Programme four looked at the Variety Department and in particular The Goon Show. It was written and presented by Wilfred Thomas and broadcast on the Home Service 4 May 1955.
The Listening Room: featured Sellers and some records including I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas and Dance With Me, Henry. Broadcast live on the Light Programme 28 December 1955.

Finkel’s Café: set “where the elite meet to eat” Sellers played the Irish manager Eddie in this comedy from the pens of Muir and Norden. It was adapted from an American series Duffy’s Tavern and also starred Sid James, Avrill Angers and Kenneth Connor. Broadcast on the Light Programme in July/August 1956 there were either eight, nine or ten episodes, depending on the information source. No copies survive.  
Desert Island Discs: Sellers was Roy Plomley’s castaway on 4 February 1957.

Roundabout with David Jacobs on
14 October 1958 with a guest spot by Sellers.
Note the producer credit of Roy Speer who gave
him his radio debut ten years earlier.

Roundabout: when this Light Programme daily show started in October 1958 the Tuesday host was David Jacobs. One of the features for the first few weeks was a “Peter Sellers cameo” in From Our Own Sellers.

Forces Gala Night: programme to commemorate 21 years of the BFBS it included a shorthened version of the Goon’s I Was Monty’s Treble. Compered by David Jacobs it was broadcast on 8 November 1964 on the Light Programme and the General Overseas Service (for the final hour).  
By 1980 Peter Sellers has notched up over sixty film appearances and  was basking in the success of Being There. In July he was in London with plans for a Goon Show reunion dinner when he suffered a heart attack. He died in the early hours of 24 July. This is how the news was reported that day on BBC Radio 4. There are clips from Today presented by John Timpson with reports from Gerry Forsey and Neil Bennett, who speaks to Michael Bentine. The newsreader is Christopher Slade. This is followed by part of a news bulletin read by Brian Perkins. Finally that evening’s Kaleidoscope presented by Mark Storey who talks to Barry Took.

Between 1984 and 1987 Alexander Walker, long-time film critic of the Evening Standard wrote and presented a series recalling “the screen careers of the cinema’s brightest stars” called Film Star. From the second series comes the episode devoted to Peter Sellers. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 on 19 March 1986.

Peter Sellers 1925-1980

Postscript: Actually it was a close call with those Peter Sellers films. The day I completed the final draft of this post I also dug out my copies of The Wrong Arm of the Law - with a wonderful performance from Lionel Jeffries as 'Nosey' Parker - and The Naked Truth - "do you mean to say I get all that with such a small premium".

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