This fascinating 50-minute mishmosh of a documentary was created in 1969 as a kind of promotional movie for The Magic Christian. It defies summary primarily for being noticeably under-produced, that is to say, practically free-form. It features a somewhat fatuous voice-over by his fellow Goon, UK comedy legend Spike Milligan that I would reckon is at least 50% extemporized—no less entertaining for that. It’s difficult to envision such a shambolic program making it to air today. Milligan’s text is a masterpiece of pop psychologizing—it’s entertaining to imagine a similar strategy being used to explore Lady Gaga or Kanye West.
The footage provides no coherent through line, which in some ways is a strength and tends to reinforce the underlying point, which is that Sellers has no essence to grasp onto. Late in the documentary we see an editorial cartoon after one of Sellers’ marriages in which he sits at the breakfast table surrounded by portraits of his various roles—Sellers himself has no face at all. Wifey says, “So that’s what you really look like.” It’s been said that Sellers wasn’t pleased with this cartoon.
The documentary, in true 1969 fashion, has a few NSFW elements, including nudity and footage of a bullfight and open-heart surgery. It also is crammed with famous people, including 3 of the 4 Beatles, Roger Moore, Lucille Ball, Richard Attenborough, and so forth. We hear a lot about Sellers’ love of gadgets and cars as well as some frank footage in which Sellers discusses one of his (many) heart attacks. Naturally Sellers speaks in a bunch of wildly varying registers throughout.
The documentary was never re-broadcast by the BBC, reportedly because Sellers thought he came off as depressed (fair enough). As the documentary makes abundantly clear, Sellers was a depressed sort, and his quicksilver personality changes were likely the product of no small anxiety. However, no amount of pop psychology can really settle the question of the “real” Sellers, as it cannot settle the question of the “real” anybody. Sellers’ characterizations had a peculiarly inflexible aspect to them that made them seem marvelously true-to-life. His work is one of the glories of the twentieth century; as Milligan (I think? the voice sounds different) says, “He’s Mr. I-Don’t-Know of the twentieth century. He is Mr. Twentieth Century.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘I am desperate to have some real fun again’: Peter Sellers’ final telegram to Spike Milligan
Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan & John Cleese star in a ‘Goon Show’ TV special, 1968