1960 ended up being a pivotal year in the life and career of Peter Sellers. In February, visiting the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) to hold court with an enthusiastic throng of admirers – many of whom were Goon Show fans, despite his more recent shift towards screen prominence, with such remarkable portrayals as toothbrush moustached trade unionist Fred Kite in I’m Alright Jack (1959) – he could still be summed up by the Evening Standard film critic in attendance in a piece entitled Mr. Sellers in Disguise as looking like “a diffident civil servant trying to be forceful”.
On that occasion, sporting an understated suede jacket and a modest man-of-the-people checked shirt, he had unassumingly informed his audience at the outset: “I have nothing to lecture about. I am a completely uneducated nit.”
By the end of the year, though, his circumstances had changed somewhat. His ego and ambitions had been bolstered by his somewhat unexpected emergence as an internationally regarded light leading man in The Millionairess. Here he’d played an Indian doctor, amorously entangled with a wealthy heiress (Sophia Loren).
This very-slightly-steamy starring role made a serious impression at home and abroad, especially across the pond. He’d become an unlikely sex symbol, some folks said. Before the year was out, he’d even directed and starred in his own full-colour Cinemascope feature, Mr. Topaze, ready for release in 1961. Goodness gracious me, indeed.
The nit was gone. Sellers was undergoing the transformation that he’d perhaps always dreamed of: from podgy radio voice man into a glamorous, attractively enigmatic, self-consciously nebulous film star figure; a faceless comic chameleon, of his own devising; even, all being well, an auteur filmmaker/performer in the Chaplin/Tati mould.
Encouragement to self-direct had come from The Millionairess co-producer Dimitri De Grunwald. Fuelled with growing ambition, Sellers had severed recent ties made with its scriptwriter Wolf Mankowitz (rudely bailing out on the company they’d only just set up together, Sellers-Mankowitz Ltd). He focused his energies fully on the producer’s suggestion for his directorial debut feature, Marcel Pagnol’s prewar play Topaze, the tale of a meek provincial school teacher corrupted and transformed by big business.
Certainly such a vehicle suited Sellers’ then-current mood, its tale of a shabby-genteel teacher who awkwardly but successfully reinvents himself as a sharp-suited, wealthy rogue eerily echoing Sellers’ own off-screen shift towards a new, shiny, super-glam self, intentionally unburdened with that eternally problematic stumbling block, personality.
As he’d already announced to the Daily Mail, also in 1960: “I haven’t a personality. I sometimes wonder whether I really exist at all. Chaps like Cary Grant and David Niven impress themselves on every part they play. But in my case there’s just nothing there, and so I impress the part on me.”
But however he impressed it, Sellers’ masterful portrayal of little-man-turned-crook Topaze didn’t cut the mustard with critics or audiences at the time. “Disjointed despite its smoothness, brilliant in spots,” summed up William Whitebait, writing in The New Statesman. “Mr Sellers, the actor, has played Mr. Topaze … with just the right blend of pathos and humour; but Mr Sellers, the director, has either given quite wrong instructions to his very distinguished cast … or has, at least, totally failed to prevent them from turning their large shares in the proceedings into farcical burlesque. Mr. Topaze is, alas, a misuse of talent.”
He’s wrong, I’d argue, and Sellers’ stellar array of supporting players – including Nadia Gray, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Michael Gough and Billie Whitelaw, are all brilliant, just as the star/director is. But sadly, few came to find out for themselves. Audiences stayed away in their droves. Perhaps producer De Grunwald was right when – realising the flaw in Pagnol’s play, certainly in terms of audience identification and sympathy – he later noted “the public wanted to see Peter in love with a woman and chasing her with utter incompetence”. Not, it would seem, as a callously successful, silver-tongued villain.
Sellers took the failure of Mr. Topaze deeply to heart. He never directed – officially, at least – again. He told people he was no longer interested. Yet he didn’t want to forget the experience: soon after it flopped, Sellers took delivery of a 16mm reduction print of the film. Safely stowed away, the cans neatly Dymo-labelled, it would reside in his personal film collection for the rest of his life. What’s more (as the tape repairs on his copy would suggest) he did run it for himself, more than once, on his projector.
The print was donated, after his death, to the BFI National Archive collection, where it is now preserved alongside two robust but faded 35mm prints of the film. Those precious prints, scanned and with colour correction undertaken, constituted the only available film sources for the new release as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition. Finally revealed again, well overdue for reappraisal, Mr. Topaze constitutes essential viewing for all Sellers fans.
Also included on this new edition are an array of archive extras. These include the intriguing feature-length audio recording of the ‘nit’ himself speaking at the aforementioned NFT event in 1960; The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959), the stylish, striking sepia-tinged short comedy film he made with Richard Lester that encouraged him to direct in the first place; Let’s Go Crazy (1951), the proto-Goon Show variety extravaganza he effortlessly knocked up in a week with Spike Milligan; and Peter Sellers: Film Star (1967), a little seen, regionally screened independent television portrait of Sellers as country gentleman, chatting about his art and influences.
There’s also a newly shot interview with Abigail McKern, daughter of Leo, chatting about her father’s life, work and friendship with gadget-mad Peter, and 1967 interview footage of filmmaker John Boulting and astrologer Maurice Woodruff – both prominent forces in Sellers’ life.
Hopefully, along with the feature, these may even help (as much as anything can be said to with so intentionally slippery a customer) to illuminate various underlit aspects of Sellers’ peculiar talent and personality. They should reaffirm that, despite his oft-repeated protestation that there was “nothing there”, quite the opposite was in fact the case.