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Two Sides of Sellers: The Party vs The Optimists

  When asked near the end of his life - he died aged 54 - Peter Sellers would say Chauncey Gardener in Being There was his finest role, but he had plenty to choose from, one of the hardest working screen comedians of his day, even through a career that suffered its ups and downs, not merely including flops but also work that was never widely released, if at all. He never really had a collaborator through those lean or bountiful years who you could point to and say, yes, there was his definitive associate, be that Spike Milligan in his time on radio's The Goon Show or Stanley Kubrick who he made two well-regarded films with, but director Blake Edwards certainly offered the most recognisable Sellers big screen persona: Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther and its sequels. Yet while almost everything the two made together was a Clouseau movie, there was one exception.

This was 1968's The Party, possibly the most ambitious of their partnerships as it sought to apply the meticulous techniques of Jacques Tati to the Hollywood slapstick of the silent era, with a dose of Jerry Lewis's technique in both the design and the sympathy for the bumbling lead character who Sellers played. When the story begins, we appear to be on location at a remake of Gunga Din, but something is not right: as the locals wait to ambush the British troops, the bugler starts up his call and is shot, setting off the attack. However, he continues to bugle as a serious scene descend into farce, everyone with a gun turning to fire at him to silence his instrument until the director admits defeat and shouts "Cut!", and we realise this is the Sellers persona he will adopt for the rest of the movie, a well-meaning but bungling Indian actor.

Every mention of The Party must have the caveat that the star wore makeup and adopted an accent to play a different race and nationality to his own, a practice that with the following years became deeply unfashionable as the notion of sticking to what you knew from your personal experience when it came to creating art, movies or music grew in importance. All of that should make Sellers' Hrundi S. Bakshi incredibly offensive, but somehow, well, you hesitate to observe he got away with it, but the film was hugely popular in India, with one-time Prime Minister Indira Gandhi a self-proclaimed fan. Now, there were dissenting voices in South Asia who find Hrundi a patronising portrayal of a buffoon, but Sellers was taken to the hearts of many in the nation, one which did the same with subsequently taboo seventies sitcom Mind Your Language as well.

You won't see many defending that relic of the sitcom's golden age, not in the West anyway, but The Party continues to be a cult movie among those who know their stuff about the genre, and a big part of that was Sellers' performance. He was not comparable to, say, Dick Emery's comic Indian skits of the next decade, which made little attempt to understand the culture he was taking off, as there were strong signs the star took his role very seriously. This was a film made in a style not often attempted for an entire feature: it was improvised from a loose outline, the whole cast had an input, and the single set of the house where the occasion takes place was an elaborate arrangement; nothing if not ambitious, and with a message that emerged too, about the phoniness of the Hollywood mainstream that arguably Edwards was a major part of.

But Bakshi is not, he is invited to the party by mistake, and proceeds to throw a spanner in the works of these stuffy, conservative execs, one of whom has set up the celebration with his wife. A Congressman is there, important producers, and their wives, but also the odd wild card such as Denny Miller's affable cowboy actor whose interactions with the starstruck Indian are curiously endearing (even when Bakshi is near-drowning in the swimming pool, he is gasping "Howdy, pardner!"). Then there is singing starlet Michelle, there to secure a deal that could make her a star as well, though like our hero she does not fit into this showbiz environment as we suspect she will be exploited by nasty blowhards like Gavin McLeod's producer who in one scene forces himself on her before Bakshi interrupts him by flipping his wig (literally).

Michelle was played by actual singing star Claudine Longet, wife of megastar crooner Andy Williams at the time, though in the next decade would see that turn to notoriety thanks to a sensational murder trial. One more reason The Party holds its fascination, but really it was Sellers' talent that carried the piece, the engine in a collaboration with Edwards that, as with their other unions, was as fraught with disagreement and argument as ever, yet for those who appreciated their dedication it paid dividends. Sellers' contained pantomime as he needs to visit the bathroom but must listen to Michelle sing was hilarious, the foam-filled finale spectacular, and Bakshi's character always respectfully delivered - the actor's obvious love for playing him going a long way to making him acceptable for modern audiences. His polite rebelliousness was like little else then or since.

Efforts such as that made Sellers world-famous, but by the early nineteen-seventies, while he remained renowned, his movies were not packing out the cinemas like they used to. There was a feeling about these, before Edwards coaxed him back to play Clouseau one more, and eventually three more, times and he became a name to be reckoned with at the box office once again, that the comic actor wished to explore more of the human condition than simply making audiences laugh. He had tried a purely dramatic part in the sixties with his nasty gangster in Never Let Go, but after that decade he came across as dissatisfied with doing the same old thing, and began to return to the drama. Even his big hit from this period, There's a Girl in My Soup, had elements of seriousness, and was not hitting the inspired heights of his previous humour.

Everything else suggested that common syndrome of the clown who wanted to play Hamlet, and if Shakespeare did not appear to cross Sellers' mind, then he was taking jobs that allowed him to flex his acting muscles, from the true life tale of the trapped soldiers of The Blockhouse, one of the grimmest ever to star a major comedian (nothing about it is funny), to the character study Hoffman, a film he regretted almost immediately as his harsh performance there struck too close to home and his notoriously troubled private life. But then there was The Optimists of Nine Elms, sometimes abbreviated to The Optimists, which again was dramatic in texture yet allowed him to hark back to the musical hall days he had been a part of in the early stages of his career, before his profile was raised to genuinely meteoric fame.

He essayed the role of Sam, a man just one step up from destitution (he does have a roof over his head, so there's that going for him) who lives in inner city London and scrapes a living with his old music hall songs (actually new facsimiles crafted by Lionel Bart) busked on the streets, with his faithful pooch Bella which carries a cup around its collar for the entertained to drop coins into. Sellers understood this was a pathetic fellow to be taking on, and though some felt his starry qualities overburdened a slight tale, he actually stepped up to the mark and created a convincing, fully rounded personality, comparable to Bakshi in that respect, showing what he could conjure up when he really did care about the projects he was involved with.

This was not a one-man show, however, as Sam is reluctantly befriended by two siblings, played by two kids who had never acted before, and would never act again, Donna Mullane and John Chaffey. They are also on a low rung of society's ladder, and don't appear to have one friend between them, dreaming of the time they can escape their tenement house and live in a "skyscraper", or tower block, an example of how director Anthony Simmons took an ironic yet understated look at the children's dreams and how their hopes would never be matched by reality. This was mostly encapsulated by Bella, or rather what the dog inspires in them: if Sam can have a pet, then why can't they? The reasons are manifold, as it turns out, but this need to channel their affection somewhere in an unforgiving environment provided the emotional backbone.

And a dog can love you back, of course, or at least be grateful for your attention and its feeding, which is why in this melancholy yarn Sam takes the pair to Battersea Dogs Home to pick out a pet, complete with heartstring-tugging scenes of the discarded pets and animals who would never had an owner who appreciated them, and would likely be destroyed before anyone gave them somewhere to stay. The kids pick out a mutt for their own, but there are complications - and Bella has an even more important part to play in a sad little production that demonstrated how reality can upset everyone's dreams. Sellers was, if slightly caricatured, the embodiment of this quiet tragedy, and it remained one of his better readings from the last decade of his life, all that and he didn't need to generate the laughs either.

Both The Optimists and The Party are worth seeking out, and Eureka have made the latter that much easier to enjoy with their Blu-ray presentation of the sixties cult favourite, restored impressively and colourfully, featuring extras such as a couple of short documentaries, one on the making and the other from Edwards describing his approach and innovations. There are also bios of those involved, and the trailer. Whether you're new to The Party or wishing to reacquaint yourself with it like an old friend, this is a perfect way to do so.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006