ARENA – THE PETER SELLERS STORY – AS HE FILMED IT

Peter Sellers obsessively filmed himself throughout his extraordinary career.  He was known to the world through his dazzling characterisations in over sixty feature films.  His comic genius and turbulent relationships made him one of the most talked about men of his time and yet he remains an enigma.  He often claimed to have no identity other than the roles that he played but he had another role, the one he filmed himself.

Answerable to no one’s whims but his own, and with a little help from his friends, he filmed his private life, his homes, his family, people he knew, anything that took his fancy, right to the end of his life.  This extraordinary treasure trove came to us at Arena.  Some of the material was standard 8 mm home movie, grainy with no sound, though the dramatis personae might be Prince Charles, Princess Margaret, George Harrison, Sophia Loren.  However most of the footage was carefully shot on professional 16 mm, using the same cameras favoured by broadcasters, with properly recorded sound.

Sometimes he’d leave the reels uncut, sometimes he would carefully edit them into polished little stories and scenarios.  They were known to no-one but his immediate circle.  Some of the film was so pristine it can’t have been looked at more than once, if at all.  We’d never seen anything like it.  It became the basis of The Peter Sellers Trilogy, three films weighing in at three and a half hours, brilliantly directed by Peter Lydon, who will be on the panel.

The trilogy was one of the most successful Arena films, it attracted an avalanche of press and nominations at both BAFTA and The Royal Television Society, so I was less than impressed by a request from the then Controller of BBC TWO to make a single film abridged version.  To be fair, it’s not easy to repeat such a long project and after a bit of thought, it occurred to me this might be an opportunity to try an experiment.

There was such a wealth of Sellers’s own footage that maybe a film could be made, shorter but still feature length, using in vision only material that Sellers either shot himself or was shot under his direction.  You would see Sellers’s shots of say Anne, his first wife, or Spike Milligan and overlaid, you would hear their voices from the interviews Peter Lydon did for the original film.

Because he filmed consistently from the end of the war, the beginning of his career, it was possible to tell the whole story of his professional life using his own images and ideas.  Some of the films are very funny, some rather elegiac but they all have a kind of innocence in contrast to the worldliness of his seemingly effortless success.  Inevitably they make for a very intimate journey through his strange world – as he filmed it.

Anthony Wall – Series Film Curator and Executive Producer, Arena at Jewish Book Week

Click here to register for our free online event discussing the Arena film and Peter Sellers on 5 July 2022.