How Peter Sellers became Inspector Clouseau

 

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I had known Peter Sellers since his Goon Show days. At that time I was the pianist/manager for the Johnny Dankworth  band. In the early 1960’s we were doing a late night weekly BBC broadcast called  ‘Johnny Come Lately’,  whilst in studio on the floor above,  the Goons were recording their wild, surrealistically funny ‘The Goon Show’.   

Very often Peter, together with Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine and occasionally Harry Secombe,  would come down stairs to our studio to listen to – and in Spike Milligan’s case  try to interfere with – our jazz programme. Spike even brought his trumpet with him on one occasion!  Thank heavens for directional microphones, or the listeners might have been forgiven for thinking that Johnny Dankworth had suddenly gone mad!

 Of course I got to know Peter Sellers much better during the time we were rehearsing and recording my compositions, “Goodness Gracious Me” and “Bangers and Mash” in which he was partnered with the vivaciously beautiful Sofia Loren. 

Peter and I had at that time quite a strong facial resemblance and physique.  I remember walking down Abbey Road with him after the recording session, and being rushed by four glittery-eyed young girls, who had mistaken me for him.  With him standing right next to me they nevertheless demanded excitedly from me,  “Give us your autograph Peter”. Peter never let on they were accosting the wrong person. So in order to get rid of them as quickly as possible I signed Peter’s name in their autograph books.  Sadly,  there are four (by now) middle-aged ladies who think they have Peter Sellers’ autograph when in fact they’ve got mine instead.    

It was after a rehearsal for ‘That Was the Week That Was’ (I was its musical director), that  I was on my way out of the studio when I bumped into Peter who was also leaving and who offered to give me a lift home in his sparkling new Rolls Royce limo.  As we got into the car he asked me to give his chauffeur ‘George’ my address.  When I pointed out the coincidence of his previous chauffeur having the same name, Peter explained;

  “It’s not a coincidence.  I have a terrible memory for names, so everyone who works for me is called ‘George’.

 As I got out of his car in front of my apartment,  some crazy things happened, which to an outsider must have looked rather  like a scene from a slapstick-comedy.  It went like this: as I was getting myself out,   my tweed trilby hat somehow came into contact with the top of the car’s door frame knocking it  off my head and into the gutter.  As I bent over to retrieve it, my glasses fell off.  I scrambled down again to  pick them up but in doing so my gloves fell out of the pocket of the light beige military style raincoat I was wearing and in  bending over too quickly to pick them up my hat fell off again followed by my glasses.

Like I said, it was a couple of minutes of pure slapstick.

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Finally, having got all my gear back in the right places and rather embarrassed by my ridiculous performance,  I thanked Peter for the ride. I noticed he was looking at me, a strange expression on his face. 

He said: “ d’you know in my next film I have to play a rather accident prone French detective. You have just given me my character. I think I now  know exactly how to play him.  Okay, what I need to know is:  where did you get that raincoat and where did you buy that hat”?  I told him. He wrote down the names of the shops.

And that folks is how and why Inspector Clouseau is seen wearing  a light beige military style raincoat and a tweed hat.

As I do not usually drop things in this ham-fisted way, I think  in retrospect that the Gods controlling Peter’s career, caused the whole damned thing to happen in order to help him play his role as perfectly as he did.   

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 Judy Garland – Poker player

It is a pity that primarily due to the many books written about her, Judy is generally remembered as a superstar who destroyed her life with drink and drugs.  That may have been true at the end of her life; and she did go through periods of deep depression brought about by men she loved deeply and who she thought reciprocated her love,  dumping  her, often unceremoniously, and in Artie Shaw’s case, violently.

But in the main, Judy’s life was one of fun, laughter and a lot of hard work.  No other artist I have worked with – and I have worked with many singing stars, were as meticulous in rehearsal as she was.

When I composed the opening number for her show in Paris (Lionel Bart providing the lyrics),  she rehearsed it with me for two days until every inflection in her voice, every hand movement etc, all were finalised.

Yeah, she worked hard and she played hard. Then, it sometimes felt like being involved in a comedy movie. Like the time after a show on a rainy Sunday night in Leeds.

A few friends from Hollywood came to see the show.  One of them, a film writer, had brought a huge cream cake with a golden horseshoe  wedged into it and “Good Luck Judy” written in chocolate on top.

Once the show was over and we were rid of all the local VIP’s and reporters crowding her dressing room, her husband,  Sid Luft, suggested we all relax with a few hands of poker.

As I recall, present were her agent Harold Davison (who also acted for Frank Sinatra and Engelbert Humperdinck),  Freddie Finklehoff, who had written her last movie, plus his wife, as well as Judy,  Sid and, for one hand only, me.  It was much too wild a game for me.

I remember I was dealt two pairs and opened the bidding with a pound.  Finklehoff on my left then said, “Your pound and up fifty”. Then Sid Luft said, “Hell lets make it an even hundred”

And so it went with hundreds of pounds being wagered on each hand.

I remember Judy saying to me “Come and sit next to me and bring me some luck”    But she didn’t need it. She was, I found out later, an expert poker player.

But around 11pm, the caretaker came into the room to tell us he was locking everything up and we had to leave. So we all limousine’d it down to Leeds station where our sleeper train was standing.

Sunday,  late at night on Leeds station was in those days, a very dreary affair – as was the train.  The general idea was to board this grubby old train after10.30 pm and go to your sleeping compartment, the train being scheduled to leave at 2.30 am.

Having arrived, everyone in evening dress with Sid Luft having draped the cake’s Golden horseshoe around his neck, and all slightly pissed on Champagne, Judy asked the surprised looking guard a question which  I found hilarious.

She said “Where is the club car? Y’see we want to go on  playing cards”.  I  had to explain that even the best trains in England had not yet got around to having a ‘club car’ let alone a chance of finding one on this old heap of rust.

Judy was adamant. She turned to Sid saying “But I want to go on playing.  I’m hot tonight and I wanna win their dough”  Sid, tall and beefy, said,  “Sure baby” and he went off into the neighbouring Station Hotel to return with six waiters, four of them lugging a large round table, one holding two ice buckets replete with champagne and the other with a table cloth under one arm, his other hand holding  a tray and six Champagne flutes.

And so ladies and gentlemen, on a dreary rain-soaked Sunday night,  on a dreary platform beside an even drearier looking train, sat six elegantly dressed  people, playing cards as if  they were sitting in an exclusive club in Mayfair.

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At 2.25 am, five minutes before the train was due to leave, the rather discombobulated guard – who had never seen anything like this before (as neither had I) came up to us to say the train was about to leave and we must now get on board.

About one minute before the train was ready to leave to make its way to London, Judy said to her husband, “Sid I’m hungry. Do you think you can rustle up some food”?

“Sure I can honey” Sid said, opening the door of the carriage and getting off the train.

“Jesus, Judy” I said “Sid is going to be left behind. The train is going to leave now – this instant”

Judy opened the carriage door and yelled “Hey Sid”. He turned around as she yelled to him,

“And bring some more Champagne”.

There was a look of mischievousness in her eyes that I knew so well. She reached into her handbag and took out a huge roll of pound notes (which she had won at the poker table).

She peeled of wads of notes which she gave to all of us saying, “look at that sign above the window. It says ‘Communication cord for emergencies. Mis-use carries a five pound fine’. Okay, everybody. Find a communication cord and if the train starts to move, pull it!  When some guy comes to find out what the problem is, pay him the five pound fine. But don’t let the train leave the station until Sid gets back”.

And so that is exactly what we did.

Sid got back at 3.30 am with a pile of  smoked salmon sandwiches and a bottle of Champagne.  By that time we had been joined by the guard and the train driver.  Judy was entertaining them by singing to the tune of Colonel Bogie:

“Hitler, has only got one ball, Goering has two but very small.   Himmler, has something similar -But poor old Goebells Has no balls, at all.”

The train left at 4.30 am arriving at two hours late ‘due to a mechanical fault’ .

That was the Judy I knew.

Judy Garland: A Personal Impression

I am always puzzled by Judy Garland’s generally accepted reputation as someone who was a wonderful performer but whose life – and career – was  destroyed by drink and drugs.

I worked with her for five years as her accompanist, musical advisor and musical director. This was when she was living in London.  I became very close to Judy during this period and we spent long hours talking about her life – and sometimes her problems. 

Judy was a sweet, generous person.  She loved living life to the full and if that meant spending money she would do so with little regard for the future.  She was also a wonderful raconteur. 

I remember a story she told me of an occasion when film star Mitzi Gaynor was booked to do a show in Las Vegas.  In order to support her, Judy, with Carol Landis and show business star Ethel Merman decided to go to see her opening night.  When Mitzi found they were coming to the show, she begged Judy to call it off saying, “Please let me be the star of the night.

With Judy Garland, Carol Landis and Ether Merman sitting there, you’ll be the stars not me.”  Judy told her not to worry; they wouldn’t come in until the show was on and they would creep in at the very back of the place where no one would see them. By the time they had quietly got to their table, about a half hour into the show, they were all pretty high from sitting for the previous hour in nearby bar. But they were very good and kept as low a profile as they could – as they had promised.

But at the next table sat a tall handsome, elegantly dressed Texan replete with ten gallon hat, black, silk dress suit and inch-long pistol cuff links in his expensive frilly silk dress shirt. These cuff links attracted the slightly sozzled Carol Landis who was continually staring at them. The Texan, realising this, took off one of his cuff links and handed it to Carol.  What he neglected to tell her was that these were very special cuff links indeed insofar as they contained tiny bullets.  Carol not knowing this pulled the trigger and screamed as the cuff-link gun went off with a pop, the bullet making a tiny flesh wound in her breast.  

This happened, Judy explained to me, just as Mitzi was going into a big ballad – one of the high points in her show. Naturally, the audience turned to see what had caused the scream. And it was then that Ethel Merman, who was blessed with the loudest voice in show business stood up and shouted at the top of her voice, “Oh my god! Carol Landis has just shot herself in the left tit with a cuff-link!  

Mitzi didn’t forgive them for a very long time.

There are many other hilarious, wild and wonderful stories to tell about the crazy things that happened when we were on tour. I’ll leave those for future blog posts! Most of all, though, I like to remember her as an exceptionally wonderful performer. I remember we gave a concert in Yorkshire in Leeds Town Hall. Just as she was going into “Zing Went the stings of my Heart” the entire sound system broke. Most singers – especially big stars – would have walked off the stage refusing to sing another note until the mikes were up and running again. Not Judy. She got off the stage and walked up and down the aisles in the auditorium belting out the songs as loud as she could, and getting a massively big hand for doing so.

Maybe it was because of her lack of height, I don’t know, but from the audience point of view she somehow looked looked kind of lonely on the stage – a little girl doing her best -, which often brought out the machismo from the males in the audience. They felt she needed protection. Sometimes, a man would get out from his seat in the auditorium and run down the centre aisle shouting, “I love you Judy” with the accent on the first word, as if he would protect her; what from, we never found out. It caused us a few laughs.

But my long, sometimes all-night conversations with her left me in no doubt: her biggest problem was her total inability to pick nice, decent men to fall in love with.  Band leader and clarinet genius Artie Shaw beat her up very badly.  A famous Hollywood screenwriter walked out on her after three years of what she thought had been a happy relationship. There were many others she told me about but whose names I will not mention because it could upset a lot of people.  Oddly enough, this seems to have been a problem with many female singers, from opera star Maria Callas right across the entire vocal spectrum to jazz singer Billie Holiday.   

Her husband when I was with her was Sid Luft, tall, and handsome, an ex- test pilot, who liked living on the wild side of life. He was a gambler and the sort of guy who would not only fly from Britain back to the States to watch a horse he had bet a bundle of money on; he would also take a half dozen friends with him, paying their first class fares, and picking up the tab for expensive drinks and food in the best restaurants. The trouble was, it was Judy’s money he was spending. When she finally left the UK to return to Hollywood she was broke and Sid had walked out on her. Her agent, at that time Harold Davison, even had to pay her air fares.

As I was married with a new baby, I could not go with Judy when she left the UK. I was told by those close to her that she was thrilled by the next husband she married, but he left her, hurting her deeply by saying she was too old for him. It broke her heart and she did thereafter become a deeply saddened and depressed person. She went slowly downhill after that.

There is a lot of talk as to her death. I saw her about a week before she died. She looked in terrible health and was almost monosyllabic in her speech.

I have heard she died from an overdose of some drug, or that she drank herself into a coma from which she never recovered, and even that she was murdered.

I don’t know. What I do have are strong memories of a truly magnificent performer, someone who was great fun to be with, and a woman with a heart as big as the Empire State Building.