The lost Peter Sellers comedy shorts spent years in a basement cleaning cupboard in the London offices of Park Lane Films; the canisters that held them never checked by staff who mistook them for floor-polishing-machine cleaning pads. When the offices were refurbished in the 1990s, building manager Robert Farrow noticed the canisters being loaded into a dumpster. Farrow, whose father had a collection of Super 8 films, figured those cans would be a handy storage option for his dad. But when he fished them out of the rubbish pile, he realized they were heavy – there were films inside.
Those 21 cans contained the prints and negatives for two long-lost, half-hour film shorts made in 1957 starring a pre-Inspector Clouseau Peter Sellers. The opening credits on Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia Is Good for You reveal that they were co-written by M. Richler. Mordecai.
After spending many subsequent years in storage – this time under the stairs in Farrow's house – the two films were seen publicly this year for the first time in more than 50 years, along with another Sellers short, Cold Comfort. They will be screened at the Whistler Film Festival Thursday.
"The Peter Sellers films are a major discovery," says WFF director of programming Paul Gratton, the second to show the films in Canada, after the inaugural Niagara Integrated Film Festival last summer. "And of course the cherry on the cake was the Mordecai Richler thing."
The films, which star Sellers as a bumbling everyman named Hector Dimwittie (and were made to play ahead of the main feature in the cinema), were shot when Sellers was already an established actor – although not nearly as famous as he would become – and the same year the Montreal-born Richler published his third novel. But he was still two years away from publishing his breakthrough juggernaut, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
"Peter Sellers was already huge at that stage and Richler would have been delighted and honoured to be in the room with a comic genius like that," says Charles Foran, author of the award-winning 2010 biography Mordecai: The Life and Times. As Foran points out, TV comedy was in its early days in Britain, and the group of CBC-exposed Canadian expats of which Richler was a part were getting all kinds of work.
"They were part of a culture that was evolving and it was moving quickly and it was incredibly casual. It was, 'Yeah, come on down, we'll do something, we'll write something. Oh you've written a novel? Sure. We need an hour of TV, can you do that?'" Foran explains. "Richler is going back and forth, and on both sides of the Atlantic there are all these opportunities to work in these other mediums, TV in particular.…This is all happening when he's still in his 20s."
In his biography, Foran indicates that Richler "found himself serving mostly as company for his co-writer, brewing tea and complimenting gags." His co-writer was Lewis Greifer, a busy London comedy writer for radio (including Sellers's The Goon Show) and TV. Now that Foran has seen Dearth of a Salesman – remember, the films were still lost when he wrote the biography – the author detects more of Sellers than Richler in what he imagines to have been a collaboratively constructed piece.
"That does sort of confirm this notion that Richler was content at this point to be in the room and laughing along with these guys," Foran says. "For me it's important to remember he's a Canadian kid who's come to London a few years before.… That whole period, it's essentially one opportunity after another being presented to him, in no small part due to his evident talent, but right time, right place, right guy."
Foran believes this exciting time – including the Sellers project – would have been formative for Richler, who later adapted his own work for the screen.
"This in a sense established his career trajectory and also established his confidence in working in all these different mediums, these formative early experiences of people saying, 'Yeah, come on in, write a script for TV, come on in and sit in a room with Peter Sellers and think of a funny skit,'" Foran says.
So little was known about the Sellers shorts until their rediscovery that in his comprehensive biography Foran indicated that Richler had used a pseudonym for the Sellers scripts.
"Even in the biographies on Peter Sellers they just guessed at who was in them," says Paul Cotgrove, director of the film festival in Essex that held the first public screening of the restored shorts in May. "They weren't even reviewed when they came out in the cinema in the fifties."
Cotgrove is essential to this story. When Farrow first discovered the films in the nineties, he tried contacting interested parties such as the British Film Institute and the BBC, but kept hitting dead ends. Channel 4 suggested Farrow put them up for sale on eBay, according to Cotgrove. "This went on for some time. And then he basically gave up."
That was nearly 20 years ago. Other than a 2004 screening for a handful of fans at a Peter Sellers Appreciation Society event, the shorts remained unwatched. An attempt to screen them at a film festival in Cardiff, Wales, in 2005 went off the rails when Farrow's DVDs wouldn't fire.
Then Farrow called Cotgrove last year, asking if he'd be interested in some rare Sellers films for his festival. "I get a lot of weird phone calls, as you can imagine, so I thought, there isn't any rare Sellers films. But I humoured this chap and said, 'Okay, tell me what they're called,' and I wrote them down. And then I come off the phone and I started to realize that these films genuinely had been lost forever," Cotgrove says.
Cotgrove had the films digitally restored and they re-premiered at his Southend-on-Sea Film Festival in May, introduced by The Office/Pirates of the Caribbean star Mackenzie Crook – a devoted Sellers fan who bought one of his old houses in London – and with a large contingent of Sellers's family in attendance.
"It was a magical night," Cotgrove says. "People are still talking about it to this day."
The Whistler Film Festival runs Dec. 3-7 in Whistler, B.C. The Peter Sellers Trilogy screens Dec. 4 at 5 p.m.