The new Pink Panther film, with Steve Martin portraying the buffoonish Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Surete, is one Hollywood remake that I will definitely not be going to see. I cannot imagine any actor other than Peter Sellers filling the stumbling shoes of the inept central character.
I have no illusions, by the way, that these old films were any great shakes artistically. In many ways, the humour in them was childish and perhaps even racist. By the end of the series especially, many of the pratfalls and jokes had become more than a little uninspired. I can’t see the point of ever feeling guilty about enjoyment, but I suppose these films would fall under the category of “guilty pleasures” for many of us who are and were fans of them. The reason I still go on enjoying them, though, is for the utterly inspired talent of the late, great Peter Sellers. For my money, he was one of the true comic geniuses of our time.
The first time Peter Sellers made me laugh was during my childhood in Clacton-on-Sea. For a variety of reasons, those years were dark ones for me, filled with a lot of anguish. Fortunately, though, I had discovered a stack of record albums tucked away in a storage room of the house we were renting. Amongst them were some vintage recordings of The Goon Show, a brilliant radio comedy show intermittently broadcast by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) from the early 1950s until the early 1970s. The show featured, along with Sellers, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secomb. The show included surrealistically hilarious sketches that are often cited as the inspiration for later comedy troupes such as Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I don’t recall any specific routines from these shows, but I do remember the hours spent listening to this creative craziness. It left me with a lifelong appreciation for imaginative comedy.
A few years later, I saw A Shot in the Dark, at the local repertory movie theatre. It was playing on a double bill with Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Since then, I have seen each of these films about a hundred times. I can’t think of a more fitting double bill. At his best, Sellers, like Chaplin, was able to make you laugh on two levels of consciousness. The most obvious level was that of slapstick. To make people laugh by creating physical mayhem out of a simple scenario takes, as most of us can imagine, something of the grace and timing of a professional dancer. Seeing Clouseau demolish a rack of billiard cues is surely not a dissimilar experience to that of watching footage of Baryshnikov at his most inspired.
The other and more resonant level of the Chaplin/Sellers style of comedy, though, was the way that their displays of touching ineptitude somehow made a profound comment about the human condition. In this sense, they were of course continuing on a long and rich theatrical tradition including, amongst many others, both Shakespeare and the Commedia dell’Arte. What made Sellers’ portrayal so poignant and extra funny was the fact that for all his blustering, Inspector Clouseau was really only trying to achieve the sense of human dignity that each of us is looking for. Like us, he just wanted to be respected, to be taken seriously, yet he was constantly tripped-up by his own clumsiness and pomposity. In this sense, comedians like Sellers and Chaplin were able to make us, at least subconsciously, take a look at our own frailties. They perhaps made us see that there is a little of both the little Tramp and the bungling Clouseau in each of us. That, to me, is art.