mon 08/08/2022

When Snowdon starred in Peter Sellers' home movie | reviews, news & interviews

When Snowdon starred in Peter Sellers' home movie

When Snowdon starred in Peter Sellers' home movie

Remembering an awkward encounter with the royal photographer to talk about Sellers. Then Goldie Hawn turned up

Comic characters: Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and Peter Sellers

On screen, two hoodlums in macs and homburgs debate the best way to waste a victim. One of them, played by Peter Sellers, proffers a revolver. The other, who from under his hat has something of Herbert Lom about his profile, pulls on a cigarette and shakes his head. How about the acid in the bath routine? Another shake of the head. Case him in cement and drop him in the river? No. Sellers’ gangster is bemused. No gun, no acid, no cement: so how’s he going to do it?

At this point the Lom lookalike removes his hat and reveals himself as the husband of the sister of the Queen. “Mind your own bleedin’ business, dear,” squeals Lord Snowdon in the voice of a pantomime homosexual. “I’ll do it me own way.” “You camp cow,” says Sellers. And as they mince off, the frame freezes.

Forty years on, I asked Lord Snowdon if he ever imagined that a home movie shot privately on the lawn of Jocelyn Stevens, then editor of Queen magazine, would ever find its way onto national television. “No,” he growled, somewhat more clipped than in the film. “We never discussed it. I wasn’t asked. I didn’t want it at all. They were private.”

I had this awkward encounter with Snowdon, who has died at the age of 86, in 2004. In 1995 a three-part Arena documentary told Sellers’ story using his own home movies. A boiled-down version, screened on the BBC in 2002, was coming out on DVD and Snowdon had been persuaded to give an interview to promote it. He gave some indication that he'd rather be lunching with almost anyone else.

In the most famous sequence Sellers, as the Great Berko, announces that, fresh from his recent triumph at the Workmen’s Institute (Penge), he will disappear behind a screen and re-emerge in the guise of Princess Margaret. Behind he goes, clothes are thrown over the screen, and out comes her Royal Highness. Later Sellers, the princess, Snowdon, Stevens and others hold hands, dance and sing “We’re Riding Along on the Crest of a Wave”, and then bow.

“It was totally improvised,” recalled Lord Snowdon. “Peter had a camera that he wanted to try out. It was all very haphazard. We made the whole thing in I should think two hours.” The sequence of sketches, shot in black and white, was called I Say I Say I Say. “Snowdo-de-o-do Pictures,” announced the credits, “present a Nit Film.”  “It cost a fortune,” adds Snowdon. Sellers paid.

We had lunch in San Lorenzo, the celebrated Knightsbridge haunt, where Sellers and Snowdon frequently ate together. Also at the table was the television producer Anthony Haas. A school friend of Sellers’s son Michael and latterly a friend of Sellers himself, it took him 14 years to persuade Sellers’s widow and fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, to grant permission to broadcast them. Towards the end of her life she had problems with alcoholism and died a year before the Arena films were first shown. There were 25 hours of footage to sift through, including a lot of Sellers’s indomitable mother Peg and his first wife Anne. In a brutal bonfire of the vanities, Sellers threw countless more hours into the flames in Gstaad towards the end of his life.

The real Sellers, according to Snowdon, was not always a laugh a minute. They first met when Snowdon was photographing the Goons in the 1950s. “The BBC didn’t know that it was going to be called The Goons so it was known as The Go On Show,” he recalled. “They were wonderful, very professional and very funny. But people always think that we used to sit around and laugh all the time. We didn’t actually. I don’t think Peter had lots of friends but the reason why I was a friend was I never worked with him. It might have been a disaster. Sometimes he was a bit naughty. Of course he was difficult but only in a loveable kind of way.”

Haas prompted Snowdon to tell a story about dining with Sellers and his wife. “Yes. Which wife did he have then?” “Miranda,” said Haas. (He married his third wife Miranda Quarry in 1970.) “She was frightfully grand,” said Snowdon. “He did something very harmless. We were having supper and he handed me some port and Miranda said, ‘Don’t you know that port is handed round the other way?’ Whereupon he exploded and said, ‘No I fucking don’t. I’m a fucking Jewish actor.’ And he opened a cage full of birds that was in the room, it wasn’t a very large room and then got a tennis racket, hit these birds round the room and said, ‘Come on, out.’ So we left and drove to my sister’s which was about 80 miles away.”

You could see not only from I Say I Say I Say but also from Snowdon’s own vaudevillean side why the two of them would have got on. He too dropped into accents, apart from when I asked him to do a sound check for the tape recorder and he mouthed some words but remained doggedly silent. “We worked out voices together. He did a good Harold Acton [the famous aesthete]. He used to spend hours.” I asked about Britt Ekland, the second Mrs Sellers, who was 21 when they married in 1964. Sellers, aged 39, had his first heart attack two months later. “He Britt off more than he could screw,” said Snowdon, possibly not for the first time.

The Queen was said to be a great fan of Sellers’s movies; Snowdon seemed less familiar with them. He was not sure, for example, if he’d seen Being There. Pressed to ask for a favourite Sellers performance he barked, “Irrelevant.” Haas reminded him of The Party, Blake Edwards’s 1968 comedy in which Sellers plays a hapless Indian actor let loose in Hollywood. As if on cue, Goldie Hawn tottered over from another table to say hello to Snowdon. They seemed to be very old friends, judging by the breadth of their smiles. Two years after The Party, Hawn starred with Sellers in Roy Boulting’s There’s a Girl in My Soup. “We were just talking about Peter too!” beams Hawn “God I miss him so much.”

After a minute she turned to leave. A slightly bemused expression blew across Lord Snowdon’s face. “Who was that?” he said.

I don’t think Peter had lots of friends but the reason why I was a friend was I never worked with him

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