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The Ghost Of Peter Sellers: ‘One of history’s most infuriating film stars’

The compelling new documentary tells the tortuous story behind the making of Peter Sellers' 1973 movie Ghost In The Noonday Sun
Trouble in paradise Peter Medak (centre) feels the heat from Peter Sellers (left) and pal Spike Milligan. Credit: 1091 Media

Juicy stories of excess on the sets of film productions? Well, there’s no shortage of them.

The abandoning of the expensive sets for 1963’s Cleopatra, only for them to be used by the much cheaper Carry On Cleo instead. The shooting of 1990’s Days Of Thunder and how it became a prolonged party for some of its crew. Or what about 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, where among the many jaw-dropping stories, a giant irrigation system was installed on a chosen field at the insistence of director Michael Cimino, just to get the right kind of grass?

Filmmaker Peter Medak (The Krays, Let Him Have It) certainly didn’t go into the making of 1973’s Ghost In The Noonday Sun expecting to attract such similar stories.

Yet as he revisits the wreckage of the film in his new documentary The Ghost Of Peter Sellers nearly 50 years later, it’s clear that’s just what he ended up with. An infamous production that was quietly pushed out on video over a decade after it was finished, dominated by headlines to do with its troubled star.

Medak, now in his 80s, clearly still remains rocked by what happened, and he’s the face of this documentary, chatting candidly with those who worked on the film and the executives charged with bringing it into line. That he has the inside info on what happened – backed up with copies of memos, drawings and plans that he’s kept – lends the telling of the story real substance.

And at the heart of it all was a man with a good claim to have been the most difficult movie star in the world.

It’s the kind of documentary where every time you’ve seen the worst it has to offer, another revelation is thrown in

Peter Sellers had agreed to star in the movie, shot on location in Cyprus for over two months. In double-quick time, Sellers wanted out. He brought in his old collaborator Spike Milligan to co-star and rework the script, whilst his relationship with Medak – then early in his film career, and fresh off a couple of successes – deteriorated fast.

At one stage, we learn that Medak was so keen to keep Sellers happy he agreed to shoot a cigarette commercial for the star, who was being handsomely paid for appearing. Only in the midst of shooting was Medak told that Sellers was heading up an anti-smoking campaign, and as a result, there was much he refused to do.

That went for the film too, and there’s a consensus among the interviewees that Sellers was a genius, but incredibly difficult to work with. Often quite cruel, too.

Set against this, fired producers tried to cover their backs with a letter throwing Medak under the bus, while Sellers tried to escape it all by basically faking a heart attack. It’s the kind of documentary where every time you’ve seen the worst it has to offer, another revelation is thrown in. No wonder Medak at times is reduced to tears.

The film debuted in festivals a year or two ago, and it’s a gripping watch. Not least because the footage we’re shown of the completed movie is often very good (and the remnants of the main movie can now be found on streaming services). Still, the UK release of The Ghost Of Peter Sellers was delayed, and it’s finally popped up really rather quietly on the Vimeo service.

It very much warrants tracking down. It’s excellent as a snapshot of Sellers, of just why major movies can go out of control, and as a candid warning that making movies for a career might not be as glamorous as it seems.

Four stars out of five

The Ghost Of Peter Sellers is available to rent or buy

@simonbrew