Like his idol Peter Sellers, the Grimbsy star is a master of clowning, silly voices, and all-too-believable caricatures. Now he just needs his own Kubrick
“There is no me,” Peter Sellers once said. “I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”
Sellers wasn’t talking to a biographer or psychiatrist, but Kermit the Frog: he made the comment during a guest appearance on The Muppet Show, while wearing a corset, a Viking helmet, a single boxing glove and an auburn wig.
This was, of course, wishful thinking. The real Peter Sellers was anything but non-existent: he was notoriously selfish and abusive, and wrestled with addictions and manic depression throughout his life. You can see why the idea of a performer who was nothing more than his characters appealed to him.
I thought of Sellers earlier this week while watching Grimsby, the new film from Sacha Baron Cohen. There’s a sequence in which Baron Cohen’s character, a Benefits Street-style lager-swigging grotesque called Nobby Butcher, has to pose as a British spy and seduce the glamorous wife of an enemy agent.
Due to a misunderstanding, Nobby thinks his target has come to unblock the toilet, and lures a fabulously obese chambermaid back to his suite instead. He then entices into bed with a supposedly sophisticated accent that sounds like Roger Moore trying to talk after heavy dental surgery.
It’s exactly the kind of thing Sellers excelled at: virtuoso silly voices, caricatures piled on top of caricatures, and a sense of barely repressed lunacy, as if the scene is always on the verge of fizzing off in an unforeseen direction, like a wonky firework.
If Baron Cohen is our Sellers – and no other better candidate springs to mind – then he’s pulled off a trick that evaded his forerunner all his life. Baron Cohen’s greatest comic creations, the Staines-based gangster Ali G, the appalling Kazakh broadcaster Borat Sagdiyev, and the gay Austrian fashionista Brüno, we know in eye-crinkling detail. (Have you seen the naked wrestling scene in Borat?)
But the ‘me’ behind them – Baron Cohen himself – is virtually transparent. He’s 43 years old, and is married to the actress Isla Fisher, whom he met in 2002. They have three children together and a large house in the Hollywood Hills. That’s about it.
“I think I was seven when I saw the first Inspector Clouseau film and I really believed the character,” he said. “He was this incredibly realistic actor who was also hilarious and who managed to bridge the gap between comedy and satire.”
Both men were raised in London with similar family backgrounds: Baron Cohen’s parents are both Jewish, as was Sellers’ mother. Their acting training, which was rooted in traditions of vaudeville and clowning, had much in common too.
Sellers’ parents both toured in variety acts, and he spent his childhood touring with them, mimicking the characters he met backstage to amuse himself in the frequent lonely longueurs. Baron Cohen’s upbringing was far more secure – he attended The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, then read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge – but later studied clowning in Paris under the French master clown Philippe Gaulier.
Though Baron Cohen’s characters are all recognisably of the modern world, they’re rooted in old French comic traditions of Rabelaisian excess and nerve-wracking bouffonnerie. Critics often confuse this with parody: many Grimsby reviews mistook Nobby for a crass swipe at benefits cheats. But like the French bouffons of old, his characters are ludicrous versions of his audience’s own worst nightmares. They’re joyful tormentors, and the joke’s exclusively on us.
They’re also close cousins of Sellers’ characters on The Goon Show – which stretched recognisable English types, like the retired major (Denis Bloodnok) and the conniving sophisticate (Hercules Grytpype-Thynne), to preposterous extremes.
For both men, versatility is part of the deal. Baron Cohen invests everything in a character then dumps them forever; while Sellers often played multiple roles within the same film – a trick he might have learned from Alec Guinness, the other great British comic actor of the postwar years.
Stanley Kubrick deployed that talent to variously funny and terrifying effect in his 1964 Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, in which Sellers played not only the titular Nazi scientist, but also US President Merkin Muffley and RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake.
Baron Cohen has already done Clouseau. His walk-on gendarme in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) was a broad riff on the detective character Sellers portrayed in five Pink Panther films (plus a disgraceful posthumous sixth, patched together from outtakes) of wildly varying quality. What he needs now is a Strangelove – a collaboration with a major filmmaker who can aim him at new and unexpe
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood, spoke in 2014 about his long-standing desire to work with Toby Jones, the British actor (and another French-trained clown).
Let’s pray it happens, but a Strangelovian collaboration with Baron Cohen could be even more exciting. If a Second Cold War breaks out (and the way things are going, it might be as early as next week), countless artists will try to make sense of it. But the equally vital task of making nonsense of it? Well, that's a rarer skill. And it's where the Sellerses and Baron Cohens of this world come in.