In the early sixties, Peter Sellers, one of the greatest comic actors of his generation, met perhaps the greatest musicians of the age, the Beatles, through their mutual producer George Martin. The particularly British sensibilities of the band and the actor—slapstick and wordplay, accent and costume changes—had surprisingly broad appeal in the sixties, and a common history in their mutual admiration of English comedian and writer Spike Milligan.
Sellers rose to prominence on the Milligan-created BBC radio program The Goon Show, which the Beatles cited as a major influence on their work. Their constant patter in interviews, films, even rehearsals, their tendency to break into music hall song and dance, comes right out of Sellers in a way (see, for example, the great comic actor in a rare interview here), but was also very much an expression of their own extroverted personalities. It stands to reason then that Sellers and the Beatles, as we wrote in an earlier post, “became fast friends.”
And as the Beatles had paid tribute to Sellers’ comedy, he would return the favor, covering three of their most popular songs as only he could. At the top of the post, see Sellers do a spoken word version of “A Hard Day’s Night” as Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. And above and below, he gives us several renditions of “She Loves You,” in several different accents, “in the voice of Dr. Strangelove, again with cockney and upper-crusty accents, and finally with an Irish twist. The recordings were all released posthumously between 1981 and 1983 on albums no longer in circulation.”
There are many more Beatles/Sellers connections. Before taping his “Hard Day’s Night” skit for Granada television special “The Music of Lennon & McCartney,” Sellers had presented the band with a Grammy for the song, which won “Best Performance of a Vocal Group” in 1965. “Incidentally,” writes Mersey Beat’s Bill Harry, “the [Grammy] presentation was made on the studio set of ‘Help!’ and, interestingly, Sellers had originally been offered the script of ‘Help!’ (Obviously under a different title) but turned it down.” Sellers and the Goon Show cast had previously worked with Richard Lester, director of the Beatles films and the John Lennon-starring How I Won the War.
Completists out there may have also heard the recorded conversation between Sellers and the Beatles that appears at the end of a bootleg version of the White Album, which circulated for years under the title The Peter Sellers Tape. That the band and the comedian got along so famously is no great surprise, nor that Sellers had so much fun reworking the rather silly, and infectiously catchy, pop songs of the Beatles’ early career, bringing to them his battery of characters and voices. We’ve saved what may be Sellers’ best Beatles cover for last. Below, hear him—in the voice of a lecturing vicar and with a backing choir—deliver “Help!” as a 45 RPM sermon.