Married to the comedy actor in the 1960s, the former Bond girl talks for the first time about their fights and his controlling ways
Britt Ekland with Peter Sellers in 1965. The couple married after knowing each other for ‘little more than three weeks’. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Peter Sellers is widely admired as a British comic genius, the creator of some of the most memorable characters of 20th-century film and broadcasting. He was central to the cult 1960s BBC programme The Goon Show, once described as “probably the most influential comedy show of all time”, while his later role as Chief Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films brought him international stardom.
But in private he was a difficult, domineering and jealous man who married four times, and once said of himself: “If I can’t really find a way to live with myself, I can’t expect anyone else to live with me.” Now we have fresh testimony from one who tried – and failed.
Sellers’s former wife Britt Ekland has opened up about their troubled marriage, describing Sellers – who suffered from serious ill health as well as alcohol and cocaine dependency – as deeply controlling and mentally unstable, but unable to receive the medical treatment that he would have got today, partly because he was so valuable to the studios.
In a major BBC Arts documentary, Peter Sellers: A State Of Comic Ecstasy, the former Bond actress recalls her four-year marriage from 1964.
Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland marry at Guildford register office in 1964. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images
She remembers that Sellers would choose what she should wear, buying her entire wardrobe without consulting her, and threatening her with divorce “every Friday night – and by Monday there would be a make-up lunch or present”.
She adds: “He obviously suffered from or was bipolar, severely bipolar. He was a very tormented soul who should have had more help. But instead he was unable [to] because he was such a valuable asset.”
Sellers, who died in 1980, made his name, with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, through the seminal radio comedy The Goon Show. He became a global star with classic screen roles such as the inept Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther in 1963, to which he took Ekland on their first date.
The couple met after he saw a photograph of the Swedish actress in a newspaper and realised that they were both staying at the Dorchester in London. In the documentary’s archive footage, Sellers says: “I thought that I would like to meet what I saw.”
Ekland had come to Britain to be launched as 20th Century Fox’s new star. She recalls being in the bath when there was a knock at the door: “I wrapped a towel round me and rushed to open the door … This very tall gentleman said ‘I’m Mr Sellers’s valet’. Would I like to come to his suite?”
In a whirlwind romance, Sellers called her two days after their first date, she recalls: “He said, ‘I have told the press that we’re going to get married’ … By the time we married [it] was probably little more than three weeks [later].”
Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland at their home in Beverly Hills, shortly after their marriage in 1964. Photograph: Allan Grant/The Life Images Collection via Getty Images
Returning from their honeymoon, she was photographed in a fur coat: “He decided what I was going to wear. He just pre-decided everything without ever asking me.”
Ekland, who went on to star in The Man With The Golden Gun, also recalls how Sellers’s actions got her fired from the 1964 film Guns at Batasi: “He called me and said, ‘Ask the production if you can have an extra day off’. And they said no. He just said that’s taken care of. Someone drove me to the airport. The next thing I know I land in California, where I’d never been before, with no clothes. The plan was I would spend the weekend and then I would fly back. When I arrived, he said, ‘I have a doctor here because you don’t look well’. The doctor said, ‘She’s suffering strain and stress. You can’t possibly go back to filming’.”
Asked in the documentary whether she was ill, she exclaims: “Of course not. I was 21 years old, fit as a fiddle, but I had no choice. I couldn’t have said, ‘I’m sorry, I love you, but I’ve got to go back to work now’. There was no option for that … I was fired from the film.”
Obviously Britt’s not a medical professional. But she did live with him for four years John O'Rourke, film-maker
She continues: “I was taken straight back to our marble palace. He took me into the bedroom, which was all gold and white, and then next to it was a walk-in closet. He’d bought everything you could possibly need as a woman who didn’t have any clothes, from evening gowns to bikinis. The bikini was actually of mink … I was floored.”
Although she has previously been quoted describing her marriage as “an atrocious sham”, John O’Rourke, the documentary’s producer-director, told the Observer: “She’s always quite private about this chapter of her life because she had her first child, Victoria, with Sellers … She hasn’t gone into huge amounts of detail. There have been a lot of books and documentary films made about Sellers over the years. She refused to speak to them … She mentioned bipolar disorder. Obviously Britt’s not a medical professional. But she did live with him for four years.”
In the documentary, Ekland says that when she reads her diaries she sees repeated use of the Swedish word for “fight”. She recalls an argument in Rome, after they were harassed by paparazzi: “He just went on and on … This continued all night and he took my radio and smashed it. In the end he called our agent and said, ‘Come and pick her up’. I knew that this time I could never go back.”
The tragedy is that Sellers brought out so much of life’s funny side. In the documentary, one of Milligan’s children recalls: “Dad would have to lie down on his bed to talk to Peter because they’d be laughing so much.”
But Sellers’s grandson Will says: “The sad thing is that, like a lot of comedians, happiness eluded him.”
Peter Sellers: A State Of Comic Ecstasy, BBC Two, 9 May.