Arts

Cult Movie: Mr Topaze might not be Peter Sellers' greatest but it's not far off

Peter Sellers' directorial debut received an almost universal panning by critics.
Ralph McLean

MR TOPAZE has long been considered something of a 'lost classic' of British comedy. The first film directed by and starring the great Peter Sellers, it came out in 1961 and swiftly received an almost universal panning from the critics.

Its downbeat tale of an impoverished provincial French schoolteacher who grapples with the big bad world of business just didn't connect with people the way Sellers presumably hoped it would. As is often the way with films which suffer such a critical mauling and public rejection, this quietly sweet and intriguing little slice of character comedy slumped off into obscurity, licking its wounds as it went.

A couple of years back, it was chosen by the British public in an online vote to get the full modern Bluray and digitisation treatment from the good people at the British Film Institute. The results of that project are now available for all to see as the BFI have just unveiled the full Mr Topaze package in all its melancholy and bittersweet beauty.

It also comes complete with all the period extras, whistles and stylish bells that you'd expect from such a landmark release. From rarely seen Peter Sellers curios like Let's Go Crazy (1951), a crazed variety style show with his old running buddy Spike Milligan, to period profiles of the actor and interviews with those involved both in front of and behind the camera, there is so much good stuff here it almost beggars belief.

Despite the impressive trimmings, however, it's the film itself which truly shines. Based on a Marcel Pagnol play, it boasts a fine understated central turn from Sellers himself and boasts a stellar cast including the great Herbert Lom (who'd teamed up with Sellers in The Ladykillers some years previously and would later spar so memorably with the comedian in the Pink Panther series as the wonderfully jittery Inspector Dreyfus), Leo McKern, Billie Whitelaw and John Le Mesurier.

Sellers is the painfully honest cigar chomping French teacher Auguste Topaze who is fired from his job when he refuses to alter the bad grades of the grandson of a baroness. Spying an opportunity, the conniving actress Suzy (Nadia Gray) talks her lover, the bent and amoral city councillor Castel Benac (Lom) to hire Topaze as the managing director of one of his dodgy businesses.

The thinking is, with Topaze's well-known honesty, no one will suspect Benac's company of illegal behaviour. When the decent Topaze discovers their plans he works out a way to swindle his employers himself.

The story itself may be slight, but Sellers imbues it all with a sense of fun that is right up there with his finest work of the period. That top-class cast have tons of fun bouncing off each other and there's a quaint early-60s charm to it all that renders it almost a masterclass in moody melancholia.

Mr Topaze might not be Sellers' greatest hour, but it's not far off it – and it's wonderful to see it out in the public gaze once again.

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