You have to laugh. In 1973, hotshot British director Peter Medak was on a roll with an Oscar nomination under his belt and an offer from Paramount to direct Charles Bronson in Death Wish on the table. But Medak passed up that opportunity when Peter Sellers asked him to try and revive a Goon’s ailing career with a script called Ghost in the Noonday Sun. It was one of those genuine ‘what if?’ moments - a point at which Medak could have single-handedly prevented the rise of Michael Winner and the great cloud of terror he brought down upon cinemas and restaurants in the last decades of the 20th century.
Instead he went to Cyprus to make one of the most notorious cinematic car-crashes of the 1970s. Blighted by Sellers’ deeply mercurial behaviour on and off-set, it was shelved for a decade before finally seeing the light of day three years after Sellers untimely death as an apology of a VHS release in 1983. Now it’s finally made it to DVD, what’s Ghost in the Noonday Sun actually like?
The story is essentially a proto Monty Python and the Holy Grail-style run-around with Sellers as a mad ‘Orish’ chancer by the name Dick Scratcher who falls into becoming a sea captain because of his knowledge of a priceless buried treasure trove. This can only be located with the help of a boy who may or may not be able to see the ghostly clues that will lead Scratcher and his motley clutch to the loot. Along the way there is some mild child snatching, a lot of speeded-up sword-fighting, some really nice cinematography and plot holes so big they jump up and wave at you like demented royalists at a hospice opening. And goonery, much goonery.
Indeed, although it’s based on a novel by children’s author Sid Fleischman, this feels like a Goon movie that’s in need of, but clearly didn’t get, substantial re-shoots to insert some scripted laughs in place of Seller’s mumbled improvisations. You can certainly see why it was shelved; this is no lost classic. But with ‘technical advisor’ Spike Milligan turning up at Sellers’ request halfway through to ignite some spark into proceedings, there’s some funny stuff here, particularly if you buy into that Mad Dogs and Englishman ‘70s strain of UK comedy. Dick Scratcher living up his name and shooting the resultant insect through the ship’s deck and a cameo from his ghostly old Mum will definitely have you giggling if you stay the course. Moreover, as disenchanted as he was with the experience of making the film, Peter Sellers can’t help but imbue Scratcher with that oddly haunting mix of idiocy of vulnerability that made him such an affecting screen presence.
With all the stories about what went down behind the scenes, it seems a strange decision to put this out as a bare-bones DVD with no supporting material. If any film is crying out for a tell-all documentary, it’s this one. The stories of Sellers’ antics are legion – from firing the producers, to hi-jacking the crew to film a cigarette advert, to faking another heart attack so he could bunk off back to England to have tea with Princess Margaret, it’s a subject ripe for exploration
Luckily, Peter Medak (whose directorial career recovered from the experience) agrees and is working on The Ghost of Peter Sellers, a feature-length reminiscence due for release in 2017. It should make for an essential companion piece to the movie itself.
GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: PETER MEDAK, SPIKE MILLIGAN / SCREENPLAY: EVAN JONES, SPIKE MILLIGAN, ERNEST TIDYMAN / STARRING: PETER SELLERS, ANTHONY FRANCIOSA, SPIKE MILLIGAN, CLIVE REVILL, PETER BOYLE / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 12TH