Peter Sellers’ big break came in 1955, when he was cast to appear alongside Alec Guinness in an Ealing Studios film called The Ladykillers. The film’s Director, Alexander Mackendrick, and Associate Producer, Seth Holt, were both avid fans of BBC Radio’s Goon Show, in which Sellers had been starring since 1951, and this is how he came to be given the role of Harry Robinson, a thuggish Teddy Boy. Sellers was also the voice of various parrots that appear in the film while animal impersonator, Percy Edwards, was paid £25 for providing the additional parrot noises!
The story for The Ladykillers had apparently come to William Rose in a dream and Mackendrick happened to hear him describing it in the pub one evening. Although Rose had vowed never to have any further dealings with Mackendrick after they had worked together on The Maggie, the Director eventually managed to persuade Rose to write the script.
The plot concerns a gang of criminals who rent rooms in the house of a sweet little old lady called Mrs Wilberforce. They tell her that they are an amateur string quartet and need somewhere to meet and practise but in reality, they are plotting to rob a security van at King’s Cross Station. When “Mrs W” discovers what they have really been up to, she tells the gang she is going to report them to the police and so they decide they are going to have to kill her. In the process of crossing and double-crossing each other, all the criminals wind up dead and Mrs W ends up with the proceeds of the heist.
Before the first draft of the script had been completed, Rose and Holt had an argument which led to Rose storming off the picture and swearing never to return. Mackendrick and Holt managed to complete the script using Rose’s notes but they wanted a few funny one-liners to include throughout the film and so they brought in Sellers’ friend and Goon Show scriptwriter, Larry Stephens, to write some. Although Stephens wasn’t named in the credits, Mackendrick told Philip Kemp all about his contribution when Kemp interviewed him for his book, ‘Lethal Innocence – The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick‘.
This wasn’t Larry Stephens’ only Ladykillers contribution though. At the wrap party, Sellers handed out very special gifts to members of the cast and crew. Based on a script Stephens had written for him, Sellers had made recordings of his own version of the film trailer and had voiced all the different characters himself. This recording still survives: