Not many performers can say they’ve made more Pink Panther films than Peter Sellers.
But Wallasey actor Graham Stark can.
Comic genius Sellers notched up six films as the bungling Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Paris police, while Stark appeared in no less than seven movies from the franchise.
Perhaps his best known role was that of Clouseau’s stone-faced sidekick Hercule Lajoy in the second film of the series, A Shot in the Dark, in 1964. He played the character again in The Trail of the Pink Panther in 1982.
Stark portrayed Dr Auguste Balls, Clouseau’s eccentric disguise maker, in two films and was also the German hotel clerk in The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976.
The clerk is involved in one of Clouseau’s most memorable exchanges when he tries to book a room (pronounced rum) in a heavily affected French accent. There is a dog by the counter.
When he finally succeeds in making his booking, he asks the clerk if his dog bites. The clerk says no, whereupon the dog promptly attacks Clouseau’s leg.
‘I thought you said your dog didn’t bite,’ says Clouseau. ‘That is not my dog,’ replies the clerk.
It is no surprise that Stark features so strongly in the Pink Panther films as he and Sellers were life-long friends. They first met as members of Ralph Reader’s Gang Show entertaining troops during World War II.
Other wartime comrades included comedians Dick Emery and Tony Hancock, both of whom worked with Stark after the war.
Born in Wallasey in January 1922, Stark was the son of a purser on transatlantic liners. He attended Wallasey Grammar School before serving in 334 company of the British Expeditionary Force in Greece.
When the conflict ended, Stark studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and then looked for work along with a number of would-be comedians at Grafton’s pub in London’s Victoria.
The establishment was run by Jimmy Grafton, a writer and theatrical agent who’d served with distinction as an officer during the war. He was awarded the Military Cross for his role in Operation Market Garden, the attack on Arnhem.
Other hopefuls at the pub included the future Goons Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine along with Sellers himself.
Stark’s connections helped him appear on a number of post-war radio shows including Ray’s A Laugh with Ted Ray and Educating Archie with ventriloquist Peter Brough. He even stood in for Spike Milligan on the Goon Show as well as working with Benny Hill.
Stark made regular appearances with Peter Sellers and Carry On star Kenneth Connor in A Show Called Fred and briefly had his own BBC programme – the aptly titled Graham Stark Show – in 1964.
Written by Johnny Speight of Till Death Us Do Part fame, each edition featured a guest actor, including Warren Mitchell, Francis Matthews, Matt Munro and Liverpool actors Derek Nimmo and Deryck Guyler.
An accomplished actor, Stark gave a moving performance as the long-suffering bus conductor Humphrey in the 1966 movie Alfie, starring Michael Caine. Humphrey stands by Alfie’s abandoned pregnant girlfriend Gilda (Julia Foster) and starts a family with her.
Another of Stark’s roles was that of physician Captain Pontius Kak in the 1963 stage play The Bed-Sitting Room, written by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus.
Set in post-apocalyptic London, the play revolves around characters who are gradually mutating due to nuclear fall-out. The main character, Lord Fortnum, is gradually transforming into a bed-sitting room, while another is becoming a parrot.
A later role for Stark was far more down to earth. He took over as cockney spiv Private Joe Walker in the popular TV sitcom Dad’s Army when James Beck died in 1973.
As well as the Pink Panther series, Stark was a familiar face in a number of British films of the 1960s and 70s, including Doctor in Trouble, Sink the Bismarck, Guns at Batasi, Gulliver’s Travels and Casino Royale.
He played the amorous driver in Eric Sykes’ silent comedy The Plank in 1967 alongside Tommy Cooper, Jimmy Edwards and Jim Dale. Liverpool comedian Jimmy Tarbuck was the barman.
His later films included two 1987 movies – Blind Date, in which he was Jordan the Butler, and Jane and the Lost City. He was also the Old King in the 1998 film The Incredible Adventures of Marco Polo.
Music fans will remember Stark as the butler with the drinks tray in the video for the Adam and the Ants’ Number One single Goody Two Shoes in 1982.
Graham Stark died in London at the age of 91 in October 2013.
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