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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

peter ustinov - zia mohyuddin

Zia Mohyeddin column

I have not always been fortunate in the choice of my film roles, but I have been singularly fortunate in having had opportunities to work with some of the most illustrious actors of our times; Peter Ustinov, who died a couple of week ago, was one such luminary.

Many moons ago, we were both cast in a movie which, after three days of filming, came to an abrupt halt because the movie moguls in Hollywood -- having seen the rushes -- felt that the American born director, Richard Sarafian, was no good and that he ought to be replaced. From a remote part of Kenya, we were flown back to Nairobi and lodged in the plush surroundings of a colonial hotel, to await the arrival of the new replacement director. Peter Ustinov was given a suite next to my room. His sitting room had a large French window which he kept open. Whenever I went past it, he would call out, "Ya effendi".

Apart from being a superb mimic, Ustinov had an uncanny feel for the cadence of a language. (He spoke several European languages fluently and masterfully). His make-believe Arabic was just as good as his make-believe Japanese. From our respective positions -- he, sitting by his writing bureau; I, standing in the verandah outside -- we would conduct a conversation in Arabic, that is to say, gibberish which sounded like Arabic. I struggled after a while, but he would carry on as though he was born into the language. The banter over, he would invite me in, for a glass of chilled Chablis.

There was an excellent French restaurant in Nairobi called Chez Marcell. Ustinov dined there almost every night. He often invited me. Never once did he allow me to pay for the meal, "I am on a bigger allowance than you are", was his pet answer.

He was a gourmet and the establishment knew that. No effort was spared in preparing the choicest meal imaginable. At times, he would pass me a tip, "In doing your turbot, you'd be better off adding a few peppercorns to the poaching liquid". I owe everything I knew about French cuisine to Peter Ustinov.

The meals were a delight, but his conversation was hilarious. I would laugh until my eyes began to water. "Now, now Carruthers", he would say, in the manner of a Marlborough schoolmaster, "Control yourself".

Peter Ustinov was the wittiest raconteur I have ever come across. His observation of human foibles was so acute, his grasp over people's speech patterns so perfect, that he could turn the most mundane happening into a piercingly amusing incident. He could impersonate a dyed-in-the-wool American widow as perfectly as he could a young Prussian subaltern or a middle-aged Cockney plumber.

No wonder he was the darling of chat show hosts. Everyone of them -- Johnny Carson and Michael Parkinson including -- sought to have him appear on their shows. They knew that his presence would ensure high ratings. Once, on on his return from the United States, he appeared on 'Aspell'. "How did you find Los Angeles this time?" asked the suave and debonair, Tim Aspell. "Very droll," Ustinov answered, "Even the more reputable newspapers now carry small ads like 'Receive obscene phone calls from guaranteed nude ladies"'. "They don't!" said Tim Aspell, in mock disbelief. "Ah, but you forget," Ustinov went on, "that a high-spending city like Los Angeles has to cater for every taste with civic blessing. The ad is underlined with the announcement that all major credit cards are accepted."

When the audience stopped laughing, he reclined in his chair and, with an impish glint in his eyes, said, "The advertisement is a wonderful example of the exploitation of one freedom by another. It is no doubt understood by those who find release in such diversions that this little freedom is included among all the other large ones in that composite concept on behalf of which all the lethal missiles are ranged and the bombs are primed."

You and I would find it difficult to speak with such exquisitely modulated facility, even if we have crammed such a speech. Peter Ustinov could articulate, with utmost ease, the most abstruse concepts. Of all the eminent after-dinner speakers, he was the only one who never fluffed. I do not recall any moment when he, in order to connect one thought with the next, 'ummed', or resorted to those commonly used words: 'I mean to say' and 'sort of'. Cerebration could have been his second name.

During the long intervals when a scene is being lit, actors normally have a snooze, play backgammon; have mild flirtatious with the continuity girl or the leading lady's stand-in. Ustinov and I found a different diversion. We wrote carefully crafted notes to each other -- he, in his capacity as an irate Governor of the North West Frontier Province, and I, as the elusive Faqir of Ippi. His letters lie in my writing desk in England. (Someday I must dig them up and reproduce them in this column). The governor's lofty tone and his vacuous sanctimoniousness had an underlying satire that would have done Michael Frayn proud. Each one of his notes had a newly designed monogram, and one or two delightful illustrations. Only Wintertton, the much-lamented film critic, could do better illustrations.

Friendships formed on film locations don't often last, but ours did. When his new play 'Beethoven' opened in Birmingham, I invited him to be the sole guest on the magazine show that I ran on British Television. He was aware that my slot did not get massive ratings, but he thought it would be churlish to refuse a friend. My programme was devoted largely to the attainments -- and frustrations -- of the new Britishers.

I do not think he was trying to please me or establish his credentials as an upholder of the cause of minorities, when he declared that there was a salutary skepticism on the air, and it is perhaps time to examine the history of prejudice to which small nations become victims. "We live in an era in which pompous politicians attempt to continue the time-honored hypocrisy which permits selfish policies to be propounded in expressions of high-mindedness".

He was a caring man who knew that the West was pursuing a course that could only lead to more and more misery for the 'Third World'. In his historical work on Russia, he writes, "today, of course, everything has been done to eradicate the traces of colonial presence, or rather to replace that presence, with another, the skyscrapers of large commercial interests eager to help the Third World help itself. Unfortunately, in doing so they create privileged classes within these new countries, leaving the underprivileged where they have been for long... The fact, is that emerging nations imitate much of the foolish symbolism of the imperialism, military rituals, awful national anthems and the like, in an endlessly paradoxical aspect of how the new freedoms are used, and not without the painful absurdity".

He angered many people in America because he frequently debunked 'the United States' avuncular devotion to the cantankerous and mischievous policies of Israel, in which the voice of an ancient people is shrill and unmusical. He was particularly severe about American imperialism. "If by imperialism we mean enslavement, not merely physical, but mental and economic, then it is very far from being dead".

Ustinov (playwright, novelist, director, ambassador for Unicef) was a movie star of some magnitude, but his heart was in doing humanitarian work. In Kenya he would often gather a bunch of snivelling barefooted children, and amuse them for hours by reproducing the sound of almost every musical instrument through his mouth. They called him 'PINO'.


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