A brief moment to pay tribute to someone that people my age or younger might not even have heard of before; but nevertheless a cultural giant of his day and someone I never get bored of watching.
That someone is the late Sir Peter Ustinov, this year marking a decade since his death in 2004.
An accomplished actor, of course, with a decades-spanning body of work; but also a writer, author, comedian, dramatist, filmmaker, theatre and opera director, radio broadcaster, newspaper columnist, respected intellectual and academic, World War II soldier, and also a highly-regarded diplomat, humanitarian and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
It’s also one of those curious side-notes of history that Peter Ustinov was a witness to the assassination of India’s Indira Gandhi (the ill-fated Prime Minister was in fact on her way to a television interview with Ustinov when she was gunned down by her own bodyguards).
While not considered one of the giant ‘movie stars’ of his age, Peter Ustinov was nevertheless a multiple Oscar-winning screen actor and moreover considered the great ‘raconteur’ of his time and a jack-of-all-trades.
But it is a breed of cultural figures that has almost died out by now completely.
As you’d imagine, among other things, Ustinov always made for a compelling interview subject; which is how many people primarily know him – through the numerous TV talk-show interviews he did in the latter half of his life (some might also remember his classic appearance on the first season of The Muppet Show in 1976 – one of the first and greatest of the show’s celebrity cameos).
A quick survey of today’s ‘celebrity’ culture and the types of ‘stars’ that periodically circuit modern chat shows to plug their films, pop videos, books and other products more often than not reveals the dearth of meaningful dialogue, content or engagement and the unnerving ability such people have to be able to talk at great length without actually saying anything.
Even a brief trawl through archive interview footage from earlier televisual eras, particularly thirty or so years ago, makes plain the difference in quality. Peter Ustinov is of course a classic example of interviews-of-substance, but just watch footage of the great Orson Welles, for example, being interviewed and compare it to current interviews of today’s multitudes of vacuous ‘stars’ and ‘artists’ and it’s the difference between eating a three-course meal and eating a pop tart (no, actually eating a pop tart that’s been pre-chewed by someone else).
I wasn’t even alive then, but I find myself frequently envious of the stature and quality of ‘stars’ that would come on to talk shows back then and speak at length, meaningfully and compellingly; and not just to flog a product or promote the latest red-carpet soiree. I barely watch popular television anymore anyway, so am now largely spared the ordeal; but I often find myself seeking out old archive footage on You Tube to watch people like Ustinov being interviewed.
Welles and Ustinov were probably chief among those great storytellers. Dubbed by Michael Parkinson as “god’s gift to talk show hosts”, there’s always something compelling about watching someone like Ustinov speak; but again, it also serves to highlight the utter lack in our modern celebrity age of substantial figures – figures with gravitas – in popular culture.
In many ways it isn’t that figures of that type don’t exist, but more of a case of television formats and agendas (along with perceived popular tastes) not lending themselves to those kinds of figures anymore.
In other words, no one is going to ask Christopher Lee to be a guest on their ‘chat show’; I don’t even remember ever having seen Brian Blessed interviewed on a British talk show in my lifetime and he’s a very well-known cultural figure in the UK. The interest isn’t there at the executive level; and it probably isn’t there at the popular/viewer level either.
Which might be regarded as one small part of the broader ‘dumbing down’ of mainstream culture and entertainment that’s often talked about by those who’ve lost all interest in the whole mind-numbingly dull industry.
I’m not old enough to have experienced Ustinov on stage, and I’ve yet to familiarize myself with his writings; while my experience of Ustinov’s actual acting career is limited to 1960’s Spartacus (a classic, but in my opinion slightly overrated film), his definitive personification of Hercule Poirot, 1976’s Logan’s Run, and his portrayal of King Herod in the star-studded Jesus of Nazareth mini-series; but most of all his portrayal of Nero in 1951’s Quo Vadis (not one of the better historical epics of the era, despite its stature) and his memorable voicing of the lion Prince John in Disney’s 1973 feature-animation of Robin Hood.
Ustinov’s portrayal of Nero in Quo Vadis is a perfect example of how an individual ‘presence’ in a specific role can make an otherwise bad movie watchable, even enjoyable.
Quo Vadis would’ve been terrible but for Ustinov’s Nero, which should surely be regarded as the definitive screen portrayal of the infamous Roman Emperor.
My absolute favorite exposure to Ustinov, however, is a 1995 video tape I came across a few years ago of the ‘An Evening with Peter Ustinov’ stage shows that he took to numerous countries towards the final stages of his life. I don’t know whether those now-obscure shows are available in more modern media formats or not (yes, I still have working VHS – and why not?); I did a search on-line and couldn’t find any uploads.
But the fact that a man can hold a stage like that for over ninety minutes, simply telling stories and anecdotes (albeit with his classic comedic touch), and at no point become boring, is something I imagine most modern celebrities, actors and performers couldn’t dream of being able to pull off. Those performances were the perfect vehicle for displaying Ustinov’s talents as a master storyteller.
In an age now where celebrity ‘memoirs’ and the like are shat out periodically by careerless twenty-five year-old TV stars, Ustinov’s stories are the ultimate antidote to this modern vacuousness; Ustinov himself the epitome of where and when “memoirs” are a justified undertaking and not just a tacky commercial institution.
Those one-man shows were also a treasure-trove of insights into the events of the twentieth century – the Second World War, the Cold War, Communist Russia, Hollywood, Thatcher-ism, the Reagan years, and more – told through the lens of Ustinov’s own life experiences, along with insights into the making of some of the movies he is most known for, like Spartacus and Quo Vadis, and endearing anecdotes about some of his contemporaries, such as Alec Guinness, Charles Laughton, Claude Rains and classic Golden Age producers like Mervin Le Roy.
I must’ve watched that show six or seven times by now; it doesn’t lose its charm.
And nor does a figure like the late Peter Ustinov himself; a permanently endearing, often compelling, reminder of a bygone cultural age. And the kind of cultural giant sorely missing from modern celebrity and the way the arts are represented in popular media.
Still, Peter Ustinov may be long gone but he leaves a substantial body of work to speak in his place, along with a great volume of memorable quotes and epithets. And as he said himself; “The only way to be great in this world is to be dead. That’s it, finished. No more small talk.”