Q&A: PETER USTINOV

The children’s champion

February 9 1987
Q&A: PETER USTINOV

The children’s champion

February 9 1987

The children’s champion

Q&A: PETER USTINOV

As spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Peter Ustinov has travelled extensively around the world promoting the organization's efforts to improve the lives of children in developing countries. On his most recent trip, to China in September, 1986, Ustinov—actor, writer, raconteur and host of the acclaimed CTV series Peter Ustinov’s Russia—visited UNICEF workers throughout the country. From there, the man known to millions for his American Express card TV commercials, flew to Hong Kong to launch a new UNICEF committee. He recently visited Ottawa to celebrate UNICEF’s Wth anniversary and to receive Canada's pledge of $36.5 million to UNICEF’s children’s immunization program in India, part of the organization 's global immunization drive. Ustinov spoke to Maclean’s Ottawa Correspondent Hilary Mackenzie.

Maclean’s: What was your first impression of China?

Ustinov: I knew that it was developing very fast and I jokingly told a Chinese official that one of my ambitions was to

get to Tibet before there was a Hilton Lhasa. He said, “You better hurry.” I think that puts a great deal of it in a nutshell. We all have the impression that the Chinese were very isolated at the time of Mao, before Nixon and Kissinger opened it up, as it were. But I have a feeling that with their international

With their international grid of fine restaurants, I have a feeling that the Chinese may be better informed than the CIAorKGB ’

grid of fine restaurants the Chinese are better informed than the CIA or KGB. Maclean’s: What would you say is the main difference between China and the Soviet Union, to which you are a frequent visitor?

Ustinov: Historically, China has had very strong provinces and a rather weak central government. As a result, it has

remained very much a federation of completely different states. The Russians, on the other hand, have always been dependent on an attempt to govern that huge country from a central position, which never worked. China left the impression on me of a Great Dane with the reflexes of a Yorkshire terrier. Maclean’s: You have been criticized for your sympathetic portrayal of the Soviet Union. Was that fair?

Ustinov: I was expecting nothing else. The people who go with what they hope is an open mind might be too clement. On the other hand, that clemency may be justified. Those are the people who are not brainwashed. But people who sit at home and look at their TV and read their newspapers all the time—those are the people who are brainwashed. Maclean’s: How did you find the children in China?

Ustinov: The children are full of goodwill, like children everywhere else. I have worked out a system that works everywhere—of being a dog. When you meet 200 children who know that they have been brought there for a purpose, they are all sort of bewildered. They know you have come a long way, that you have a different shade of skin, and they look at you nervously. I suddenly bark. They see no dog and they look at me with astonishment. Then they start smiling and come toward me to examine me closer—I start

growling and they get nervous again. They think, “My God, maybe this is a rather shabbily dressed dog.” Then it becomes a game. In Thailand, I had about 15 children on my back, trying to tame me. It leads to immediate contact and good humor.

Maclean’s: How do you communicate when you do not speak the language?

Ustinov: The Chinese were very tactful. The day after I arrived they put Death on the Nile [a 1978 film in which Ustinov played author Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot] on national TV—so every time I arrived anywhere they said, “Ahh, Polio.”

Maclean’s: How do you reconcile your American Express image with your work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF?

Ustinov: They do not conflict financially. And because I work for UNICEF for nothing, I have nothing against a source of supplementary income. I do the American Express advertisement to pay for my American Express card.

Maclean’s: Do you feel that you as a personality could go to South Africa and make a difference?

Ustinov: I have no ties with South Africa

at all and wonder how any move of any individual will be interpreted at this juncture. I have been asked to go there quite often for charity and to talk at emancipated universities. But any gesture in that direction is so misunderstood, and I think it is silly to politicize UNICEF—it defeats the whole object. But

the real battle there is against the stubborn South African establishment, and I am not sure it would serve any purpose to go without being able to tell them what you think of them. If I were given an opportunity to have an interview with Foreign Minister Pik Botha, hear his point of view and respond, I would go like a shot. But I do not want to go into those waters feeling that I can be easily disregarded and pushed aside like British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe was last July.

Maclean’s: Are glitzy, Hollywood-style fund-raising campaigns the only way to get people to give?

Ustinov: That is the American way and it has inevitably influenced us all and set up a reaction. But as soon as publicity is involved, you are in a moral Times Square in which the brightest or the most stuttering neon sign

catches your attention. Bangladesh is a steady electric light. Ethiopia has a deliberate defect built into it; the neon light is winking at you all the time and so you look at it. One must then be very careful not to detract from the Ethiopian situation by saying Bangladesh is worse. Anywhere where even one child dies is bad.