With Peter Ustinov
Peter Ustinov has said of himself; “Sometimes I see myself as the complete gun dog, nose twitching with the wind and going with it." Indeed he has been going with the wind for more than 35 years as actor, playwright, novelist, essayist. His prodigious output includes 18 plays, five books, eight screenplays,two operas and stunning performances in 28 films. He won Academy Awards for his roles in Spartacus in 1960 and Topkapi in 1964. He can mimic anything from a Roman general to a Brooklyn longshoreman with ease. He also does a respectable imitation of a 1934 Hispano-Suiza. Now, at 56, he has written his autobiography, appropriately entitled Dear Me. During a brief stopover on a whirlwind promotion tour, Ustinov spoke with John Muggeridge for Maclean’s.
Maclean’s: You have an account in your autobiography of life in Hollywood in the late Fifties. Do you think things have changed in the film world of the Seventies? Ustinov: Oh yes. I think everything has changed. Film is a reflection of everything and therefore it must have changed. Certainly there was a fairly rigid structure of “dos and don’ts” in Hollywood at that time and there were the gossip columnists who were very, very important which thank goodness is no longer the case because people really feared them. Whenever people had an affair they got married which led to an inordinate amount of marriages. I think there’s been a kind of liberating breakthrough. But, of course, like all liberating breakthroughs it eventually leads to another form of imprisonment. Maclean’s: You call yourself a square in your autobiography. What exactly did you mean by that?
Ustinov: I’m not afraid of being naive. And I'm very untrendy in that sense. I never know what the latest trend is. And when people talk about the Sixties, and I’ve just talked about the Fifties, I find it awfully difficult without real application to remember the frontiers where certain things occurred and where certain trends began. Trends appear with such alarming frequency, faster and faster these days, that as I said in London I thought there were probably a couple of old spinsters in Streatham who have the most modern interior in the world without knowing it. Maclean’s: I don’t think your work has really changed with the trends, do you? Ustinov: No, I don’t think so at all. I think that it's rather unaffected writing. At least that’s what I'm always aiming at. I can’t
bear excessive style. It makes me cringe. Very often there are certain authors of great merit whom I can’t read for more than five pages without going for a walk and stomping. The mixture is too rich for me.
Maclean’s: What do you think about art as an expression of nationalism?
Ustinov: Well, I think that that’s rather had its day, hasn’t it? I suspect that you allege by your question that it’s on its way back again.
Maclean’s: To give you an example: the actors union A CTRA here in Canada is refusing to allow non-Canadians to perform on Canadian television.
Ustinov: I regret that kind of initiative from any organization. Very simply because an artist has a second nationality which is his art, as do doctors and scientists. In Europe at least we’re beginning to break down these barriers which have obsessed us for so long. And whereas we had looked toward Canada as a country of exemplary freedom, it's slightly shocking to see it occupying a place that we have at last successfully abandoned.
Maclean’s: This whole question of nationalism is agitating Canadians right now. How do you feel about what is going on in Quebec?
Ustinov: Well. I'm the last person tojudge. First of all, I was married to a French Ca-
nadian for a long time, and secondly I’ve had to make shift without any nationality for so long and find myself very hale and hearty on it. I think national identity is on the whole a boring idea. I find it regrettable in Canada because I don’t think it’s a linguistic problem. I think because of this ancient rivalry between the British and the French in various parts of the world the French believe that their language has suffered and are on the defensive. I’m in favor of language changing all the time. It has to be a living organ. I think there is far too much emphasis in schools, as I said in my book, placed on spelling and not what you write. Shakespeare never spelled his name the same twice and why should he? Quite apart from entente cordiale Europe now is a reality to everybody but politicians. The French minority in Canada is large enough to present a really much more European pattern than an American [melting-pot] one. I mean in Europe people travel enormous amounts. The Customs really are no more. When they want to open your bag, you look at them with absolute horror.
Maclean’s: What do you think about Canada’s Writers’ Union?
Ustinov: If it has the spirit of a medieval guild then it has some point because there are certain writers that derive certain comforts from associations with other writers. There are also certain writers that run for miles as soon as another writer hoves into sight. I think there should be room for
both. But of course, the real trouble, I think, is—and I’m really going out on a limb here but I don’t care because I’m a member of 14 unions. I’ve seen enough of them to see how they work (I’ve seen enough of them at work). They were absolutely essential at a certain period in history and they probably still are—that authors interested in union matters are usually those who really are not particularly inspired in their own work. Those who rise to the top of a tree are those that didn’t have the qualifications to detain them at the bottom. In other words, when you get a great lawyer like Clarence Darrow he stays with the law. If they’re not very good they go into the Senate or become presidents.
Maclean’s: One thing that doesn’t get very favorable treatment in your autobiography is the British army. You said you loathed every moment of it and would not have missed it for the world.
Ustinov: That’s pretty true, yes. It brought me into contact with a dying breed that I don’t think exists anymore. The kind of absolutely pinheaded sergeant-majors who screamed and shouted their heads off. I never felt that I was losing more of my own or my country’s time than during those 4Vz years. It was absolutely absurd. Maclean’s: Perhaps you could tell that anecdote about making a film when you were a private.
Ustinov: I was asked to do a film called The Air Ministry and there was an ebullient man called Sir Robert Renwick who said “I’m making arrangements for you to go to the secret research establishment at Malvern to see how radar works and as this is a fairly important occasion you should wear a uniform.” And I said, Sir,... and he said Yes andthen hung up. So I waited around in my private’s uniform with my rifle and my kit bag and a mud-colored staff car drew up at my apartment with an RAF sergeant at the wheel. I got in the back among the cushions and we drove off to Malvern. Some motorcycle cops stopped dead and military policemen argued about whether they had seen right—this private nestling among the cushions. We got to Malvern and there was a very nice flight-lieutenant, and he said, “Hello laddie, what can we do for you?” I said, “I think that I’m supposed to be staying here.” “Oh no. I’m sorry, this is the Officers’ Mess. There is a camp toward the Welsh border, you could probably hog a lift.” And I said, “I don’t need a lift because I have got my staff car here.” Then I called out, “Sergeant” and the sergeant came in and this RAF officer didn’t know what had hit him. I had been accorded a suite reserved for visiting air marshals. And I had two women corporals to do my shoes and I don’t know what else. I stopped in front of some wing-commander and looked him in the eye and then looked down his uniform as he stood there stiffly at attention. That was a sort of revenge.
Maclean’s: You’ve written a great deal
about the Cold War. Do you think there has been a resurgence of it?
Ustinov: I’m not sure that I think the Carter initiative over political prisoners is a terribly happy one. I understand it very well and I approve of it thoroughly, but I’m not absolutely convinced that it doesn’t have a ray of a slowing effect on the Russians. The Russians are ripe for something to happen in the course of evolution in any case because young Russians are very, very similar to young people everywhere. You
National identity is on the whole a boring idea—and I find it regrettable in Canada
know, the old people are different from our old people. But it would seem to me that we have reached a stage of artificial pressure now. It’s clear I think, for me anyway, that Karl Marx is out of date. That the one thing that he couldn’t foresee was the enormous technical advances which have, first of all, solved a great many problems and created ones that he didn’t know anything about.
Maclean’s: Do you believe in any organized world religion?
Ustinov: Well, I don't see why you have to
be in love with an agent to appreciate the theatre. Therefore I’m never quite at ease with clergymen. But I’m absolutely 100% in favor of the Christian ethic, or any other ethic as a matter of fact.
Maclean’s: In your autobiography you praise Solzhenitsyn’s courage and his “stick-with-it-ness” but it seems there’s something that worries you about the man. Ustinov: I’m beginning to wonder now whether he isn’t really an old pontificating writer from another period. A kind of extension of Tolstoy. I’ve seen him on television and he starts off practically every reply with “You see,” and that’s a clear indication of the certain lack of humility. He’s a big man and a powerful man and I think he feels that the Tarification of his vision which took place in prison has given him a kind of stratospheric view that is denied others.
Maclean’s: You say that he comes to the West like a sort of child, but he does know the Soviet Union. What he says about it must be taken seriously.
Ustinov: Absolutely. He knows the Soviet Union but not as the man in the street would recognize the Soviet Union. He recognizes the Soviet Union as somebody who has challenged it and who has guessed what is there and he is completely and utterly right, although it’s a side of the Soviet Union that the majority of Soviet citizens never see, never suspect. Mind you there are enough jokes around to make it quite clear to everybody. For instance: the proof that Adam and Eve were Russians. They had no clothes to wear; they had to share an apple and they thought they were in Paradise.
Maclean’s: What do you think about the Soviet Union re-embracing writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevski?
Ustinov: I think that most of the things that you attribute to the Soviet Union are not intrinsically Soviet at all but merely Russian. And that in that sense the Russian Revolution failed to eradicate many things that were there before. There’s a pervasive love of Russia which you feel there. It’s a kind of quality you get with the Irish as well for some reason. A real attachment to even the most miserable aspect of their own existence and soil.
Maclean’s: You express in your autobiography a great admiration for the United Nations. Do you think it works?
Ustinov: I think that the United Nations is working as well as it possibly can. After all it’s constituted in a democratic way, and one can’t be too disappointed if the vote goes against one. That’s the law of averages. But of course there is a certain imbalance in the United Nations in that the smaller countries send their best men there and the larger countries only those they can spare. And as I suggested in the book, Adlai Stevenson was far too good for the job of representing the United States. He was just a figurehead and very embarrassing it became for him. Whereas small countries—the Togos of this world—send
usually highly professional and highly brilliant men to that particular job and they of course have much more faith in such an organization than anyone else. Maclean’s: There is something in your book that interested me very much, when you talk about the need for order.
Ustinov: I didn’t mean it as much in the political sense as in almost a religious sense. I mean, also, that there is no total liberty. People regard nudity as a breakthrough, but it’s only a breakthrough into another prison eventually. Where do you go from there? Even imaginations have frontiers. Once you realize that, then you don't try and escape anymore. You try and furnish your prison to the best of your ability. In the great American experience in which people are accorded literally complete liberty within the limits of citizenship, I feel they have a tendency to panic, not to know what to do. They start imitating each other and using the same clichés and beginning to look alike. I think also that in a very, very free society the individual is not protected enough against groups of individuals. Because complete freedom entails freedom for the bully as well as for the bullied. And that, I think, is something that one notices a great deal in the United States. But I’ve always thought (and it’s no longer absolutely true because countries change) there were two countries in the West that were deficient in irony. One was the United States and the other was Monaco. One because it was too big and the other because it was too small. Maclean’s: You say in your book that your sort of private country would have resources and basic industries nationalized but would have a very high level of toleration andfreedom for the individual.
Ustinov: I think agricultural produce should be in the hands of people who can care for it. But oil, and those sort of resources I think, should be national because they’re too valuable and they’re too rare. Maclean’s: How do you feel about what's going on in the avant garde movement in theatre today?
Ustinov: Well, I thought for a long time that the avant garde movement was a very amusing and yet unproductive way of writing. I now begin to think it’s an absolute, it’s realism. It is an absolute reflection of the times we live in. Because we live in a cloud-cuckoo-land. I think that on the whole the diplomatic ethic is really on the way out and that business ethics have taken over. We live in the age of efficiency and multinationals. And that as a consequence Watergate and the Lockheed scandals and all the rest of them are really the automatic result of this new tendency. Maclean’s: Your plays don't belong to this tradition, do they?
Ustinov: No. I’m a very kind of eclectic writer because I’m always trying to find new ways of saying the same or different thing.
Maclean’s: What modern writers do you admire?
Ustinov: I don’t read nearly as much as I should because I’m a very unconcentrated reader and a bit of a daydreamer. When I’m reading something that gives me intense pleasure I suddenly find—and this is absolutely invariable—that I’ve read 15 or 16 pages from that particular idea or phrase and not taken anything in whatsoever and have to go back and try and find it. Well, when you apply that to an Anna Karenina or something of that sort it ob-
How could American television corrupt a Canadian way of life? It’s too infantile
viously takes a destructive amount of time. You keep going back and I find it very exhausting to read things, even things that I like. Even more exhausting reading things that I like than things that I don’t. But there are certain people I read with great pleasured like short storiesbecause I obviously have to go back less far.
Maclean’s: What about the classics? Who do you admire?
Ustinov: Well, there are certain great char-
acters in literature who are so national that they transcend the frontiers and become international. Oblomov, I think, is one of them. I think Don Quixote is obviously another one. Falstaff is another. Walter Mitty is another very important character. I think that they really stand on their own and are part of our communal heritage. Maclean’s: You touch on the whole question of television in your book. What are your feelings about it?
Ustinov: Well, television itself is like a telephone. It depends who is on it. It’s an instrument. If there’s a crashing bore on it you also have the possibility of either hanging up or turning it off. But I must say there that the French have a very good idea. They have television sets with literally everything, ignition keys. So if you don’t want your children to watch you just take the key out of the ignition and go away. There’s no way that they can turn it on. That’s an example of order if you like. But on the whole I think that television is a good thing. I think people make mistakes when they try and address the nation and they have 60 million people listening to them, because they are made up of units like old ladies with a cat who are very easily frightened by someone who is looking straight at them and talking. But I think that on the whole it is a very good truth drug.
Maclean’s: Do you think that television could be an instrument for either forming or destroying a national identity?
Ustinov: I would have thought that, on the whole, television makes you more sure that your identity is not that of the people perpetrating whatever it is. I never feel more European than when I watch American television. But I wouldn’t have thought that American television could corrupt a Canadian way of life, it’s too infantile. Maclean’s: Someone has said that all sets should be made differently in Canada and the means of transmission altered so that we couldn’t pick up American television. Ustinov: Well, that is very often a lack of faith in other people which is to my mind one of the big problems of today. It is a manifestation of lack of faith in people. So was Franco’s Spain. They can’t be trusted not to do the wrong thing unless we tell them what to do.
Maclean’s: We talk about the danger of American economic influence in Canada. Is American economic domination feared in Europe?
Ustinov: No, but I think that America has accelerated the socialization of Europe by the very powerful and uncontrolled activities of her larger companies. As a result of that European companies very often hide behind the skirts of government. Maclean’s: What was your favorite film role?
Ustinov: I think it’s the next one probably.
I hope that I’m still young enough and optimistic enough to take that attitude. I’m not very sentimental about the things that I’ve done, fp