A genius who spent life dabbling

 

Peter Ustinov, actor, director, producer, playwright, raconteur and a host of other things, was one of the most extraordinary theatrical figures of the 20th century.

He was a multilingual genius who needed no prompting on television or on the platform. He would plunge effortlessly into a stream of often hilarious anecdotes, in half a dozen different languages, suitably embellished with bizarre mimicry, both physical and verbal.

He was plainly the most versatile and continuously brilliant figure in the field of the arts and entertainment of his generation. His talents spread across a remarkable spectrum. He seemed to bring sparkle and magic to anything and everything he touched.

Ustinov remained "youthful" even as an old man, drawing crowds wherever he went and astonishing his audiences with a dazzling wit, impeccable mimicry, an amazing memory and a compelling presence.

He was born Peter Alexander Ustinov in London on April 16th, 1921. His father was half Russian and half German and his mother was half Russian, a quarter Italian and a quarter French. Hardly surprisingly, he once said: "It's very difficult for me to feel British." And on another occasion he observed: "I rather think of myself as ethnically filthy - and proud of it."

He went to Westminster School where, aged 14, he earned his first fee for a satirical piece about Joachim Von Ribbentrop's son, a fellow pupil. An early school report on Ustinov said: "He shows great originality, which must be curbed at all costs."

He left school at 16 without qualification or distinction. At the London Theatre Studio he rapidly made a name for himself as an actor and writer in revue. He wrote his first play at the age of 18 and directed his first film at the age of 24.

Ustinov was called up into the army and served for a time as David Niven's batman (manservant). He found himself working on an official film, A School For Secrets, at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern.

To the fury of his fellow privates, he was assigned a car and driver, a suite of rooms and a pass which said: "This man may go anywhere and do anything at his discretion."

During the war, he told an officers' selection board that he had a preference for tanks "because you can go into battle sitting down". The board issued a warning: "On no account must this man be put in charge of others."

He married his first wife when he was 19, a young lady who, it was claimed, was totally ignorant of the facts of life, although they were to have one child.

His second wife, Suzanne, was a beautiful but deeply troubled French Canadian actress. That marriage was dissolved in 1971, with Ustinov winning custody of their three children.

Of his third wife, Helene, he said: "She has made me into something approaching the man I once hoped to be, privately and secretly."

Ustinov wrote numerous plays, most successful of which was The Love of Four Colonels in which he starred with Moira Lister. But his style, which tended towards the whimsical, allegorical and long-winded, drifted out of fashion by the late 1950s.

From the 1960s, he concentrated on a series of mostly forgettable film roles, although he did win Oscars for the Best Supporting Actor in Spartacus and Topkapi.

Ustinov wrote and directed the acclaimed film of Billy Budd, which introduced Terence Stamp to the movies. In addition he was writing novels, making one-man stage appearances and producing newspaper columns. The critic James Agate once said of him: "Ustinov is whipped by something which must be genius since it cannot be talent, for the first characteristic of talent is the taking of trouble, and I suspect that Ustinov never takes any."

His ability to remember anecdotes and recall incidents amazed his friends. He never committed anything to paper, but he once explained: "I work on training the memory by a very complicated numerical and letter system of my own, which is a secret.

"I do that in case I am ever put in prison by mistake, which seems more and more likely these days. I'd have to have something to occupy the mind because I presume that in the kind of prison I'd be put into, there would be no paper allowed and no sharp objects."

Some people have said that Ustinov spread himself too thinly. He was invariably dashing around the world from his home in Switzerland, promoting books, making TV series, recording voice-overs, writing newspaper articles or speaking at seminars and literary lunches.

In his later years, he performed a one-man show, regaling audiences around the world - including Dublin's Gaiety Theatre where he played to packed houses not many years ago - with anecdotes about his life and times. His jokes were rarely at the expense of others and were told without malice.

He was always more feted in Germany (where they continually reprinted all his literary endeavours), Switzerland (whose National Library keeps his entire oeuvre on microfilm) and France (where he was elected to Orson Welles's chair at the Académie des Beaux Arts) than he was in his native Britain.

He once complained that when, in 1994, he won the coveted Culture Prize in Germany, "it was reported nowhere in Britain". Once he said: "Obviously the British are the toughest nail because I started here. Here, it is as a comedian that I am best known. I am not known as that anywhere else."

But in addition to being a celebrity, he shuttled about on behalf of UNICEF, the world children's agency, and was president of an obscure lobby group called the World Federalists.

Last year, he was honoured with a graduate college named after him at Durham University, where he was chancellor.

Ustinov seemed to master everything he attempted. His one-foot-long entry in Who's Who - which he wrote himself - describes in a matter-of-fact way all the output of his extraordinary career.

He could be engagingly self-deprecatory. On his 70th birthday, he told his four children that he had reached the time of life when he would soon have to decide what he wanted to do with it. "My son was rather charming. He said 'Don't hurry'," he added.