A Short Encounter with Peter Ustinov

The following is taken from a lunch I had with Peter Ustinov in my dining room at Beak Street in the year 2000.

Your recently published novel, Monsieur René, takes as its theme the unpredictable flowering of love in later years. Is that something close to your own heart and personal experience? 

No, thank goodness. I got settled some time ago with my third wife. I am sure – although one can never be absolutely sure – that she would have been my only wife had I met her first. In a way I had my late life crisis fairly early on, and I am now very happy, and we have been married for 27 years. But what happens to Monsieur René in my novel is a real possibility. As the world president of the international brotherhood of concierges, he is a man who has lived a very cloistered life up to then. He is now over 70, a good Calvinist from Geneva, who knows the extent of human life in the Bible is three score and ten years, and the fact that he’s used that up provokes a crisis in him. He suddenly wonders whether his career has been quite as honourable as he has believed, and he begins to revolt against the idea that his whole life has been one of servility.

It is still tempting to believe it is somehow based slightly on your own character… 

Absolutely not. It’s much easier to invent than to copy from nature, and you don’t feel guilty when you invent. If you take things from nature you always feel slightly shy that you’ve done something subversive and infringed on privacy. M. René is as far from me as you can get – there is something virginal about the old boy.

Writing in your autobiography of 20 years ago about your relationship with your third wife, you say: ‘This extended springtime has surprised us both.’ Does it continue to surprise you? 

Yes, that’s what keeps it fresh. I must say it’s like the first day we met all the time. We are tremendously independent and therefore inseparable.

You also write of Hélène at that time: ‘She has made me into something approaching the man I once hoped to be, privately and secretly.’ Who is the man you once wanted to be? 

I think we all aspire towards a kind of perfection in the secret hope we never reach it, because perfection is a kind of death; it has no personality at all and is not something really worth achieving. On the other hand, we want to be able to think we have used what we have been given to the full, but even that one can never be sure of.

You have written a great deal about your father, yet you confess to having never really known him, and you do not blame either him or yourself for this failure. ‘The need and the awkwardness lie somewhere deep in human nature,’ you tell us. Do you still see it that way? 

Yes, I do. In the past, your attitude to your father responded to a duty rather than to an instinctive thing. It is also part of human nature that this is never an easy relationship, and that is why duty provides the uncertainty with some kind of form. My father, since he was the first born of a man of 57, never really had a father himself – it was more like having a grandfather. 

You speak quite disparagingly of your father, describing him as a man of exceptional but superficial intelligence with a talent for the risqué which embarrassed and depressed you. Would you say you have inherited any qualities from your father? 

Oh, undoubtedly. My father glorified superficiality; he regarded it as a virtue. He didn’t much care for literature or for the more serious application of words, and when I wrote serious plays, he always said it would have been better to stick to comedy or farce. He was very attached to the opposite sex and he didn’t really know how to communicate with children – not that I blame him for that because I myself find it extremely difficult. But at least I know what I think I ought to do. He never bothered to ask himself; he just treated me as an adult on all occasions and would say of a passing woman, ‘She’s got most attractive breasts, don’t you agree?’

Your father died hours before his 70th birthday, which he had always intended not to survive … do you believe in some sense that he willed his own death? 

You could say that he almost willed it, but I think his death was Roman. He saw no point in continuing, and without doing anything to aid his death he just disappeared 4 or 5 hours before his 70th birthday. It made me extremely nervous when I was 69 and approaching my next birthday…

For years your parents lived apart, yet they were never really separated in the accepted sense of the word, and when your father died your mother seemed to lose all zest for living … why was that, do you think? 

I can’t imagine, but I was determined not to do the same thing because I thought it was terrifying. She was irritated by him but when he was no longer there, she suddenly became mournful and introspective and just sat in front of the television or played scrabble and never did anything remotely constructive after that. She could scarcely be persuaded to go out of the house.

You speak warmly of your mother who bore patiently with a difficult husband and who devoted her energies to ‘keeping a fragile peace in the household’. Despite the lightness of tone in your autobiography, your childhood seems to have been deeply unhappy. Or is that overstating it? 

I think it’s overstating it, but of course being an only child meant that there was a kind of triangle, and my father, I am told, was jealous of me because of the time my mother spent with me. She was extraordinary, the very opposite of the possessive woman, never interfering with my private life. She was basically a much tougher character than my father, and when he lost his job she kept our nostrils above the waterline by painting, selling canvases, doing ballet designs, and so on. It was assumed that my father went automatically from his work in the German Embassy to working for MI5, but the opposite was true, as we know from the annals of MI5 which are now open after 50 years. In fact he spent a miserable time out of work, because the British didn’t realise his possible use to them.

What were your feelings about your upbringing … were you aware that it was rather strange? 

When I was very young I thought everybody’s parents were like that; only later when there were things like school sports and various other social activities did I began to understand that other parents were very different, and that mine were pretty peculiar and bohemian. It was fine when all was going well, but when things were going badly it was very tense because there were not brothers or sisters to share anything with. only children develop quickly but also more superficially than other children, usually because they are allowed to stay up late occasionally, since nobody knows what to do with them, my parents were always looking for children the same age to play with me, which I hated. In Germany, in 1933 or 4, when I was 12, they found a boy who was obviously a budding Nazi and another one who was Jewish. They were great friends but they decided that the end of their friendship had to come and in a glade in Grunewald in Berlin they cut their veins with a rusty knife in order to undergo some solemn Wagnerian tryst. I broke all the records for the mile in getting away from that and was physically sick. I still remember asking my mother: ‘Why do you have to look for playmates for me all the time? I don’t look for people of 42 to play with you. Why do it to a child of 12?’

When you married at 19 a girl of the same age, you say you knew nothing of what was required of you in a physical sense in spite of being able to tell a blue joke with the rest of them. Was this actually lack of knowledge, or was it lack of experience? 

I had no knowledge. I assumed that children were born like Russian dolls, fully dressed one inside another.

You say that whatever the disadvantages of the so-called permissive age, nothing can be worse than the ‘mark of ignorance’ … can you expand on that? 

Ignorance is a terrible thing. It’s better to know, and to know everything, because I think that everything is natural if it’s proportionate. What I mean by that is that the elements of schizophrenia are in everybody, otherwise you couldn’t have any doubts. I don’t know how else to have a doubt except to consult with myself – that’s really what happens, and people who don’t have a doubt are clearly crazy. So I think all the elements – affection, even cruelty – all are perfectly acceptable in nature, so long as they are condiments at a meal. If someone sits down and wants to make a whole meal out of salt and pepper I suspect they’re crazy.

You describe what you call the puritanical frigidity which developed in your relationship with your wife Isolde. Where do you think that came from? 

It was accelerated by the fact that I was in the army, and she was an actress always disappearing to the provinces to be in plays, and so we saw very little of each other. We had a flat in a large block where I stayed when I came home on leave and one day I was taken aside by the manager who explained that the flat was rented on the assumption that there would be only one person living there, but added that it would be all right so long as nobody knew that I was her husband. The irony was marvellous.

You hated your time in the army but feel that you learned a lot, if only what situations and people to avoid for the rest of your life. Other people’s experience of the army has been very different. Would you say that you were just unlucky or ill-adapted, or what? 

During the war I felt that if there was an ounce of courage in me it wasn’t of the British variety. I admire the British variety, but I just didn’t have it. The other members of my infantry unity all had pictures of scantily clad women stuck above their palliasses on the floor, but I had a photograph of Field Marshall Timoshenko, I suppose because I felt very badly about Russia being invaded. I knew where I came from originally and this made me full of trepidation for the next development, though Timoshenko didn’t last very long and the photo came down.

You say you could never be a conscientious objector on the grounds that you would find it impossible to claim for yourself a delicacy of spirit when there was chaos all around. In another chapter of your autobiography, however, you say, ‘My only allegiance is to my own conscience, and who is to tell me that it is not higher than any flag?’ is there not an inconsistency here, or have I misunderstood you? 

I don’t think there is any inconsistency at all. I admire many conscientious objectors but I think they are attracting attention to their own at a time when there is such moral confusion and chaos. It’s really like trying to opt out of a thunderstorm or an earthquake; you’re involved in to automatically once it envelops you. I would take great precaution never to kill anybody, and I never have. If I were a member of a firing squad I would simply aim elsewhere because I don’t want that on my conscience, and I blame people for trying to put it on my conscience by something as frivolous as military obedience. I’ve seen that lead to all sorts of unfortunate things because one can’t, if one is intelligent, be subservient to a foolish order.

On more than one occasion you have expressed the puzzling view that ‘where there is an intrusion of privacy there can be no democracy’, and you cite America as an example of a country that has destroyed democracy through democratic means. Can you explain more of what you mean by this? 

In the Clinton affair, for example, the whole thing was carried to the highest point of absurdity in the Senate. The weakness is that the Senate is composed entirely out of lawyers, and lawyers by definition have duties towards their clients. The clients in this case were the Democratic and Republican parties and they were true to their parties until well after the whole thing was lost already. Everything was designed to give the impression of democracy, but I don’t think it was democracy at all. What is known there as the due process of law is a painstaking snail-like operation, and yet suddenly the whole business is spilled on to the Internet. The anomalies of the whole procedure were so huge that in the end one couldn’t take it seriously any more. All one knew was that an enormous amount of money was being spent for no particular reason.

You were quoted recently as saying that you do not know whether you believe in God. Doesn’t that mean that you don’t believe, on the grounds that if you did believe you would probably know that you did? 

That’s a very Jesuitical question and begging for a Jesuitical answer. I don’t think you’ll get it. No, I’m perfectly open minded about it all. I believe that there must be some force that is bigger than any of us, but I actually tend towards pantheism. I don’t see the difference between all the gods, and that is what makes me suspicious. Also, I never feel fully at ease in the presence of clergymen. Somebody asked me about this, and I said, ‘Well, I love the theatre but I don’t have to sleep with an agent to prove it.’ I think our access to God is a perfectly private and secret one. As an abstraction I believe in all the precepts of the church but I don’t really care much about the folklore. The Old Testament seems to me very much like Israeli politics today – fascinating to read but not really leading anywhere.

You say you believe in all the virtues preached by the Christian church, but is it possible to believe in inherent virtues at the end of the 20th century? Haven’t we seen these virtues disappear whenever society feels itself threatened? Can any of us be sure that we wouldn’t have followed orders in Germany, Russia, South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia – wherever? 

It’s exactly those situations which bring the inherent virtues out. They are not immediately apparent, but things suddenly happen which make you more confident in human nature.

One interviewer detected in you, behind all the joke, a profound political pessimism which your work as travelling ambassador of UNICEF and UNESCO has done nothing to relieve … is this true? 

I believe profoundly that an optimist is someone who knows exactly how sad and how challenging a place the world can be, and a pessimist is a man who finds it out anew every morning. In other words one has to look facts in the face; there’s no use running around them, because otherwise you’ll never solve anything.

You complain that in Britain your serious creative work is ignored and only your ability to make people laugh is appreciated … why does this rankle so much? 

It doesn’t rankle so long as my work succeeds elsewhere. And in point of fact what you say reflects only the English point of view. In other parts of the world they think slightly differently.

The Independent has voiced a typically British criticism: that you are too talented for your own good, which as a remark has the same crushing impact as ‘too clever by half’. Do you see that as mainly a public-school sort of attitude, or does anti-intellectualism pervade British society generally? 

I would say that’s true. The sense of humour which the British, like colonialists, have planted a flag in and claim to be exclusively theirs simple isn’t. The German attitude, for example, is more intellectual than the British and if the German people don’t laugh immediately, you can sense that they are saying to themselves, oh, this isn’t funny yet, maybe we made a mistake and this is a very serious occasion, and then when they do laugh they are delighted and they say, it’s a mixture of both, intellectually challenging for being not just one thing. You never have the feeling as you do with the British audience that you are being pushed the whole time into laughter. The German tradition is really more prone to listen, and therefore in a sense more civilized and less raucous.

It has been said that the most vicious portraits in your gallery of impersonations are reserved for the English upper class. Does this stem, along with your inability to vote Conservative, from your schooldays at Westminster? 

Yes. I find it very difficult to stomach people who behave as though they were born to rule, and that’s what I frankly feel about the whole front bench of the Conservative party.

In a column entitled ‘What I Believe’ you say: ‘I can’t imagine that immortality is possible; I don’t think we appear in other forms, but it also seems a lot of fuss about nothing if we are not immortal.’ Is this still your view, or is your mind now made up one way or the other? 

No, my mind cant be made up one way or the other because I don’t know any more than you do, but on the other hand I do notice a tendency in myself to believe in immortality of the soul, not because I am frightened of the future but simply because I notice that the soul and body start drifting apart at a certain age. As you get older you’re stuck with your body and you think, if only I could rent something with a slightly more powerful engine or a sliding roof, as one can with a car. But no, you’re stuck with the old one, and you begin to get creaks in the coachwork, the doors don’t open as well as they used to, there’s all sorts of creaking in the engine, and you drive more slowly in order not to run any risk, and you only hope you have the dignity to bring the car back to the counter and not leave it out in the countryside with a red triangle behind it for somebody else to take pity on.

Are you afraid of death? 

No. I’m fascinated by it. Although I don’t particularly believe in anything, I’m ready to be surprised at any moment. I can’t say I’m absolutely convinced that there is anything after death, nor do I understand the power of prayer or indeed anything which people believe can be imposed from the outside. But it is important to have your own god in you.

Your recent novel explores the need for friendship and highlights its importance. Have friends been central to your life, would you say? 

Yes, indeed, but the tragedy is that your capacity for friendship is in a way limited and the friends you have in life are not perhaps the ones you would necessarily have chosen. People call up and say that so-and-so is having a terrible time, and you rally round like everybody else, but there’s no guarantee that it’s real friendship. It’s just they were first in the queue, and I think that one acquires one’s friends very often from force of circumstance. 

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