A talent to amuse The man with 1,000 faces Meet the one-man chat- show Will the real Peter Ustinov please speak up?

Wit, raconteur, writer, two times Oscar winner and all-round Renaissanc e Man, is Sir Peter Ustinov just too talented for his own good? By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Now I know how a casting-director feels. I sit stunned on an armchair in a posh suite of the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge - all wood-panelled walls and oil paintings of beautifully attired 18th-century aristocrats - while the sofa opposite plays host to a parade of outlandish characters. A German "tart with a heart", a terminally embarrassed British diplomat introducing himself with an apologetic laugh, an all-American good ol' boy, a confused Cockney switchboard operator, and a learned German night- porter are just some of the figures who pass before my dazed eyes in the space of one short hour.Yes, I'm being treated to a private Command Performance of Sir Peter Ustinov's one-man show, a more public version of which can be seen on television this Sunday and Tuesday. In a trice, he crinkles up his marvellously expressive face, sweeps back his white mane of hair and inhabits, say, the persona of an austere Scottish prelate: "I still think that the Church has been far too indulgent in the case of Galileo," he thunders. I'm not so much an interviewer as an audience.

It's no wonder that this man is a hero in the production-offices of chat- shows the world over. You don't need a host; you just plonk Ustinov on a comfy setee, point him at a camera and off he goes, a one-man encyclopaedia of anecdotes. He's one of the few people to have reduced Richard and Judy on Granada's This Morning programme to the role of gawping bystanders. He might as well have been knighted for his services to the chat-show industry. Sure, Ustinov has myriad other talents - he has won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars (for Spartacus and Topkapi), he has written 23 plays, nine screenplays and 13 books (the latest of which, the aptly-titled Quotable Ustinov, was published this autumn), he is Ambassador-at-Large for Unicef, has a theatre named after him in Bath, and must have enough honorary doctorates to rival Nelson Mandela - but his real gift is of the gab. He is a regal raconteur. Like an educated, upmarket version of Alan Partridge, he is born to chat.

Immaculately turned out in a cream suit, yellow shirt and patterned tie, he admits to being a showman to the core. "Everything has to be sold now," he asserts. "I've just come from a congress in Athens. All the speeches were by Greek politicians and had high principles, but I found them really deadly because they didn't do anything to sell their arguments. It was as though their rank gave them sufficient advantages which would compel people to listen. That's just not true. The one cardinal rule I've learnt from acting is not to allow your audience to fall asleep."

Like all performers, he is addicted to the adrenaline rush he gets from the stage. Even at the age of 74, his one-man show still gives him a buzz. "For me it's a more cerebral and certainly more lucrative form of jogging," he avers. "You feel better afterwards because of the adrenaline. I find difficulty walking in certain weathers nowadays because I get arthritis. But on the stage, because my mind is following a certain pattern, I stand for two and a half hours."

Unlike Bob Monkhouse with his ill-fated notebook, Ustinov commits nothing to paper. "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'm ever put into 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." Many of his comments contain this potent, ironic admixture of the serious and the silly. His apercus come dressed in joky clothing. This, for instance, is his way of describing the immortality of the soul. "I'm beginning to think of it in terms of Hertz Rent-A-Body... You eventually hope that you'll be able to bring the car back to the rental counter and not have the ignominy of leaving it in the countryside with a red triangle behind it."

He was born in London, half Russian, half German on his father's side, and half Russian, a quarter Italian and a quarter French on his mother's. "It's very difficult for me to feel British," he says. He went to Westminster School, where, aged 14, he earned his first fee for a satirical piece about Von Ribbentrop's son, a fellow pupil, for the Evening Standard. He has been working ever since, with only the odd break to add to his collections of vintage cars - he has a 1927 white Mercedes and a bullet- proof Mercedes - more than 6,000 classical music records, and prints and drawings by Daumier, Tiepolo and Toulouse-Lautrec. There is no prospect of him calling it a day yet. "I don't know how to retire," he muses. "I can't work in the garden because it's bad for my back. Look at the difficulty the Pope has - he has to have the earth brought to his lips."

For all Ustinov's achievements and moving and shaking - how many other performers could casually drop into the conversation the line that "in Athens the other day Gorbachev gave me a mock White Russian salute"? - the suspicion lingers that he has spread himself too thinly. He is always dashing around the world from his home in Switzerland, promoting books, making TV series, recording voiceovers, writing newspaper articles, or speaking at seminars and literary lunches. On the day of our interview he'd just flown in from Hamburg, and afterwards he was rushing off for a two-day promotional tour taking in Liverpool, Manchester, Henley and Bath.

If only he'd concentrated on one area, critics say, he could have excelled in that, rather than being pretty good in lots of different ways. When, however, Ustinov is asked if he minds being saddled with the dread tag of "Renaissance Man", he is as ready as ever with a sharp riposte - "I didn't think I was as old as that!" - before explaining, "It's a result of people asking me, 'If you could only do one of the things that you do, which would it be?', which does get awfully tiresome. This question is reflected in the desire to categorise everything, because we live in a computer age and everything's got to be tidy. But it's also reflected in the passports in which the space left for your profession has got shorter and shorter and now has gone altogether."

Ustinov is more feted in Germany (where they are re-printing 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 Academie des Beaux Arts) than in his native Britain. You sense he feels like a prophet without honour in own country. When he won the prestigious Cultural Prize in Germany last year, "it was reported nowhere in Britain," he says, sounding rather piqued. "I ran into somebody at the Garrick who asked me, 'Why did they give you that? You're an entertainer, aren't you?' The thing that hurt me was the 'aren't you?' There's always something slightly grudging about the English, which is curious. I get press clippings from Britain which say, 'We asked people who they'd most like to sit next to at dinner and the answer, somewhat surprisingly, was Peter Ustinov'."

We shouldn't carp so much. Being a raconteur is a rare - and dying - art. Ustinov must be up there with lethal weapons and football hooliganism as one of our most successful exports. And although you run the risk of drowning in an avalanche of anecdotes, he remains charming company, the perfect dinner-party companion. Whatever the British press say.

n 'An Evening with Sir Peter Ustinov' will be shown in two parts: on Sunday at 10.15pm and on Tuesday at 9.30pm, both on BBC1

USTINOV ON ...

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

'Gorbachev made the big political mistake of attacking alcohol, which was obviously not popular with his successor'

MICHAEL HOWARD

'To see Mr Howard's glutinous face announcing that boot camps are going to be installed in Britain, so that you get these pin-headed sergeants shrieking orders at young people with the idea that they're going to be frightened out of a life of crime by sheer maltreatment - it's so absurd and so lazy a solution'

CHARLES DICKENS

'Dickens was an entertainer. He was determined that you would listen to his story to the end, and he invented all sorts of exaggerated and comic characters - charladies and people who spoke very odd English - to keep you amused and diverted on your way to the terrible truth that you must never inherit money from an old lady'

THE GREEK GODS

'They're more modern than the monotheistic religions which had morality as the background. The Greek gods were a mixture of religion and soap opera. 'Watch this space for Zeus next thrilling adventure when he turns himself into a fly and settles on an attractive bloom.' Oedipus departed a long time ago, but he's left a very handsome complex to remember him by'

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