Films: `I've never been accused of being English before'

Sir Peter Ustinov, star of `Stiff Upper Lips', on the legacy of Empire over three of seven cols.
Click to follow
SET in 1908 at the height of the British Empire, Stiff Upper Lips is a comic parody of the stereotypical British psyche, perpetuated by movies of the Merchant/Ivory genre. Sir Peter plays Horace, an eccentric tea plantation owner driven insane by the heat and dust of India. It is a role that he initially rejected. Here, Sir Peter, who recently celebrated his 77th birthday, explains what made him change his mind:

I originally turned down the part of Horace because it seemed quite fragmentary. But his character struck a profound chord. I know the Horaces of this world rather well.They're the typically English gents from a bygone age who don't understand anything and shoot before asking questions.

It amused me to satirise a character who embodies all the qualities I deplore. No other nation possesses such arrogance, except perhaps the Japanese. I've always believed that the English and the Japanese have a great deal in common because they're both fiercely proud, and both have practically incomprehensible social structures which nobody outside really understands or cares to.

The assumption that English is best is implied by a hypocritical daintiness of behaviour in films of the Merchant-Ivory genre. They're beautifully filmed, finely acted, and I admit I watch them with genuine enjoyment - and a sense of irony.

Quite frankly, I find the Victorian and Edwardian eras a turn-off. Queen Victoria reigned for so long, and was amused by very little. When Margaret Thatcher said we should revive Victorian values, she was referring to uprightness and correctness, and other boring things.

We should also remember that Victorian values include the cruel, Dickensian treatment of children, the old, the weak and the poor, and typify the hypocritical, self-righteous, pompousness of this country.

As a private soldier during the Second World War I bought a fascinating second-hand book for sixpence from a shop in Salisbury. With the wonderful title, Jottings From An Active Life, it was written by an old colonel who recalled this comment by Cecil Rhodes: `Remember that you are an Englishman and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.'

There you have the national psyche in a nutshell. As someone who inherited the 214th prize in the lottery of life I feel quite satisfied with my lot.

Although I was born in England, in Swiss Cottage, north London, it was by accident. My parents were Russian and I was conceived in Leningrad. Do I consider myself Russian? It depends on where I am. I once described myself as a Russian square, but looking at me now I'm more of a Russian round.

My recent success with the Bolshoi Ballet went unreported in England. However the leading Russian morning newspaper printed the story with this headline, `Englishman saves the Bolshoi'. I've never been accused of being English before. It seems rather painful, especially coming from my original country.

Having been to two English schools - Mr Gibbs' Preparatory School For Boys, and Westminster School - I was brought up on the "stiff upper lip" mentality, so I know what I'm talking about. At Westminster School all the boys had to wear tailcoats with top hats and carry furled umbrellas. I found the uniform, and the way in which we were kept firmly in our place, absolutely ridiculous.

During George V's funeral, for example, we had to line the road and were instructed to look solemn. Then, during George VI's coronation we were all instructed to show unrestrained joy.

Another peculiarity of this country is that it is the only place where elderly gentlemen dress up as small boys in blazers, shorts and caps to celebrate some sporting occasion.

The whole of its legal and military system has been based on this kind of behaviour. When I watch the House of Commons in action, with its members braying and hissing like schoolboys, I'm surprised not to see a few paper darts flying through the air.

This incredible inability to grow up is typically English. There's a great call for the nursery and for nanny, and everything that is profoundly retarded.

or me as an outsider, the English seem to be a rather disreputable, roistering, buccaneering, romantic people in which Shakespeare plays a much larger part than is generally accepted. Julius Caesar, for example, is supposed to be about ancient Rome but is really about British politics. The English are, quite simply, fascinated by themselves.

`Stiff Upper Lips' opens today.

Sir Peter Ustinov was talking

to Sally Morgan