Television Review

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The Independent Culture
PLANET USTINOV (C4) was such a peculiar concept that one wonders how it ever got off the ground. Peter Ustinov is more famous for his overstretched vocabulary and luvvyish monologues than for his travelling. The link, if there was any at all, between himself and Mark Twain, the route of whose book, Following the Equator, he will retrace over the next few weeks, was impossible to establish. And the old boy's not so steady on his pins these days. And yet Channel 4 took a punt on it and, despite everything, I think it might be a success.

I had my reservations. I mean, a bore quoting passages from a lesser bore in an egregious (sorry, the Ustinov vocabulary is catching) drama-school American accent hardly seems the most promising of televisual premises. But Ustinov had an Ethiopian grandmother, as he told us several times, which, apparently, qualifies him to understand foreigners.

Surprisingly, though, I found myself enjoying the trip. In this first episode, Ustinov took us to Fiji and Kiribati, fortunately in the company of a truly excellent camera crew who spared no effort in their pursuit of the perfect sunset. There, we met a professional Scotsman, whose bogus feats numbered having taught local children to reel, though why they were doing sword-dance arm movements is anybody's guess. There was also a Fijian prime minister whose coup against the Indian population had practically destroyed the economy, and a charming old codger who thought that the hospitals in the UK might be better now he's 80. Ustinov, meanwhile, talked polysyllabically to taxi drivers, imitated accents and grumbled loudly about the lack of facilities. Fab. Can't wait 'til he starts imitating South American gangsters.

Talking of bores, this was the overwhelming impression one came away with about the powers that be in the British naturist movement after watching Witness: Acting Natural (C4). In fact, Norman Tillet, a naturist of 70 years' standing who cheerfully posed with his legs splayed, dismissed most of his fellow naturists as "a very boring lot of people, on the whole".

Those whose weekend pursuits involve getting their kit off are fiercely divided, it seems, across the naturist-nudist schism. The Acacia Avenue naturists like to see themselves as frightfully respectable, calling their organisations things like "The Bournemouth District Outdoor Club" and citing ancient Greece and the health movements which preceded Nazism in 1920s Germany. Their clubs have huge rule books, and vetting procedures which would put the Garrick to shame ("even the dullest people like to have their little secrets," said Tillet).

Nudists are those guys you see frolicking on the Studland Peninsula. Each set reviles the other - the naturists saying things like "We don't have perverts here" and the nudists sneering at Ustinov-style terms like "gymnosophy". I have to say, I'm with the nudists on this one. They may have been equally hypocritical with the naturists, spouting on about individualism when all they're really after is the wind on their bits, but at least they looked like they were having fun.

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