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The old man and the scenery

Peter Ustinov is 77 - but he is still learning, and is happy to sleep in a tent. By James Rampton
You might call it the "Palinisation" of the schedules. Ever since Michael Palin's ratings went off the radar for Around the World in Eighty Days on BBC1, commissioning editors, never people to leave a dead horse unflogged, have been sending any old Z-list celeb off round the world with just a rucksack, a packet of a Immodium and a camera crew for company. It is as if the producers believe that rest of the world is too remote and frightening for us to be taken there without the reassuring presence of a character from EastEnders or Absolutely Fabulous. Next week, in the latest of these escapades, Jeremy from Airport will visit St Petersburg for BBC1's Holiday programme.

Which is why Planet Ustinov (C4) was so refreshing. The subject - Peter Ustinov - is famous enough in his own right; but the film was the antidote to the "have celeb, will travel" school of programme-making. Flying in the face of the seemingly widespread belief that travel programmes must be glamour-led, C4's new four-part series replaced glitz and gloss with girth and gravitas.

There was no attempt to prettify Sir Peter Ustinov. Indeed, the producer/director, Michael Waldman, went out of his way to underline the hurdles they had to overcome because of Ustinov's age and infirmity. At one point, he and a pig are lifted with great ceremony into a boat in the Kiribati Islands. "Apart from a few restrained squeaks," he sighs, "the pig was making less fuss than I was."

Ustinov has his critics. One newspaper this week called him "a bore", and it is fair to say that one of his defining characteristics is that he won't use one word where ten will do. Within the first minute of the first episode of Planet Ustinov, he unwraps the sentence: "It must be my irrevocable mongrelcy which makes me feel at home in delirious, exhilarating Switzerland."

But as he went on to examine the theme of identity thrown up by Following the Equator, the Mark Twain travel-book he was shadowing, Ustinov's colourful language became a boon. At one point, a Fijian man complained that he was discriminated against because he was of mixed race. Ustinov added: "I suspect that flies were ethnically clean because they've never had the imagination or possibility to sleep with anything but another fly."

With help from Waldman's deft direction, Ustinov also skilfully wove the pictures in with his words. " `Fiji,' said Twain, `was a perfect home for the bruised spirit of men who have fought and failed in the struggle for life.' " (Cut to Ustinov in a sedan chair being precariously carried up a steep hill by six burly Fijians.) "At that moment, it wasn't my spirit I was worried about bruising." I don't expect Jeremy from Airport to come up with a similar sequence.

If television is "dumbing down", then no one has told Sir Peter. He remains substantial proof that it isn't. This new series reminds us, however, that he remains something of a prophet without honour in his own land. Elements within the British press carp about him being "a jack of all trades" or "spreading himself too thin". He is almost a victim of being too accomplished at too many things.

"We seem to have a disdain for polymaths," thinks Waldman. "It's not just Ustinov - Jonathan Miller complains about it, too. There's this British embarrassment at being thought of as a smarty-pants, and a desire not to take things too seriously. Look at Isaiah Berlin, a great intellectual who was criticised because people didn't know whether he was a philosopher or a diplomat. There is a reluctance to acknowledge that some people are rather good at a lot of things." Ustinov nods at this. "There is a certain cattiness or waspishness about some opinions and the way they're expressed. It's always been like that." He ascribes this to a certain mean-spiritedness in British people. "I was once stopped by a prostitute in Cologne who wanted to talk to me about Unicef. I wondered what the reaction of a British policeman would have been. [Breaks into best copper-speak]. `What were you talking to this woman about?' `We were talking about Unicef.' I would never have been believed."

Not that any of this gets Ustinov down for long. Holding court in a very posh suite at the Berkeley Hotel in central London, he sparkled like a glass of vintage Krug, giving off countless bubbles of wisdom. The wide range of his experiences - he warrants seven inches in Who's Who - have endowed him with a tolerant outlook. "What you believe is nothing to do with anyone else unless you behave badly. Why torture a witch unless you can prove she is a murderer? I'm very chary of party politics and conventional religion. I believe in the precepts of religion and morality. All the same, I love the theatre, but I don't have to prove it by sleeping with an agent."

It was not hard to see why Ustinov is consistently voted the person most people would like to be seated next to at a dinner party. Anecdotes and aphorisms come thick and fast. He was, for instance, despairing of the zeal with which Kenneth Starr had pursued President Clinton. "As always the Americans are ahead of everyone else. They've finally shown us how to destroy democracy by democratic means." He was equally dismissive of the bellicose British attitude towards Iraq. "British people never leave school. They regard Saddam Hussein as a boy who has not yet been punished."

The paradox seems to be that as his body is slowing down, Ustinov's mind is speeding up. He is beginning to believe in the immortality of the soul: "I see it as Hertz Rent-a-Body. You're born with it, but you go to the counter and say: `Excuse me, you wouldn't have anything with a slightly more powerful engine or a sliding roof?' `No, they're all out. Take this or nothing.' So you're stuck with this. You only hope you have the dignity to bring the car back to the counter and not be stuck somewhere in no man's land with a great red triangle behind you."

Perhaps the key to the extent of Ustinov's general knowledge is the fact that he is quick to admit that he doesn't know it all. "I like being chancellor of various universities," he said, "because the contact with students is frightfully interesting. They have a terrible gesture in Chinese theatre in which the actor strokes a long imaginary beard. This suggests `if my beard is as long as this, I'm worth listening to'. That's ridiculous. I'm very respectful of two-, four- and eight-year-olds."

If Ustinov has sometimes seemed too learned, this might simply be because the British arelikely to be distrustful of anyone who is fluent in five languages. And some of his anecdotes do feel - how could they not? - as if they've been polished on chat-show sofas around the world over the past half-century.

He remains, however, an unusual figure, constantly open to new ideas and keen to impart them to us. How many other 77-year-olds do you know who would volunteer to spend the night in a remote, mosquito-ridden beach- hut with no electricity or running water - just for the experience? "You never stop learning," he said. He paused. "Maybe at the moment of death," he added, "or afterwards." He thought again. "According to your beliefs." Was there more to say? No. He rested his case.