Ustinov, a man whose wit transcended all borders

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Of the many tributes generated by the death of Peter Ustinov you can't help feeling that the one that would probably have given him the greatest pleasure would have been that which graced a press release from an African pressure group: "Ustinov Death A Great Blow To Ethiopians".

Of the many tributes generated by the death of Peter Ustinov you can't help feeling that the one that would probably have given him the greatest pleasure would have been that which graced a press release from an African pressure group: "Ustinov Death A Great Blow To Ethiopians".

I suspect he would have enjoyed its slightly startling specificity and got the darker joke too, that the notoriously beleaguered country might just have bigger things to worry about than the death of a European octogenarian. But there may have been a certain amount of legitimate pride as well, at the motley nature of his own pedigree (he once proudly declared that he was "ethnically filthy", a reference to his Russian, French, German and Ethiopian roots) and at the fact that his reputation transcended the established cultural borders. By and large Ethiopians are not expected to have heard of most British actors, let alone be rocked by their departure.

The fact that they had in his case probably owes more to his humanitarian work for Unicef than it does to Hollywood movies and appearances on Parkinson.

But it's also a kind of tribute to his persistent identity with the underdog. If anyone could be said to be a member of the establishment surely he could; he had been knighted, won two Oscars, was a chancellor of Durham University and had many other international honours and awards.

His biographer, John Miller, said he "had enough careers for about six other men''. Such was the breadth of his work that tributes were paid yesterday by leaders from the worlds of show business, academia and the United Nations. Among these were Michael Parkinson, who described Ustinov as "one of the greatest all-rounders of our time". Sir Roger Moore, fellow actor and Unicef ambassador, said: "Peter was a man of extraordinary talents, but the greatest talent of all was his ability to help those less fortunate, particularly children."

But it is his wit for which he will be best remembered. And in this there had always been a streak of insurgency. It started early. Interviewed by an Army recruiting officer, he was asked which branch of the services he would like to join. "Tanks," he replied, and when asked why explained that he preferred "to go into battle sitting down". A later Army report on him concluded that "on no account is this man to be put in charge of others".

When Ustinov was 16 he joined Michel Saint Dennis and George Devine's London Theatre Studio, an acting school which prided itself on the continental modernity of its methods. One of the features of the course was that students had to choose an animal for a term, adopting their posture, gait and characteristics. Cannily, Ustinov chose a salamander, which allowed him to curl up in a corner, watching contentedly while his fellow pupils risked osteopathic disaster trying to capture the essence of orang-utans or lemurs.

Precocious confidence was a feature of Ustinov's early career. He started work on his first play House of Regrets, when he was just 19, and after the unproduced script had been praised by the influential critic James Agate it had its first performance in 1942. It was a success, and it seemed likely that Ustinov's talent - already noticeable for its extraordinary facility and range - would be expressed largely in the theatre. His second full-length play, Blow Your Own Trumpet, met with more mixed reactions, including a charitably damning review from his first champion, Agate. "Mr Ustinov", he wrote, "possesses every quality of the first-class playwright except one. He cannot think of a story. Power of characterisation, life-like dialogue, wit, dramatic sense ... fun, with a nice glozening of philosophy, all these, yes. Alas they are not enough."

They were for a lot of people - his play The Love of Four Colonels ran for two years in London and even longer in Paris and Berlin - but Ustinov's later theatrical career didn't continue the same upward curve. His biographer John Miller suggests that this was one of the few disappointments of an unusually fulfilled (and well-filled) life - but there were hints that Ustinov knew he was swimming against the tide a little.

But Agate's criticism is, when you think about it, a perfect description of the qualities of a raconteur, someone whose talent is ideally suited to discursive and reactive forms. There was something about Ustinov's wit that responded not to the long-haul of editing and redrafting, but to the instantaneous and off-the-cuff. Even as a writer he was famous for his ability to redraft a scene in minutes amid rehearsals.

Although there could be something orotund and Polonian about his style, something occasionally a little cloying, his amiability often concealed the sharpness of his wit. His time on Stanley Kubrick's epic Spartacus was made considerably trickier by his comment on Kirk Douglas - "You have to be careful not to act too well" - which got back to the notoriously sensitive actor/producer.

He continued to work so hard not because he was addicted to applause, he told John Miller, but because he simply enjoyed the process. "I may have to retire involuntarily," he said. "Why should I do it voluntarily?" Now he has had to, and it seems unlikely that his only epitaph will be the one he chose in numerous interviews: "Keep Off The Grass".