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Monday, March 29, 2004
Peter Ustinov RIP

It is with great sadness that I heard today of the death of one of my heroes and influences. As a raconteur, Peter was without peer; his knowledge and understanding of national differences and his ability to make use of that knowledge in wry writing was amazing. It's only right to give you a couple of examples of his work, one well-known, the other not so popular but none the less brilliant.

Most of his obits (here's a good one, and this one's even better) will tell of how a school report once contained the verified statement about him: 'He shows great signs of originality. This must be curbed at all costs.'

The lesser known snippet comes from one of his plays The Love of Four Colonels, first performed in May 1951. I cannot remember the substance of the play but I can remember something of the original cast: Moira Lister as The Beauty, Colin Gordon (Doctor in the House) as the English Colonel and Peter Ustinov himself as the Bad Fairy. The opening stage directions and first line speak for themselves. Two of the colonels are already on stage (although there are four there in the American production)
As the curtain rises, Colonel Breitenspiegel is lying back dangerously in his chair, his feet on the table, smoking a cigar... Colonel Desmond de S. Rinder-Sparrow is sitting forward on the very edge of his chair, puffing at his pipe, his eyes glazed in the manner of an Empire-builder hypnotised by his greatest enemy, the horizon. There follows the longest pause in theatrical history, towards the end of which the audience should be convinced that the actors have been the victims of some administrative disaster. The pause is terminated after the adequate time for embarrassment has elapsed.
Desmond: We seem to have run out of conversation...
Another long pause...
I don't think I have ever laughed so much in my life.

So farewell, Peter. Thank you for your humour but much more for your ability to poke fun at the British (Empire) without the Brits being quite aware of what you were doing. That took a very special talent.

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