Dear Me Peter Ustinov 1977: Vintage Ustinov

I was very excited when I found this book in the charity shop near where I live. I’ve been an ardent Ustinov fan ever since I first saw him in Viva Max on Saturday Night at the Movies when I was younger. Then came Logan’s Run in 1976 where Ustinov played the world’s oldest man. I became a fan for life and deeply mourned this great man’s passing in 2004.

For the record, Ustinov was not just an actor. He was also a writer. Plays principally; films and books, one book was the autobiography  Dear Me. It was one of those books that I had always wanted to read. There were only a few books about the entertainment world, that for whatever reason, I’d never read. They just refused to be found.

At least two of the books surfaced a few years ago in a second-hand book store in Felixstowe. This wonderful shop, called Treasure Chest Books, searched tirelessly for the book Everybody loves somebody sometimes (especially himself): The story of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis by Arthur Marx (son of Groucho). I had seen the book in the Pasadena California Public Library in 1977 and spent years searching for the book afterwards so I could buy it.

The Treasure Chest Books shop found a copy and held it for me. I have been indebted to them ever since. They also had, no searching required, a copy of Sheridan Morley‘s brilliant Tales from the Hollywood Raj: The British Film Colony On Screen and Off: The British in California. Another book that I had been searching for years, ever since I first read an excerpt from it telling of one ex-patriot English actor calling out to Dame Gladys Cooper (Morley’s grandmother), “Darling! There is an American in your front garden!”

But Ustinov’s 1977 autobiography stayed stubbornly out of my reach. Not necessarily because I could not find it, but, because I had stopped looking quite some time ago. Of course now if you hop onto your laptop or home pc you can type the book’s title in the search engine of your choice and find a regular cornucopia of Dear Me’s out there for purchase. Or any other book title for that matter.

Ustinov had a fascinating life and an equally fascinating family tree. With Dear Me, he uses the device of an internal dialogue with himself at choice points through the book. He questions the validity of his story (or stories) and the feelings that he relays about his life and the events that shaped him.

It is interesting to hear his side of the story when he was writing a WWII propaganda film and had to be assigned as Lt Col David Niven‘s Bat man (personal aide). Peter would be writing away at the script and whenever a “real” officer would approach the room, Niven would yell, “Cave!” Ustinov would then start furiously polishing brass. It was in this way that the 1944 film The Way Ahead was written and to some extent filmed. Ustinov, despite his education and intelligence, never rose above the rank of Private. His co-workers in the British Army were all officers and in the ever class and rank conscious military it caused some problems; a lot of them quite funny.

If you ever had a chance to see him on a television talk show, it was obvious that Peter was a brilliant raconteur; charming, funny and often erudite in his stories. Dear Me recounts some of these stories, but it also recounts the plays he wrote, the people he worked with, and his relationships; relationships with his wives, children and his parents.

Peter wrote 35 plays and novels (including Dear Me). He could speak four languages fluently and was able to communicate in even more. He was an infinitely fascinating  and talented man.

It may be a little difficult to “get into” the book as it is written the same way that Ustinov spoke. But hang in there, once you find the cadence and the pattern, the book will entertain you and surprise you.

Thankfully you will not have to trudge down to your local charity shop or second-hand book seller to get a copy. Just go to Amazon.com and type the title and author in the search bar and you can find copies of the book for a cheap as a penny and as expensive as 36 dollars and some change.

Or failing that, just hop down to your Library, they might just have a copy; but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

So yes, it is a difficult book to start, but one that if you persevere will reward your efforts with new knowledge about a very talented individual and a man whose humour is most certainly self-evident

Peter as Agatha Christie’s Poirot.



Zulu (1964): Epicness of an English Sort

A kind of ‘retro’ retro review today. My daughter and I watched this magnificent film again last night. It is an eternal favorite in this house and has been for a long time.

For those of you who might live under a rock or perhaps on some planet where television signals don’t reach, Zulu is a 1964 historical war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It was produced as a joint venture with Stanley Baker‘s production company Diamond Films.

Cy Enfield directed the film (Cy was blacklisted in Hollywood by the HUAC who decided that he was an ‘sympathiser’ to the ‘red peril’ that the industry was hysterically trying to stamp out in the 1950’s. Enfield left the USA and set up shop in the UK IN 1951). The film’s producers were Stanley Baker, Cy Enfield and Joseph E Levine.

The film was shot on  using the Super Technirama 70 cinematographic process, and distributed by Paramount Pictures in all countries excluding the United States, where it was distributed by Embassy Pictures. The Technirama was obviously good choice as the film still looks magnificent. The colours are rich and full and the film feels panoramic to the extreme.

All the exteriors of Zulu were filmed in South Africa. The interiors were filmed at Twickenham Studios in England. Michael Caine(in his first ‘starring’ role, “Introducing Michael Caine”) writes about the experience in his first Autobiography, What’s it all About?. Caine talks about how abysmally the ‘locals’ were treated and how Stanley Baker was furious about it.

Stanley Baker
Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He also talks about the ‘spies’ the South African Police had mixed with the local film crews. It was a deplorable time in South Africa’s social and political history.

Caine also writes about the weeks of waiting by the film crew and cast because of rain. He also talks of his own personal trials and tribulations on his first big role.

*If you haven’t read Michael Caines Autobiography, I strongly urge you to do so. He talks a great deal about Zulu and other films he has worked on and well as personal aspects of his life. He was a firm favorite of mine before he wrote the book, after reading it, I became a firm devotee of the man’s work.*

Despite the political problems faced by the production crew and (in some cases) the cast. The film was finished and shown to rave reviews and huge box office returns.

There were a few folks who were less than delighted by the portrayal of some of the ‘real’ characters in the film. The screenplay was adapted from an article about Rourke’s Drift written by John Prebble. Cy Enfield talked to the Zulu historians to get a picture of the battle from ‘both sides’ and he and Prebble came up with the finished script.

Historical license was taken with some of the characters in the film to either enhance their story or to make it more poignant. The Wittes and Private Hook in particular were changed to fit the mood of the film and to make the character cinematically more interesting.

Some things were ‘made up’ for the same reason. There was no instance of the two groups ‘singing’ at each other and the Zulu’s did not, in fact, ‘salute the soldiers’ for their bravery. But in true Hollywood style it looks brilliant and moves the film on nicely. In other words, “If it wasn’t like that brother, it should have been.”

The cast list was a compilation of some of Britain’s finest actors:

The action scenes are brilliant considering the Zulu tribesmen had never acted before. Since Stanley Baker viewed the film as a western, the producers brought in a western film for the tribesmen to watch so they could see how the action sequences were to look and how to ‘die’ on film.

Historical picture of Zulu warriors from about...
Historical picture of Zulu warriors from about the same time as the events at Rorke’s Drift (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film opens and closes with the magnificent voice of Richard Burton (who was a close friend of Stanley’s) telling, firstly of the massacre of British troops at the Battle of Isandlwana and at the end of the film he details a brief history of the Victorian Cross and which of the men who fought at Rourke’s Drift were awarded the Cross.

This epic film about an out-numbered group of British solders (150 soldiers and 4000 Zulu warriors) and their desperate battle to keep from being overrun by the Zulu’s and their eventual ‘victory,’ is a true timeless masterpiece.

I defy anyone to watch the film and not come out in gooseflesh at the ‘train noise’ the advancing Zulu warriors make as they approach the Drift or to see the scenes of the Zulu chanting and striking their cowhide shields as they prepare to charge the soldiers. These scenes alone are worth the price of admission (so to speak).

The makeup, the costumes and the set all scream out with authenticity although the river that Chard is to build a bridge over is laughably small and looks more like a dammed section of a small creek. I do know there were some technical problems with the actual river and unfortunately it shows.

But water difficulties aside, Caine absolutely knocks it out of the park in his first starring role. At the beginning of the film you cannot stand his character and by the end of it you like and admire the man. Baker is as resolute and as firm as an oak tree, using his engineer skills to build a way to defend the Drift with wagons and ‘mealie’ (corn) bags.

Nigel Green as the colour sergeant also trumps the rest of the cast, but James Booth (as Private Hook) who did not even get to film outside of England comes a close second to Green in performance.

If you want to see a film that shows ‘how they used to make em’ watch Zulu. In fact, if you are an aspiring young film maker, I would make it a requirement to study this film. Well, this film and Terminator 2: Judgement Day on how to make a action movie work.

Cover of "Zulu"
Cover of Zulu

Michael Smith 12/10/2012

As a postscript I just realised that I have not mentioned the exquisitely epic score and soundtrack by the magnificent John Barry (perhaps better known as the creator of the ‘Bond’ music). Mea Culpa to the estate and survivors of messer Barry (3 November 1933 – 30 January 2011). How could I forget when the music was playing through my head while I wrote this.

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Cover of T2: Judgement Day