My friend, Piotr Ionovich

Vitali Vitaliev recalls his Brother, Uncle, Father in Spirit – "one of the best-loved people in the world" – Peter Ustinov.



"His passing eclipsed the gaiety of nations." Samuel Johnson on David Garrick

Having lunch with him was like sharing a meal with a whole crowd of people – actors, drunks, priests, politicians – whom he mimicked tirelessly and relentlessly. While our food was served, he impersonated the waiter. He was also in the habit of mimicking my accent, and would address me in heavily accented Russian as "Comrade Colonel". His biggest reward was people's laughter. "I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me the most civilised music in the universe," he wrote in his best-selling autobiography "Dear Me".

At times, it felt as if he was afraid of stopping to perform even for a second, because for him that would be on a par with stopping to breathe. And the size of his audience – be it the Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall or just one person whom he had just met in the street – did not matter.

The phone call from BBC Radio found me at my London office last March: "Can you comment on Sir Peter Ustinov's death? You were friends, weren't you?" I knew it was coming: Piotr Ionovich, as I had been politely addressing him Russian-style: by first name and patronymic (his father was called "Iona") – since our first meeting in 1990, was approaching 83. Yet the news came as a shock.

I remembered him telling me in Melbourne in 1992: "I've just received a new passport that expires in 2002, so my aim now is not to expire before my passport."

He had succeeded. He always did.

It was hard to imagine that he would never call me again and, pretending he was Mikhail Gorbachev or President Bush Senior, wouldn't ask me to come and see him at his favourite London hotel – the Berkeley, or to have lunch.

Once, having come to see Piotr Ionovich in the Berkeley Hotel, I found him alone in his suite, which was piled with clothes, books, letters, manuscripts and what-nots. He waved me in without stopping to talk over the phone and offered me a vodka.

Excessively accessible

Reclining in a leather armchair, so deep and soft that it negatively affected the sitter's self-esteem, I couldn't help overhearing his conversation. He was obviously being interviewed – and, as always, he was brilliant: wise, quick, funny and irreverent. "Who is it on the other end of the line?" I was musing an hour later downing my fifth shot. "The Guardian or, maybe, the New York Times?.."

"Who was the interview for?" I asked Ustinov when he finally (and rather reluctantly, it has to be said) got off the phone. "Oh, it was some little university newspaper from Essex," he replied.

One of his most beautiful human qualities was complete lack of arrogance or pomposity – the traits that could be easily forgiven in a winner of two Oscars and the only foreign member of the French Academy of Arts. He was extremely – almost excessively – accessible and, despite being terribly busy with all his shows, plays, films, books, columns, charities and so on, found it hard to refuse favours to anyone. "Friends are not necessarily the people you love most – they are simply the ones who got there first," joked he.

Needless to say, people often used him for self-promotion, but he had no regrets (except, of course, for House of Regrets – the West End play that he wrote and starred in at the age of 21!). "If you do good things, then good things will come to you," he said to Terence Stamp, his co-star in Billy Budd – the film that Piotr Ionovich also produced and directed. And they did. Frank Muir was right when he called Ustinov "one of the best-loved people in the world".

"Ethnically, I am filthy"

Ustinov's friendship changed my life. I often wondered why he singled me out of thousands of people he had come across and "took me under his wing".

Was it because we both had Russian names (although by then I had defected from Russia, and Ustinov himself was only conceived in St Petersburg and born in London, to where he "defected" inside his mother's womb), yet in actual fact combined lots of ethnicities ("Ethnically, I am filthy," he liked to repeat)?

His French wife Helene once confided in me that I reminded Peter of the way he himself used to be (and to look) in his younger days.

"For Vitali – Brother, Nephew, Son – in Spirit, in Laughter, in Rotundity, and in a tranquil earnestness of purpose." – he wrote on the dedication page of his book My Russia.

Was "Rotundity" the main reason for singling me out, I sometimes wondered uneasily?

In mid-November 2004, I flew to London from Dublin for my last meeting with Piotr Ionovich. In fact, I was invited to two of his "memorial services": at the University of Durham, of which he had been an Honorary Chancellor from 1992 ("Can you believe it, Vitali, I've only just been appointed the Chancellor of Durham University and have already received a letter, addressed to 'Dear Mr Rectum'?") and in London – at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Due to my very busy schedule at Village, I was only able to attend one – in London. I felt considerable guilt at having to refuse an invitation from my "Brother, Uncle, Father", even if deceased. One thing I was sure about, however, was that he himself would have taken his own demise in his stride. "Life without death is like a map without a scale," he once observed.

Rotundity in a Mazda 121

Piotr Ionovich was with me constantly during this trip. He squeezed his bulk into the seat next to mine (no chair was ever big enough for him – in more than one sense) on my Aer Lingus flight.

In reality, he ended up sitting next to me on a trip once before – inside my brand-new Mazda 121. "What a lovely little car you've got there! I have never seen a car like that before!" he exclaimed on spotting it in front of my Melbourne house in early 1991. Like a perennial teenager refusing to grow up (his face always struck me as not that of an elderly man, but rather of a long-suffering youngster, and the mane of grey hair – paradoxically – made it look even younger) he had a great passion for cars and even collected them. I knew he also had a personal jet, but was not sure whether he collected planes too.

"I'd like to have a ride in your car!" he insisted.

I could not share Ustinov's enthusiasm. It was only one day before that I had got my first driving licence, and my recent collision with an unsuspecting street fire hydrant, the memories of which were still fresh, did not bode well for my driving future. Besides, I had never driven the car on my own, without an instructor.

"I want you to drive me to the restaurant in this lovely car of yours!" he repeated.

We were supposed to have dinner in one of Melbourne's Russian restaurants.

I tried to talk Ustinov out of it by explaining what an awful novice driver I was. I told him about the tragic fate of the fire hydrant, but he stayed firm.

He pushed himself inside my "droplet" of a Mazda – knees first, and the tiny car sagged under his weight. I climbed onto the driver's seat (remember: a "brother in rotundity"?) – and Mazda's metallic underbelly touched the ground. Off we drove striking sparks from the asphalt.

I sat behind the wheel trembling like an aspen leaf. If something happens, I'll go down in history as the man who killed Peter Ustinov, I was thinking obsessively. The thought, in itself, was not conducive to safe driving.

By the time we reached the restaurant, I was covered in cold sweat and had totally lost my appetite.

"Your driving was perfect!" Ustinov reassured me as he slowly levered himself out of the car. He had survived the experience, and his genius had been preserved for humankind. It was spared by the world's worst driver (myself) to allow us many more meetings – in Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, Rome, Manchester – for 13 years to come.

A true internationalist

As I flashed my passport in the poker face of an immigration officer at Heathrow, I recalled Peter Ustinov's innate dislike of borders and immigration controls.

A compulsive traveller, he was puzzled and offended by old immigration forms he had to fill in upon entering Australia ("One of the questions was 'when was the last time you had indigestion?' and the next 'whether or not you are insane?") and the USA ("In the space for 'Your Skin Colour' I always write 'pink'"). A true internationalist, he took pride in having Italian, French, Russian, Swiss, German and even Ethiopian blood in him, but – contrary to what many people thought - not a drop of English. When he directed an opera at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1998, one Russian newspaper printed an article headlined "Englishman Saves the Bolshoi" which prompted him to say: "I've never been accused of being English before".

Kofi Annan, who knew Ustinov well as a roving UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for over 20 years, once remarked that Piotr Ionovich could easily "double as permanent representative of all the UN member states".

I thought Ustinov would have been pleased to see me waving my European passport. And although we first met when I lived in Australia (I was asked to introduce him to the Melbourne press club in mid-1990), he kept saying – not in a didactic but rather in an avuncular manner – that my place was in Europe.

I was having dinner with Piotr Ionovich and Helene in Rome on a hot summer evening in 1992. Earlier in the day we all had an audience with the Pope, and, of course, afterwards Piotr Ionovich started mimicking the Pontiff too.

At the restaurant, Ustinov was drawing caricatures on serviettes (a brilliant cartoonist was one of his less known multiple incarnations). He was joking with the waiter in fluent Italian "How many languages do you speak?" I asked him. "I make mistakes in eight," he replied. Halfway through the meal, Helene told me it was the 20th anniversary of their marriage. I was extremely touched and rushed out to buy flowers for her.

"Listen, Vitali, it is time for you to move back to Europe," Ustinov said when I returned. "The editor of The European, for which I write a weekly column, knows your work. Why don't you go and talk to him?"

We ended up writing for the same newspaper, and our respective columns often appeared on the same page, next to each other.

Ustinov adored writing his European column and was very proud of it. He once opted out of taking part in a top-rated BBC chat show, saying he had his column to write. Having published over 20 books, he still felt he was undervalued as a writer, particularly in Britain, where he thought they perceived him only as a funny fat man, or a "dancing bear". Political views he expressed in his columns were sometimes naive (great artists seldom make good politicians), but always honest, well-written and highly humanitarian. He was extremely saddened when The European had to wrap up in 1997.

Still pulling the crowds

The bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields were tolling cheerfully, not mournfully, above Trafalgar Square. The day was as dark and chilly as only London can be in mid-November. Street lanterns were burning well into the morning, and in their treacherous light the rain-soaked air looked like a distant condensed yellow ganglia suspended from the sky. One could almost scoop it by handfuls and cut it into pieces.

A line of black-clad people, hiding under umbrellas, was snaking into the church for Peter Ustinov's last performance. Yes, it did feel more like a performance than a "memorial". The church entrance was besieged by paparazzi and autograph-hunters who had come here to spot a royal or a celebrity. Even after his death Ustinov didn't stop attracting crowds.

Young boys and girls in sailors' uniforms, the so-called "London Sea Cadets", guarded the church entrance. I thought that was moving and somehow conveyed two very prominent streaks in Piotr Ionovich's character – childishness and romanticism. Yes, he was an unlikely modern celebrity – too sensitive, too kind and too approachable. He was a dreamer – a lucky dreamer who had managed to have almost every dream of his realised.

Looking at the kids, I had a flashback to my own Ukrainian childhood, when I wanted to become an engine driver and a sailor, too, no doubt. Playing truant, I used to hide in a small cinema, round the corner from my school. It was there that I first saw Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, where Ustinov played a character called Batiatus – the role for which he won one of his Oscars. I had watched that movie over a dozen times...

Inside the church, one could indeed observe a curious mixture of celebrities, royalty (like, Prince Michael of Kent – a relative and complete look-alike of the unfortunate last Russian Tsar Nicholas II) and "ordinary people" like myself. Many of the latter, like young actor Nick Atkinson, were "singled out", helped and advised by Ustinov – just like I was.

I sat next to an empty space with a name tag "Countess Madeleine Douglas". Ustinov would have loved that and would have immediately come up with a joke. I remembered how much he laughed when I told him the story of a German woman, who wrote for The European and had "Countess Tatiana von Dunhoff" printed on her credit card. She was probably indeed a countess: there are plenty of them in Germany. Ustinov disliked hereditary and other "titles" and regarded his own belated knighthood with a good deal of irony. His own "business" card simple said "Peter Ustinov. Membre de l'Institut". I could never seriously think of him as of Sir Peter Ustinov, OBE (apart from his natural and rather charming OBEsity, that is).

Who needs dictionaries?

It was a highly unusual church service, with lots of laughter, theatre and music. Piotr Ionovich adored classical music, particularly Mozart, for "the most profound superficiality" the composer possessed. He could imitate the sounds of most musical instruments and one evening, as a bet (as recalled at the service by his American friend Theodore Steinway Chapin), he wrote down from memory the names of 40 (!) Swiss (!!) composers.

He had extraordinary brain power, and once, having spotted some dictionaries on a shelf in my Melbourne study, noted: "Vitali, you are the last person who needs dictionaries. Writers don't need dictionaries. Get rid of them." And I did.

Piotr Ionovich did come up with a surprise for me during the service, the "script" of which, as I was told, he had written himself. It happened when his daughter, actress Tamara Ustinov, and Malcolm Rennie came out to the altar (I nearly wrote "on stage") to perform a short extract from his play The Love of Four Colonels.

"It was raining in Kharkov last Sunday," were the words of Malcolm Rennie's character, "the Russian Colonel".

Out of all Ustinov's huge literary heritage, this one sentence, mentioning my native Ukrainian city (he knew I grew up there), was read out in the church on that day!

It was also gentle reminder of his humorous way of addressing me as "Comrade Colonel".

Spasibo, Piotr Ionovich... I've heard your greeting...

I was sure his every friend in the "audience" had received his or her own greeting, too. After all, we didn't turn up there "to pay our last respects", as London newspapers reported the following morning. We came to express our ongoing love for "one of the best-loved people in the world" – a friend, an actor, a writer, a columnist, a dramatist, a wit, a mimic, a cartoonist, a raconteur, a film-maker, a director, a producer, a musicologist, a satirist, a playwright, a polyglot, a peacemaker, a goodwill ambassador and, first and foremost, a wonderful human being whose name WAS, IS and WILL always BE "Peter Ustinov".

Until love, joy and laughter die out completely on this small and lonely planet of ours...

Back in Dublin, I called my childhood friend in Kharkov and asked him whether it rained there the previous Sunday.

He confirmed that it did.