Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Peter Ustinov

Actor, director, author, playwright, producer, humanitarian, polyglot and raconteur. There were so many facets to the late Sir Peter Ustinov, but what often gets overlooked is his work for BBC radio. The balance is being redressed this coming Saturday as Radio 4 Extra presents PeterUstinov-The Radio Years.

In this three-hour tribute journalist John McCarthy explores the archives and introduces:
In All Directions: A 1952 comedy teaming Ustinov with Peter Jones
Appointment With Daughter: An exclusive interview with John McCarthy and Sir Peter Ustinov's eldest daughter, Tamara Ustinov
Encounter On The Balkan Express: A 1956 comedy for radio by Wolfgang Hildesheimer starring Peter Ustinov as Robert Guiscard
I'll Never Forget The Day: Ustinov on the popular 1950's radio series
Down Your Way: A special edition from 1991 with Ustinov in Leningrad
Quote Unquote: A memorable appearance by Ustinov on the popular quotation quiz hosted by Nigel Rees

Ustinov's radio appearances date back to 1940, mostly in acting roles, but his only major series was the above mentioned In All Directions. In his autobiography he recalls how he and Peter Jones "evolved a comic series for the BBC, which preceded the Goon Show and was like chamber music to the orchestral follies which were to follow. Pat Dixon produced these programmes, and our guardian angels, and consistent inspirers were Denis Norden and Frank Muir, masters of the ridiculous".

According to Barry Took: "Muir and Norden would invent a situation and then Jones and Ustinov would ad lib the dialogue to fit it. It was worked out in advance in Muir and Norden's office, and the results of this ad lib session were transcribed into script form, and then recorded in a BBC studio with further ad libs contributed by Ustinov and Jones".

Took goes on to say that the best-remembered characters "were Morry and Dudley Grosvenor, a pair of Jewish fly-by-nights, always involved in dubious transactions and usually having to run for it with the law in hot pursuit. The theme of the series was the search for the mysterious Copthorne Avenue, and as Morry and Dudley wandered vainly towards their goal their encounters with various people along the way constituted the show".

Ustinov again: "Peter and I invented a couple of characters out of the folklore of London, Morris and Dudley Grosvenor, low characters with high ambitions, as their name suggests. they spoke in the lisping accent of London's East End, and had endless wife trouble with their platinum-haired companions, as they did with the wretched character called simple  'The Boy' who was sent out on dangerous and sometimes criminal errands, in which he consistently failed. These programmes were improvised within a certain framework, and often they reached satisfactory heights of comic melancholy. Foolishly asking 'How's Zelda?' on one occasion, I received the following exercise in gloom from Peter Jones. 

'Zelda? I'll tell you this much, Mowwie, if every evening after work you are hit on the head with a beer bottle with monotonous wegularity mawwiage soon loses its magic.'

The characters, sort of, made the transition to the big screen. In School for Scoundrels (1960) Peter Jones and, this time, Dennis Price play two used-car salesmen Dudley and Dunstan Dorchester.

PeterUstinov - The Radio Years is on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Saturday 15 August at 9 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. 

Quotes from:
Dear Me by Peter Ustinov (Penguin Books 1978)
Laughter in the Air by Barry Took (Robson Books 1981) 

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