Ian McKellen Writings

29 March 2004 | Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)

In 1963 the midland town of Nottingham replaced its old civic theatre with a brand-new one. It's artistic directors were Frank Dunlop, John Neville and Peter Ustinov. I was in the first company of actors and was cast as Leo McKern's son in Ustinov's newest play The Life in my Hands. This was an anti-capital punishment drama with a domestic setting but as the UK had abandoned state executions some time previously, it lacked the contemporary tensions which he so nimbly played with in, for example, his hugely successful Love of Four Colonels. Denis Carey directed but Peter was regularly on hand for a few re-writes and general support.

I remember him best holding court in Leo's dressing-room, me on the floor, drinking in his stories. As all his obituaries will say, his principal talent was as raconteur, which is how most knew him (apart from his Hollywood successes) on chat shows or in his own solo onstage memoirs.

On the first night in Nottingham he presented me with a set of those Russian interlocking dolls and referred to an episode from the play in his accompanying note: "Mummy asked me to give you this in order to teach you the facts of life." But for years on I treasured what else he wrote:

"Thanks for making John so credible and so moving. Mark my words, you have a most enviable career ahead of you. Ever Peter." 

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