S IR Peter Ustinov, in the ripe years of what he called his "dotage", emerged
from his chauffeur-driven sedan into the pale sunlight of a Takeo province morning.
Perspiring heavily in a lavender safari suit, the British actor-novelist-playwright-screenwriter,
university chancellor, and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador was making the first of several
tours during his first visit to Cambodia.
"I always made it a point of honor to visit as many countries as there are years
in my age," he said amid stops at an orphanage, a school and other UNICEF-supported
provincial projects. "I've just caught up with Cambodia, and I'm on level with
During his four-day visit, Ustinov proved that he had not lost the ability to make
people laugh. Wherever he went during his four-day stay in the country, he played
to packed houses.
"Quite frankly," he declared at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom
Penh, "I've known so many undeveloped people in the developed part of the world,
and so many highly developed people in the developed part of the world, that, for
me, these sobriquets no longer have much meaning."
In Takeo, he delighted children with pantomimes and impersonations of animals, and
in Phnom Penh, in the span of 90 minutes, he held a crowd at the FCC riveted with
finely executed anecdotes and belly-tickling impersonations of people.
On Saturday, the 1961 and 1964 Oscar winner for his best supporting actor roles in
Spartacus and Topkapi, took up his first Cambodian field assignment for UNICEF: an
excursion to various agency-supported projects throughout Takeo province.
At his first stop, the Takmao Child Protection Center - a shelter for urchins, waifs,
child refugees and girls rescued from prostitution - Ustinov and his French wife,
Helene, were entertained by a performance of classical Khmer music and dance.
Afterwards, Ustinov, accompanied by the director of the orphanage, delighted the
children with a rendition of a symphony dog barks.
Throughout the day, Ustinov, escorted by a retinue of 17 packed NGO and diplomatic
corps vehicles, demonstrated a golden touch for transforming heavy situations into
At Ta Yeung village - where UNICEF promotes community-based initiatives to boost
food production, water management, and credit schemes among local families - Ustinov
was offered a glass of water. He thanked his Russian hostess, toasted her good health,
then neatly drank it in a shot.
When he spotted a patch of freshly laid guano - used as a fertilizer by the villagers,
Ustinov, who speaks nine languages including Turkish and Greek - exclaimed in impeccable
French: "One must wear a hat to protect oneself from bat droppings."
Again at the FCC - a press conference for working journalists with an audience of
about 150 - he moved from serious to light, turning the event into an evening with
Sir Peter Ustinov.
Ustinov is convinced that the difficulties facing children in all countries are unique
to each land, but education - carried out with a spark of imagination - is the universal
"I think one has to learn to stimulate the imagination. I am a great believer
in entertainment being an absolutely vital part of education. Just by the same token
as when we take pills under medical advice, they are very often coated with sugar.
We shouldn't realize we've eaten the pills until we've swallowed them, and they haven't
had any ill effect on us. So we don't notice in our joy of recovery that the duty
of education has been well covered.
"In point of fact, education can be among the most fascinating things in the
world if it's really taken at its face value."
Reminiscing about how, as a boy, he got little enjoyment from his studies, and would
often gaze out the classroom window, he admitted: "If I'd known a bit more about
science as it is taught today, I would have got more out of looking out the window
than I did."
He entertained the crowd with anecdotes, puns and quips - ending one lengthy and
serious answer with a pause and "Amen"; describing a UNICEF meeting in
Finland held in a sauna with a coed, and unclothed, delegation; and imitating an
elderly Danish woman, the first female member of Parliament, who fondly recalled
the first bill she passed, which legalized pornography.
He said the job of UNICEF's Goodwill Ambassador suited him perfectly because he is
a mixture of five cultures - born in London to parents of Russian, French, German,
and Italian stock. He said he has always gravitated away from nationalism and bigotry.
"I am of such mixed blood - and am very proud of being so - I am therefore ethnically
beyond repair," he said, "My allegiance is really more to the United Nations
- and especially UNICEF - than it is to any particular nation, though I have great
affection for most of them."
"I believe that only the lower levels of society are ethnically clean,"
he said. "I suspect that flies, more or less, are ethnically clean, because
they've never found a way of associating with anything but another fly. But when
you move up to dogs and cats, of course, the situation is already quite different.
"To hear a conversation between two babies is to know what the world could be
like if it only tried," he added, "Well anyway, these are prejudices of
my own which have built up over the years, and now I've reached my dotage. I am very
happy not to consider retiring, because gardening is bad for my back."