BOSTON — Sir Peter Ustinov risks his dignity, if not his life, in the course of recreating the round-the-world trip of 19th-century American writer Mark Twain in the coming PBS TV special, "On the Trail of Mark Twain," Aug. 25 and Sept. 1.
A moment such as a death-defying descent on an Indian train, virtually unchanged since Twain's day, is entertaining, but the most moving event is narrator Ustinov's encounter with former South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. The meeting closes the four-hour, two-part series and it takes place on board the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2. Mr. Mandela, whose life embraces some of the most profound struggles of this century, affirms the will of the newly democratic South Africa to move beyond its legacy of brutal racism.
The theme of oppression runs through this witty and quixotic travelogue. Ustinov makes the observation that this is true to the daring spirit of Twain's journey.
"It contains things that are surprising for the period," he says. "[Twain] says something like, 'There's not a square inch of the world's surface that hasn't been stolen,' which for that time was an extraordinary allegation. These were ... revolutionary sentiments at a time when picaresque-ness was the order of the day and not social causes."
The original journey was motivated by Twain's need to recoup losses he suffered in publishing a biography of President Grant, "the first presidential biography," notes the show's producer, William Grant. "Twain did what he always did when he needed money - he set out on a lecture tour and the resulting book, 'Following the Equator,' got him out of debt." Twain pursued the theme of conflicts between colonial powers and the colonized across several continents.
"[Ustinov] was perfect casting. The very fact of his not being in the bloom of youth made some of the scenes ... very funny and telling," says director Michael Waldman, "but also added weight in a serious way to the project." Indeed, Ustinov has the presence to make us care about what we're seeing.
Mark Twain would have had much to say about American political life today, Ustinov says.
"He would have been very satirical about some of the things going on," he says, adding that he believes today's audiences will respond to what Ustinov sees as the quintessentially American levelheadedness Twain embodied.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society