Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tales of the Two Peters

This clip is one of those bizarre accidental finds from YouTube. You start out looking for something, and a mere three of four mouse clicks later, you are on a totally different subject - one that is worlds removed from the original search terms, but intriguing nonetheless. In this particular case, I went from the Roman empire to Peter Ustinov and eventually ended up with these two little tales about sadistic headmasters in the school days of old.

It was a couple of months ago and I don't remember how the chain of links went exactly, but I was reading something about Rome and it reminded me of the movie Spartacus. During a break, I started looking up scenes on YouTube (saves the time of fetching the DVD). I'm a big fan of old sword and sandal epics (as silly and historically inaccurate as they often are) and this is one of the crown jewels of the genre. Starring, among others, the late and great Peter Ustinov in a famous performance as the slave dealer Batiatus (he also played emperor Nero in another Roman epic, Quo Vadis). Naturally, I'm also a fan of Ustinov, and before long, I was looking for clips with him.

There are few people to whom the three-part description "great actor, great comedian, great human being" applies as thoroughly as it does to Sir Peter. He was a brilliantly gifted man and everything about him seemed to be larger than life - his unusual family background, his cosmopolitan charm, his sophisticated humour, his inexhaustible wealth of anecdotes. There is a lot of hilarious stuff with him on YouTube, including African Customs, Former Yugoslav Partisans and the Bach Cantata Parody.

One of the things you don't think of in association with Peter Ustinov (at least I don't) is spanking. But sure enough, I found a TV show from the 1980's, and in it he talks about his stern headmaster from school. No actual beatings are mentioned (only a threat thereof), but it's a great little story. Ustinov's genius for voices and accents is well in evidence even in this little clip. The other guest chiming in with his own headmaster impersonation is Peter Cook, whom I hadn't heard of before, frankly. Apparently, he is another British comedian, and quite a well-known one at that.

It shows you how many of these old schoolteachers must have been closet spankos. It also raises the question what they would say about the society of today, post-sexual revolution. Back then, a photograph of Betty Grable in a bathing suit was enough to cause scandal at the boys' school. I hadn't heard of her, either, but as it turns out, she was the number one pin-up girl of her time and wildly popular with the American GI's during World War II.

Which, by the way, makes me wonder if Ustinov remembers this part of his story correctly: according to some mini-biographies I read, Grable didn't start pin-up modelling until the 1940's. By that time, Ustinov (born 1921) was already a grown man, so she couldn't have been on a poster during his school days. Then again, he has been known to occasionally spice up his tales by mixing fact with fiction. And when the results are as entertaining as here, who wants to argue (except for the detail-obsessed historian in me).

My resarch also reveals that Peter Ustinov was educated at Westminster School in London, while Peter Cook (born 1937) went to Radley College in Oxfordshire and to Pembroke College, Cambridge. That gives you a bit of context (maybe someone can find out the names of the headmasters at the time!). Obviously, the most prestigious, most venerable schools in Britain also had the kinkiest teachers.

I cut the clip out of a longer interview on YouTube, but even though it is off-topic, I left in the ending. In it, after another headmaster story, Ustinov talks about new year's resolutions - the show was recorded around that time. The next year is comng closer here as well, so that is a fitting conclusion (to the video, if not the year itself). Sadly, Peter Ustinov did not reach his goal of living until 2005. He died in March 2004, and our world is poorer for it.

Cook is also no longer with us, and in a way, it reminds us that their memories of school are from an entirely different era. Fortunately for the kids of today, corporal punishment is now a thing of the past, at least in most of the Western world. But in its time, it certainly produced a couple of intriguing anecdotes for spankos like us.


Anonymous said...

Very sweet and funny clip. Sir Peter Ustinov was indeed great!


Anonymous said...

the Radley master was called Ivor Gilliat. He was not the headmaster (who fittingly was called the Warden!)

Ludwig said...

Thanks for that info, whoever you are. I did a Google search on the name and I agree, I think this is very probably the teacher Cook is talking about. Apparently, Ivor Gilliat is chiefly remembered as the master who was in charge of cricket at the time. Moreover, according to one article:

"[I]n our more precious and correct modern society he would probably have been fired five minutes after some of his conversations with individual boys had been reported. Perhaps he should have been, but it would have been a tragedy and it just shows how lucky Radley was that this was the 1950s. His famous 'beating talks' ('I bet you couldn’t take six from me!') were a discharge of some undoubtedly murky undercurrents, but he ritualised them into a fairly harmless routine, to which no response was really expected, nor indeed possible."

I like the bit about the "murky undercurrents". Great choice of words.

You can find the article and even some photographs of the infamous master here: Dons.pdf