Oral History: Peter Ustinov on How to Be Knighted

by Jack Tewksbury October 3, 2019
Acror, writer, director Peter Ustinov, Golden Globe winner, in 1991

ulf andersen/hulton archive/getty images

For over 40 years the HFPA has recorded famous and celebrated actresses, actors and filmmakers. The world's largest collection of its kind - over 10,000  items - is now in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Margaret Herrick Library.

Golden Globe winner Peter Ustinov was a film actor, a director, writer, journalist, and raconteur.  He was born Peter Alexander Freiherr von Ustinov on April 16, 1921, in Swiss Cottage, London, England.  In this excerpt from 1991, he faces the challenges of knighthood.           

“The ceremony was the usual mixture of British formality and surprising informality.  While I was actually kneeling in front of the Queen, about to be knighted, the orchestra was playing "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair",  which is not really what I had looked forward to.

When they invite  you to be knighted, they  send you a printed form, the kind you might find  at  U.S. Immigration which says underneath:‘Cross out the question which is inapplicable.’  And the questions - there are two - are, ‘I can kneel’ and ‘I cannot kneel,’ followed by a box where you can write whatever. I had to call them up because it made no provision for me because I can kneel but I can't get up again.

The Queen was absolutely charming, but you have to wait your turn.  You're pushed forward, I thought with unnecessary brutality to the footstool. When you rise, she puts the sword on one shoulder and then lifts it extraordinarily high in order to put it down on the second shoulder which suggests that there must have been a hideous accident at some point in time.

In my case, she said to me, ‘I'm delighted to see you here,’ and  I said  to her, ‘Your  delight  can  hardly  match  mine,  Ma'am.’  And she said,  ‘We read that you are as active as ever,’ and I said, ‘Yes, indeed, I've just come back from New...’ but I didn't get any further. I was pushed aside by the next person, and it was over.”