Updated: Apr 6, 2021
The man who inspires this site, Sir Peter Ustinov, in his marvelous television programme, "Planet Ustinov: following the equator in the footsteps of Mark Twain," goes to South Africa on his many travels, for a meeting with then, President Nelson Mandela. They have a wonderful chat, some of it filmed, in which, Sir Peter is almost incredulous with humility and humour, when his host tells him, that when in prison, he enjoyed, in the latter, less draconian years, reading his plays, which were in the prison library. They made a real impact on him, something which Sir Peter is both delighted and astonished to hear, such is his admiration and respect for the South African leader. How on earth, he seems to think, can a mere actor, writer, like him, be held up for praise by one such as this? But kings and clowns have ever been connected, why not prisoners and performers?! And especially when the clown or performer, is playing to a king or prisoner, who has a sense of humour, who can laugh and smile.
It was the smile of Nelson Mandela that was most notable. He was known to have a real sense of humour, something many commented on, all the more remarkable in a man who had endured over twenty five years in prison. Bothersome matters or qualities, like bitterness, did not seem to be a part of the personality of this great and good man. From the first steps on camera, the first glimpse we got of him, on, in the words of the title of his autobiography, the long walk to freedom, that physical realisation, of the gradual destination, those decades in incarcaration had led to, we saw the smile. I remember it well as I am sure do many.
Any of us who came to progressive political interest and activity in our youth, were aware of Nelson Mandela and interested or active in the cause of his country. I am the same generation as the former Prime Minister of my country, David Cameron, and whereas the anti Apartheid protestors shouted and chanted "Free Nelson Mandela!" Cameron admits and explains that on the youthful satirical right the t shirts had "Hang Nelson Mandela!" on them , for they considered him a terrorist! How times changed! It is indeed widely felt now, that Nelson Mandela, was not only a freedom fighter, but, as a result of his whole approach on his release, more akin to Ghandi and Dr. King, than most could be. The brilliance of the man, the genius of his life, was that combination of humanity and humour, which the namesake of this site could so readily relate to. It was evident in all who had admiration, more, affection, for Mandela.
In my very young days I attended meetings with another Peter, the activist Peter Hain, a generation older than me, politically, parliamentary candidate then, in my area of London, former leader of the young Liberals, and as a South African who had left as a teenager with his family to escape the wretched Apartheid system, he had become an anti Apartheid activist of national and international renown or notoriety. He was kind and friendly, the first person to buy this then under age, non drinker, a drink, in a family oriented pub, a Coca Cola! There were many innocent and fun times then, even in radical politics. But that was not all. Peter Hain also got death threats. Such was the controversy then of the cause of attempting to defeat the South African menace. The worst most of us had to contend with, unlike Hain, however involved or active, was argument and hot air! It was always with real and consistent respect, that I saw the trajectory of the career of Peter Hain, from his days as a radical campaigner, to a cabinet minister.
I remember going on the march to free Nelson Mandela. No boycotts of South African goods, no meetings with like minded people or not, could compare to the feeling on a march, when very young. The dancing as well as chants, the singing as well as speeches. I shall never forget being in Trafalgar Square, in sight of the statue that is a memorial to another of that name, Nelson's Column, watching and listening to speakers from inspirational orator, Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour Party, to Richard Attenborough, one of my cultural heroes!
It was Lord Attenborough who had made the film, Cry Freedom. The movie version of the book by the anti Apartheid journalist, Donald Woods, was the story of Steve Biko, who, unlike Mandela, had been killed by that hideous regime, not imprisoned. I went on to work with Attenborough in one of my earliest jobs in the performing arts. But although I knew him to be as wonderful a man as he was special as a talent, to me, he and Sir Peter were the embodiment of how to mix the world of play and make believe, with that of politics and what you believe.
The musical I have written Tom's Cabin, the man of humanity, is dedicated to both Dr. Martin Luther King and President Nelson Mandela. On this the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, it is a birthday present for Nelson Mandela, I can give him, as if he were here. Any of us who pay tribute to him today or ever, can and must continue to work for what we know is right, in whatever little or greater thing we do, in any way that we may do it. We must not give up. Nelson Mandela did more than cry freedom, he wore it's smile. An award that Sir Peter Ustinov receieved, that he cherished, was the Order of the Smile, from children of Poland. We may not always feel like it, as we see those things about us and about which we protest, but we who are free, can smile freedom.
Author : LORENZO CHERIN