Jonathan Miller: One Man, Two Cultures

As he turns 80 this summer, this remarkable polymath deserves to be fêted as a populariser of science and pioneer in the arts

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Jonathan Miller: He has had one of the outstanding careers in postwar Britain, yet he is haunted by a sense of failure (credit: Getty)

“There’s a terrible, ghastly moment at the end of Jude the Obscure,” Jonathan Miller told an interviewer back in the early Nineties, “when Jude is dying in Oxford, never having got into the university, and he hears the applause and the noise of the people receiving their degrees in the Sheldonian. Well, that’s the sort of feeling I have at the moment, as I reach the end of my life. I can hear the din of the real action going on in the area of the brain sciences, and I’m outside it.”

As he celebrates his 80th birthday this July, Miller is still haunted by a sense of failure. He has never written the scientific book he often dreamed of. Instead, he says, the two halves of his career — the performing arts and sciences — have pulled him in opposite directions. He insists he would have traded all the rave reviews and critical acclaim for a handful of respected scholarly articles.

And yet Sir Jonathan Miller CBE has rightly been honoured for one of the outstanding careers in postwar British culture: a gifted comedian and performer, one of the best theatre and opera directors of the past half-century, a double career in television as one of the great drama directors and a gifted presenter of programmes first about the arts, and later about medicine and psychology. And all the time, he has been reading widely in philosophy, science, and the history of medicine, from John Searle on speech acts to Hughlings Jackson and 19th-century neurology, which has informed everything else he has done. If we look closely we can see how the two parts of Miller’s life have often come together rather than pulling apart. 

This sense of a divided life goes right back to his childhood. He was born in July 1934;  his first home was in the centre of London, just a few streets from Harley Street and Broadcasting House, which had only recently opened. Miller has moved between the worlds of medicine and psychology, and broadcasting and the arts, ever since.

However, Miller has never simply “moved between” these two worlds. The relationship has always been more charged, even agonised, hence the frequent need to announce that he is giving up the frivolities of the stage for the more authentic world of scholarship and medical research.

Twice he turned to serious scholarship but it never led to any real fulfilment. In 1970, he was awarded a three-year research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London. He planned to write a book about mesmerism, the spiritualist movement and the associated development of neuropsychological theories. At around the same time, he was commissioned to write a book in the Fontana Modern Masters series on the neurophysiologist and Nobel Laureate Sir Charles Sherrington. He never finished either book. Miller’s schoolfriend Oliver Sacks summed it up succinctly. “It seems,” he said, “that major ambivalences were involved.”

Then, in the mid-Eighties, Miller tried again. He briefly studied neuropsychology in Canada and was then awarded a three-year Leverhulme research fellowship in neuropsychology at the University of Sussex. Again, it didn’t work out. “I’d lost the plot because I’d been rotted by showbiz,” he told his biographer. 

The word “showbiz” seems to tell the whole story. It sounds so dismissive and it is easy to see these two moments as moments of blockage and failure. There is, however, a very different way of seeing them. The books on mesmerism and Sherrington were never finished but the research and thinking fed into a series of lectures during the Seventies and into both his work in television and the performing arts for years. In 1978-79 Miller (together with producer Patrick Uden) made the BBC series, The Body in Question, a hugely successful account of the human body and illness. The same kind of ideas, and the reading he had done for both spells of academic research, fed into his later BBC2 series, Madness. The former, in particular, was Miller at his best: learned, supremely articulate and deeply compassionate.

Less well known are two superb documentaries Miller made, again with Patrick Uden, during the mid-Eighties and Nineties. The first, Ivan (BBC2, 1984), was a documentary made for Horizon about Ivan Vaughan, a man who had been struck down with Parkinson’s Disease in his early forties. The second, Prisoner of Consciousness, made for Channel 4, was about a gifted musician with devastating memory loss. In both programmes, what was so moving was the relationship Miller struck up with these men, the warmth, empathy and even humour, in the face of terrible medical conditions.

However, it was in Miller’s work in theatre and opera, over almost half a century, that his medical and philosophical reading has really come together with his artistic creativity. Miller is one of Britain’s most gifted directors. He has received acclaim in three different areas: theatre, opera and television drama. He started out in television and theatre in the early Sixties, immediately after his success as a performer with Beyond the Fringe. He made his debut as a theatre director at the Royal Court in 1962, directing Osborne’s Under Plain Cover. But his best work during that early period were five black-and-white television dramas for the BBC, filmed between 1965-68: The Drinking Party and The Death of Socrates, both about Plato, Mr Sludge the Medium, about the Victorian obsession with spiritualism, his iconoclastic Alice in Wonderland, aired to wide acclaim on Boxing Day 1966, and M.R. James’s ghost story, Whistle and I’ll Come to You. They already showed Miller’s signature interests in adapting non-fiction as drama, using unconventional settings and placing classic texts in an unusual and illuminating setting.

Alice was a fascinating mix of Victorian clutter and Sixties satire, complete with a score by Ravi Shankar and famous contemporary actors and comedians, from Peter Cook and Alan Bennett to John Bird, John Gielgud and Peter Sellers. The Drinking Party, filmed at Stowe, turned Plato’s Symposium into a reunion of public school scholars. Alice had no cute white rabbits. The Plato plays had no togas.

From the mid-Sixties, however, Miller turned to theatre and opera. He is perhaps best known for taking a classic work and trying to bring it to life by putting it in a different setting. “I suppose I have a reputation as a bit of a messer — around with untouchable masterpieces,” he told one interviewer. “But what I like to do with works like this is try to restore them — scrape away two centuries of varnish of the wrong sort of tradition so that the music can really speak.” The most famous examples are his Mafia production of Rigoletto set in 1950s Little Italy (English National Opera, 1982), his posh and very English Mikado, staged in a dazzling white grand seaside hotel (ENO, 1986), and the Armani Così fan tutte, complete with mobile phones (Royal Opera House, 1995).

Miller has done the same in the theatre. An early production of The School for Scandal (1968) stripped away all the Georgian clichés and lace cuffs, and set Sheridan’s play in a much more squalid 18th-century world. In the same year, he directed The Seagull, scrapping  the gentility and pathos of traditional English productions, all white linen suits and parasols, exploring the humour and shabbiness of Chekhov’s world. And in his production of The Taming of the Shrew, for the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 1980s, Miller drew on Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints to rethink Petruchio (played by John Cleese) as a 17th-century Puritan squire.

Putting classic plays in new settings is just the most obvious aspect of Miller’s revisionism. Perhaps his more distinctive achievement as a director is what has been called his “theatrical naturalism”, what one may also call a kind of behavioural or psychological realism. In his book of essays, Subsequent Performances (1986), Miller wrote that “the function of a director is to remind people of things they know but have forgotten. At any given moment in a rehearsal the director, like a good analyst, might say, ‘Have you ever noticed that under these circumstances people do this or do that?'”

A key influence here was the American sociologist, Erving Goffman. “Goffman,” says Miller, “drew particular attention to apologies and remedial behaviour in public places: someone tripping on the street and going back to inspect the pavement in order to deflect the accusation that he is a fool.”

We don’t normally pay attention to these “seemingly negligible actions”, Miller went on, all those little behavioural or verbal tics that fill our conversations. “It’s like an orchestral score: you may not notice the woodwinds under the strings’ melody but it enriches the harmonic structure.”  

Critics often accuse Miller of imposing interpretations on a play from the top down, choosing a big idea (a fascist Tosca or a Fidelio set in Pinochet’s time). But more often he works from the bottom up, taking a telling detail to make sense of characters and their relationships. “My approach,” he wrote in Subsequent Performances, “is very similar to that of the palaeontologist Cuvier, who believed that you could reconstruct the entire body of a fossilised mammal by a careful and intelligent series of deductions made from a very small, and apparently unrepresentative, fragment. By looking at the toe, or the shape of a tooth, he might discover what sort of terrain it walked on, or the kind of diet the creature had.”  

The enemy is the cliché or the over-familiar: Hamlet as the gloomy young Dane, the blowsy Gertrude, the bullying Petruchio. Instead, Miller constantly seeks a new way of seeing classics, asking questions and following them to see where they might lead. Why does Ophelia go mad? “People do not go mad as a result of grief,” he writes, so what’s wrong with Ophelia? Did Lear’s daughters drive him mad or does he drive them mad? In Shakespeare, why are fathers so often betrayed by their daughters? Why are there so many references to time in Three Sisters? What would happen with Long Day’s Journey Into Night if instead of running it, reverently, at four hours, you had the Tyrones talking over each other all the time, like any other family?

Miller’s creativity as a director does not clash with his scientific and psychological interests, it draws on them. His critics have often said this has made him too gimmicky, over-cerebral, a show-off, a cleverclogs. The better question, rather, is: what have his reading and thinking allowed him to do? What kind of ideas have interested him?

And yet there is a resistance to Miller. When he turned 80, the BBC honoured Alan Bennett with a retrospective season. Will the BBC also honour Miller at 80? Perhaps not. Bennett, of course, is a national treasure. Is Miller? Despite the knighthood, it seems not. Too clever in some way? Too much of an outsider, perhaps? Too Jewish? Both Miller’s grandfathers came from Lithuania. A long way from Alan Bennett’s mam and dad in Leeds. Then there’s Miller the young satirist, poking fun at British myths about the war. All those angry break-ups with institutions, most famously with Peter Hall at the National Theatre. Then there was Miller the outspoken critic of Thatcherism, who in 1991 famously attacked “this mean, peevish little country” and often seemed more at home abroad, working in the opera houses of Europe or America.

This is only partially true. Miller is an outsider, but also an insider: educated at St Paul’s and Cambridge, at home in Britain’s cultural institutions — the Old Vic with Olivier, Hall’s National Theatre, ENO, the Royal Opera House, the BBC and Glyndebourne. His work could hardly be more English. “Every part of my memory is saturated with English imagery,” he once said. When he criticised Thatcher, it was not as an outsider, but as someone from another England, the intellectual Left of the NHS, the BBC and the universities. 

His long-time friend Alan Bennett hinted that his play, The Habit of Art, about Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden, is in some ways about himself and Miller. Auden/Miller, flamboyant, demanding attention, imposing his intelligence on the other, Bennett/Britten. Auden was an outsider, Britten, like Bennett, a gentler, quintessential Englishman.

The Habit of Art is partly about friendship and creativity, two different kinds of artistic temperament. But it is also about failure. Perhaps it picks up something about Miller’s sense of his own failure. Think of that quotation about Jude. “On return trips to St John’s [his old Cambridge college],” writes his biographer, “he has come close to tears, wandering through the quad as the bell summons the dons to dinner in hall.”

But even at the greatest moments of what Miller might consider failure, moments when he couldn’t fulfil his dreams of writing scholarly books about Sherrington or mesmerism, we should remember the achievements that all this reading and thinking enabled.  

It has been an astonishing career, remarkable for its breadth and its quality. It is hard to think of anything else like it. The range of achievements is breathtaking. Only now, as Miller approaches his 80th birthday, can we begin to take stock. If he is not a national treasure, that perhaps says something more about us than about Miller and his extraordinary creativity over almost 60 years.