Last night's television: A pleasing portrait of the polymath

Absolute Rubbish with Jonathan Miller Five The Rotters' Club BBC2
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The Independent Culture
WATCHING JONATHAN Miller, you don't get the impression that his mother often said "Not now, dear... go away." In fact, you suspect that she made crooning noises of bedazzlement and approval whenever he came within 15 feet of her. The result, close to 70 years later, is that there's still something of the precocious toddler about him, despite the hooded eyes and the W H Auden skin tone. He's avid for attention, restlessly curious and treats the world as a personal playground. This doesn't always make for happy results, particularly when he bumps up against people who aren't sufficiently appreciative of his genius. In fact, he's been throwing his toys out of the pram quite a bit recently, on the grounds that his talents have been overlooked by his compatriots. But it is also the source of his continuing appeal. "He's like a little kid when he's doing it," said Jim, the American handyman with whom he has taken to producing abstract sculpture, and his remark was fond, not disapproving. When Miller visited a favourite junkyard, he scampered excitedly from spot to spot calling out come-and-see, his excitement at things still apparently unpolluted by age.

Absolute Rubbish with Jonathan Miller, an unusual amalgam of self-parody and adulatory portrait, followed the doctor to New Mexico, where he regularly exercises his creative impulses in a studio lent to him by a local admirer. Miller has been an amateur artist for years now, starting out with photographs that framed details of the real world so that they looked like Abstract Expressionist canvasses. After a directing trip to Italy, he started creating his own collages - initially with fragments of weathered posters that he found on local walls ("I started going out at night with a Stanley knife... Jack the Stripper") and then with discarded wood and steel. Already famed - or notorious - for the polymathic excess of his CV, it seems that he can now add spot- welding and light carpentry to his list of accomplishments. "I adore doodling with this stuff," he said, as he pottered around with large chunks of I-beam and stained plywood.

The word "doodling" was artfully chosen, consistent with an ostentatiously unpretentious manner in which he talked about his creations. When you inspected it closely, though, his apparent self-deprecation turned out not to be quite the real deal. Miller wasn't dismissing the quality of his own sculptures so much as attacking the aesthetic top-spin that accompanies the work of more celebrated sculptors. And though he insisted that he often discarded finished pieces as unworthy of his signature, you had to take his word for it. What you saw here was a positive fiesta of self-satisfaction. Virtually every inspiration was greeted as a triumph and every completed work as "really lovely". What's more, Miller didn't want us getting the idea that our inner child might do just as well: "I'm sure you could do it," he said, "but I don't think more than a small proportion of you could do better than I've done with these things." It's astonishing that he's even bearable - and I know some people struggle - but the curiosity is that his energy and enthusiasm are rather charming. I found myself thinking forgivingly that... yes, he might be a bit full of himself, but it'll all sort itself out when he gets a bit older.

Which was roughly the note on which The Rotters' Club ended: the boys through their immediate crises and ruefully recognising that they weren't as all-consuming as they'd once thought. The latter episodes of this adaptation rattled a little heavily over the tracks from time to time but, for viewers of a certain age, its sense of period detail kept reaching through the rib-cage to give a little clutch of remembrance, half sweet and half sour. If Jonathan Miller made me feel old, The Rotters' Club made me feel positively ancient.