Dr Miller's bitter pill

He accused audiences at the Royal Opera House of being zombies, and likened the National Theatre to the Brent Cross shopping centre. But is Jonathan Miller out of tune with cultural reality? Sholto Byrnes finds out
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The Independent Culture

It's 7.28pm at the National Theatre on London's South Bank. I have arrived with two minutes to spare at the Lyttelton Theatre where nearly everyone else is seated for tonight's performance of Buried Child, Matthew Warchus's praised new production of Sam Shepard's 1978 play about a super-dysfunctional Illinois clan. My place is right at the end, so the entire row has to stir to allow me past. But there is no tutting, even from those who have clearly arranged themselves to survive in comfort until the interval.

The lights go up on what looks like Michael Moore asleep on a tatty sofa. He turns out to be Dodge, the whisky-swigging slob of a grandfather. Dodge is being shouted at by his wife, Halie, who is upstairs and off-stage. He shouts back. This exchange begins to grate on me after a minute. They have profoundly irritating voices. Soon I am feeling extremely fidgety, and beginning to daydream about the interval and my choice of drink.

Am I, I wonder, exactly the breed of theatre-goer Jonathan Miller is so contemptuous of? The knight, theatre and opera director, writer, artist, sometime satirist, medical doctor and philosopher, has turned the spotlight of his magnificent scorn on to the capital's audience. Referring to the National Theatre, of which he was once an associate director, Miller decried "that enormous Brent Cross shopping centre down on the South Bank" saying he prefers smaller, less ostentatious venues where "you don't feel like you are waiting for the interval to go to the crush bar where you've ordered very grand drinks, and you bear your wife there like an ornamental hawk on your wrist".

The Royal Opera House fared no better. Dr Miller confessed he could "hardly bear" to sit through his own productions there, saying that at his recent production of Così fan tutte, "you could see that Harrods Food Hall had yielded up its dead".

I look about at the culture vultures seated around me. Women with sensible haircuts and silk scarves sit next to young men in T-shirts; there's the odd couple where the man is wearing a suit and tie. The audience ranges from the twenties to the sixties, with, I estimate, a grey-haired quotient of about 15 to 20 per cent. Everyone is well-behaved. No mobile phones go off. I keep a keen ear out for people unwrapping what Spacey would call "candy bars", but, it seems I am the only one with my eyes not on the stage, not a boiled sweet or even a solitary Malteser is being consumed.

The man on my left, I notice, is leaning to one side. Spectacles still firmly in place, a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in his lap, he has fallen asleep. At least he has the good manners not to snore. He wakes up and nods off a couple more times, equally silently. As the house lights go up for the interval, a howling electric guitar issues from the speaker. This is too much for one man in a blue shirt. Beneath his helmet of silvery curls, he plugs his ears with his fingers. Next to him his wife stares ahead, expressionless. She looks a bit glazed but, after this decidedly odd first half, I don't blame her.

Talk at the bar, from an insistent but orderly crowd, is of the play. Even the cloakroom attendants are discussing it. "I don't get it," says one. "Oh, really?" replies another. "No. Even the actors say they don't get it."

This examination of Shepard's work may not be at quite the intellectual level desired by Dr Miller, but I see no trophy wives, no overt ostentation; just an audience guilty of nothing worse than being middle class. "Hideously middle class", to adapt a Dyke-ism, they may be. Some of them even admit to shopping at Brent Cross, the centre to which Dr Miller so unfavourably compared the National. "Yes, I do," says Gideon, a student from Hampstead Garden Suburb. "It's pretty convenient. But the National is nothing like Brent Cross. Look at the view of the north bank of the Thames."

He points towards one of the huge plates of glass framed roughly by the South Bank's omnipresent concrete. We both gaze admiringly at the stuccoed front of a huge building lit up across the river. As the audience makes its way back into the theatre, peace descends upon the tall vestibules and stairwells of the National. Yes, it may be concrete, I think, but I'd rather have these rectangular spaces with their challenging fare than the squashed seats and gilt curlicues of the West End. Does the good doctor really prefer all that red velvet, flocked wallpaper?

Over at the Royal Festival Hall, black is the order of the day, dresswise. Black T-shirts, fishnet stockings, long coats; all cladding pale flesh. A couple of women and a man wear pointy, witches' hats, on which the black is relieved by patterns in fluorescent orange. What's going on here tonight, I ask one. "You remember Siouxsie and the Banshees? It's Siouxsie with Budgie, her drummer, and an orchestra." What's it like, I ask. "Well, it's different, innit."

I stop to talk to Geoff, a musician in his thirties from Willesden. What does he think of Dr Miller's comments? "Is he that bloke who directed The Mikado?" Well remembered, I say. Naturally you are referring to his 1986 production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at the English National Opera. "Er, yes." Has he seen any wives like ornamental hawks? "Not here. But if this Dr Miller spends his time in posh places like opera houses, what does he expect?"

I leave the Festival Hall after the interval, passing a tall man, all in black and with long, curly hair. He looks like Ross Noble's serious younger brother, and is reading a book on Derrida.

Perhaps Dr Miller has been spending his time in the wrong places. One evening on the South Bank showed two very different audiences, neither of which could remotely be compared to the contents of Mr Fayed's larder. The theatre- and concert-goers may not all have been highbrow, but they weren't obviously privileged. And most of them seemed to be enjoying their night out at one of the capital's palaces of culture.

Those who regularly attend the Royal Opera House think Dr Miller's wrong about that, too. "He is bizarrely out of date," says The Independent's arts editor, David Lister. "His comments may have meant something five years ago, but now there isn't even such a thing as the crush bar. In the main, the opera audience is knowledgeable, passionate and enthusiastic - though, judging by his comments, not always for Jonathan's work."

Another evening, I go to the West End for a performance of The Old Masters at the Comedy Theatre. Next to me sits an American couple who've been to Chicago the previous night, and are going to The Producers the next. Shortly after the play begins, I feel him shaking. Perhaps the poor chap's suffering from an ailment, I think. That's why he's been rustling for that tin of pills. It turns out to be the prelude to a low, shuddering laugh. "Heunh, heunh," he rumbles, followed by a chorus of high-pitched "hoo-hoos" from his wife. "It's such a privilege to see these actors," he tells me at the interval. "You have a great tradition here."

Outside, a mainly older audience mill politely about. I overhear conversations in French, Arabic and an Eastern European language I can't identify. In the second half there's quite a lot of coughing and creaking, of ageing wooden seats and elderly bones, but close attention is being paid to Simon Gray's play about the 1930s art world.

Dare one suggest that Dr Miller doesn't always think very carefully before spouting forth? Only the most deluded of optimists should expect moderate language from a man who once called Britain a "mean and peevish country with its acid rain of criticism and condescension", and who has dismissed Heidegger as being "ghastly - like an elephant's fart".

I once had a memorable telephone conversation with him, in which he interrupted me as soon as I had announced my name and the newspaper I was calling from. "I want you to tell me," he said, "exactly what you want to ask me about, before I open my mouth and let you shit down my throat." Some might say that Dr Miller should extend the same courtesy to the rest of us. But, then, the periodic eruptions of this supremely talented artistic figure, who is thought of with far more fondness and respect than he seems to allow, are part of the landscape. It would be so much less entertaining if they were to cease.