Jonathan Miller: 'Some things I've done are as deep as you get'
The term 'Renaissance man' could have been invented for him. So why, after a long and illustrious career, is Jonathan Miller so gloomy?
Friday 23 October 2009
Before I met Jonathan Miller, he called me. "Hello," he said, in that voice instantly recognisable from TV pontificatings on the mind, the body and pretty much everything else. "This is Jonathan Miller. I've got a book I'd like you to read before the interview." Okeydoke, I said. I have, I found myself burbling, ordered some of your books on Amazon, but I'll send a bike on Monday to pick it up. On Monday morning, he phoned again. How was I getting on with the reading? What time was I going to pick up the book? Bloody hell, I wanted to say. I do have a life, you know. One thing was clear. An interview with Jonathan Miller is a very serious business.
Outside the front door of his huge house in Camden are some rusting metal sculptures. "Are these some of yours?" I ask the gangling, tweedy figure who opens the door. "Yes," he says. "And these," he says, pointing at a selection in the hallway. "They're rather good, aren't they?" I give him back his book, Subsequent Performances. It's an interesting exploration of the ways in which a great play has an "afterlife" through a series of performances, each of which is incomplete. "It's very good," says Miller, "isn't it? Now, we'll go and have coffee in the kitchen."
So, we have coffee in the kitchen. His wife, Rachel, makes it. "This is a subsequent performance," he says of the Rigoletto he's just told me is on at the Coliseum. He first produced it, for English National Opera, 28 years ago, where it made waves for its radical transposition of the characters from 16th-century Mantua to the Mafia world of 1950s New York. This is its 12th revival and Miller explains a few of the tweaks he's made. Is it the first time he's done a "subsequent performance" so long after the original production? "I've done it several times, haven't I, Rachel?" he says. "No," says his wife of 53 years, "you haven't."
"I actually rather resisted doing this," he says, "but I've got a number of productions still going, none of which are less than 20 years old. The La Bohème [which ran earlier this year at ENO] was a new one. It was the first time I've done it." "You have done Bohème before!" booms a voice from near the kettle. "No," says Miller. "Yes, you did," says Rachel. "In Paris!" "Was it Bohème?" says Miller. "Yes," says Rachel, "it was."
But Rachel has to leave, and so there is no one left to contradict the man widely regarded as one of the biggest brains in Britain, the man who could do humour and tragedy and Shakespeare and Mozart and the body and the mind and radio and telly and medicine and neuropsychology and sculpture and books – the man, in fact, for whom the label "Renaissance man" was practically invented. That, it seems, is not a problem for Miller, who's telling me how his La Bohème was influenced by the photographs of Brassai, who photographed Paris in the Thirties, and by Withnail and I."It was," says Miller, "very, very good. And it looked wonderful on the video, because of that sort of photographic darkness. And then," he adds with a grimace, "the critics slammed it, because they thought it was too gloomy."
Ah yes, the critics. Miller, famously, isn't keen on critics. Still, let's steer him away from that. Let's talk about reading. Is it true that he spends 80 to 90 per cent of his waking time reading? "No, no, no," he says. "Again, that's just characteristic of, excuse the term, journalism." Excuse the term? I wasn't aware that "journalism" was a term of abuse! "They want something excessive," he says. "I read when I can. I've read much less recently. I've been, I don't know, much more bewildered by how much there is to read."
Jonathan Miller is, after all, 75. His hair is white. His face is lined. His eyes are rheumy. He has, he tells me, been reading "a rather important book called The Great Chain of Being", which he first read 30 years ago, and has been "amazed and disconcerted" by how much he'd forgotten. He's also been reading an American novelist "called Anne Taylor". Does he mean Tyler? Yes, he does. Isn't she wonderful? "Yes," he says. "She's an exponent of – it's a theme that will run all through this talk – she's an exponent of the negligible detail". All through "this talk"? I thought we were having a conversation.
But Miller is in mid-flow now, on the "negligible detail", on how it's the essence of directing, on how it was what he was fascinated by when he first went into medicine, with a view to doing neurology, on how he has been influenced by the philosopher John Searle, who writes about the nature of intention, and by the philosopher Brian O'Shaughnessy, who writes about actions he calls "sub-intentional". It's all very interesting, but it is a little bit hard to get a word in edge-ways. So is there, I attempt, any way in which, at 75, he's a less good director than when he was younger?
Miller looks surprised. "I don't think so. I find that what happens is that I've seen so much. You notice more and more, and you have a great reservoir of recalled observations." And does he, I ask, looking at the piles of books, even in the kitchen, read much poetry? "Not very much," he says. "There are certain poems I like very much. A lot of modern poetry I simply don't understand." What? "Jonathan Miller has gaps in reading" shock horror? "My reading," he says, "is extremely patchy. I'm not this voluminously literate person, which is what I'm often described as being. It's just that, compared to many people in the theatre, who don't read very much, or what they read is so commonplace..." He tails off, but then decides to read me a poem. It's called "A Considerable Speck" and it's by Robert Frost. He reads in a firm, professorial voice. And yes, the poem turns out to be about his favourite thing, the "negligible detail".
"I had an ambition," he tells me, "or determination at least, to become a research neurologist, because I was interested in behaviour and perception and language, and all the other things I've done have been unsolicited invitations." His career, in other words, has been entirely accidental. While reading medicine at Cambridge, he got involved in Footlights. The result, in 1960 (after he had qualified as a doctor), was Beyond the Fringe, which also launched the careers of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The rest, as anyone over the age of 35 knows, is history, or at least a certain kind of middle-class history. Miller was asked to direct a play, and then do some adaptations for telly, and then (in spite of not reading a note of music) direct an opera, and then direct Shakespeare for telly, and then present TV series on madness and states of mind, and the Renaissance man, darling of the intelligentsia, was born.
"It seems to me," he says, "that I keep on noticing these negligible specks, which turn into considerable specks, and that's all that ever really prompts me. Obviously, I'm delighted if it's well received, but I don't even know what counts as being well received. There are a lot of your colleagues, for example, who disparage the work I do." Oh dear. My "colleagues" again. But why, when he's apparently so confident, does it upset him so much?
"I'll tell you what it is," he says. "Unless you're completely solipsistic, and insanely egocentric, you are, in fact, sensitive to the opinion of others. But I know that I have no reason really to respect any of them. I have no reason to think that any of them are working on the same level of thought as me." Er, right. But doesn't he know that it's slightly unusual to tell an interviewer how good his work is? "I don't do it in public," he says. "I don't say 'I've just done a wonderful play', but if I'm attacked, I will say 'I'm sorry, it's not a terrible production, you've missed the point'."
So does he ever get really, really upset? Does he, for example, ever suffer from depression? "Yes," says Miller, "I do. I have long periods of feeling paralysed, inert, unproductive. I wait for it to pass. I'm not depressed enough to feel I need advice. But I do get very pushed down, pushed down particularly in these years when I get asked less and less to do things. I find that inconsistent with my own self-estimation." But most people, I tell him, are on the scrap-heap at 65. Doesn't he feel lucky to be working at all? "I don't," he says, "rate my rights to be employable in terms of there being a sort of demographic probability."
Gosh. I'm beginning to feel a bit tired. Does he, I ask, have much of a capacity for self-reflection? "I'm not interested in that at all," he says. "I'm interested in what my inner psyche throws up from the hard disc." And if he was forced to describe his personality? "I haven't," he says, "the faintest idea." I get another little lecture on the "negligible detail" and John Searle, and another philosopher, John Austin. On Desert Island Discs, I remind him, he said that he regretted not pursuing a career as a neuroscientist, had "wasted a brilliant mind" and could have done the things he's done "with one hand tied behind his back". Is it a serious regret?
"Yes," says Miller. "It remains a regret and a certain sort of contempt as well." It is, I say, trying to be kind, the struggle between the generalist and the specialist, isn't it? Miller nods. "I actually think," he says, "some of the things I've done, outside the laboratory, without any test tubes, is about as deep as you can get." So why the regret?
"I've never," he says, "been able to rid myself of the theatre's reputation for being a sort of shabby vulgarity, and that no serious person does it. I was a member at Cambridge of the Apostles. It was founded by Tennyson. It was all those people like G Moore, and Morgan [E M] Forster. We used to meet in Forster's room. All my fellow Apostles were exalted, grand achievers in classics and academic appointments and the civil service. I," says this haunted, contradictory man – a man, by the way, who tells me he never sees plays or operas directed by anyone else – "was this vulgar drop-out".
The current run of 'Rigoletto' ends at ENO tonight. www.eno.org. Jonathan Miller will be speaking at Grantham Guildhall on 7 November. www.celebrityproductions.info
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