Jon Miller: Boffin presenter of 'How'
Thursday 07 August 2008
A whole generation of children grew up with the television programme How, a lightweight mix of educational facts and fun, and none is likely to forget the smoke, flashes and bangs that often ended experiments demonstrated by its resident boffin, Jon Miller. He looked like a strait-laced academic, but his visual style provided compelling viewing. Even after the show was no longer broadcast live, it was recorded "as live" for many years, and he was dubbed "One-Take Miller".
"He lived his life for explosions," recalled his fellow presenter Fred Dinenage. "He was never happier than when he was creating a big bang and those were the days before the health-and-safety police." However, Miller's most memorable item on How, which ran on ITV from 1966 to 1981, was a scientific explanation of how toilet rolls are made and unravel – something still talked about by viewers to this day.
He was first spotted as a potential presenter of How by Jack Hargreaves, best known as the presenter of the countryside series Out of Town but also Southern Television's Deputy Programme Controller, who had an idea for a show aimed at adults returning from the pub, with facts and explanations that would settle arguments and tricks that could be done on a bar-top or pub table.
Hargreaves saw Miller on a 1965 April Fool's Day edition of Southern's children's magazine programme Three Go Round, demonstrating how Beatle wigs – a merchandising fad at the time, capitalising on the distinctive haircuts worn by the pop group – were supposedly made from the hairs of beetles' legs. Miller built a laboratory at his home, in Middleton-on-Sea, West Sussex, and took on the guise of a mad scientist who had found a way of shaving beetle legs.
He was then teamed with Hargreaves, Dinenage and Bunty James (later replaced by Marian Davies) for How, which – after a one-off, late-night pilot – was switched to an afternoon slot when Hargreaves realised that it worked better as a programme that made science fun for children. The quartet, who answered such questions as, "How do you get a ship in a bottle?", would greet viewers with the native American hand sign and chant: "How!"
Born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, in 1921, John Miller (he later used the spelling Jon) was the cousin of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. His mother, Edie, was a concert pianist and his father, Jack, established a London chain of kiosks and shops selling tobacco, sweets and fishing tackle.
Miller grew up in London and at the family's holiday home on the West Sussex coast, where he nurtured a fascination for marine life. He attended Bedales School in Hampshire, before studying photography at the Reimann School in London from 1939 to 1941. This led him to become an RAF aerial-reconnaissance photographer during the Second World War.
Then, in 1947, Miller was one of the volunteers from across Europe to join a brigade working on the post-war Yugoslav Youth Railway construction project. While helping his father to run the family business, he was also employed by the Zoological Society of London to stock the aquarium at London Zoo by travelling to the Soviet Union, Madeira, the West Indies, Mauritius and the Azores.
As a naturalist, Miller was seen on BBC Television putting a snake on Johnny Morris's head, prompting the corporation to insist that he would never work for it again. However, the ITV company Southern Television hired him in 1962 to appear in its regional news magazine Day by Day, to talk about a different animal each week.
After moving to Cornwall in 1969, he also appeared regularly in Westward Television's Westward Diary. How finished in 1981 when Southern Television lost its ITV franchise, although the show was later revived as How 2, with only Dinenage remaining from the original presenting line-up.
In retirement, Miller remained a frequent letter-writer to newspapers and magazines. In answer to a question put to New Scientist's "Last Word" column in 1998 about why roosters crow in the morning, Miller explained that the dawn chorus was "probably largely territorial", adding: "However, roosters do not always crow at dawn. If your questioner visits Cornwall on 11 August next year, she will be able to hear the dawn chorus, including the roosters, during the false dawn at the end of the total eclipse of the Sun, which will occur during the middle of the day."
A Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, Miller wrote the books Of Fish and Men (1958), Mountains in the Sea (1972), How To Keep Unusual Pets (1975) and How To Fool Your Brain (1975).
John Gordon Miller (Jon Miller), naturalist and television presenter: born Southend-on-Sea, Essex 14 July 1921; married 1947 Rita Hallerman (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1965 Cecily Power (two daughters); died Helston, Cornwall 30 July 2008.
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