Dr Jonathan Miller: Clever is as clever does

You have two hours. Your task? To ask the right questions, the questions that will enable the most intelligent man in the world to throw light into the darkest corners of the human mind. Kevin Jackson takes a deep breath and wishes Dr Jonathan Miller - scientist, artist, writer, pottymouth - a very happy 70th birthday...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When a distinguished academic reaches the age of 70, his or her colleagues will often gather together to assemble a Festschrift - a collection of essays in that professor's chosen field. It is a civilised custom, but a slightly sombre one, since it tends to imply that the recipient now is ready to be put out to the fragrant pastures of academic retirement. Well, Dr Jonathan Miller is now only days away from his Biblical three-score and ten, and yet - as far as I know - there is no Festschrift in the offing for this uniquely accomplished British intellectual. Such neglect might seem a cause for lamentation, until you ask yourself: (a) what exactly is Dr Miller's field, anyway? (In the words of a modern Australian poet, he appears to be "only interested in everything" - thus, less a polymath than a pantomath); and (b) would he ever be able to keep still for long enough to accept the honour?

At the age of 69 years 11 months and several days, Jonathan Miller is still maintaining a schedule of commitments that might well exhaust a man 40 years his junior, and can certainly exhaust some of us just to contemplate. When I finally pin him down for a quick pre-birthday chat at his north London house, he has just returned from a stint in Tokyo where he's been directing Verdi's Falstaff ("I've already done it three times...") and is on the eve of catching a plane to New York where he'll be directing Cosi Fan Tutte. Not one to waste a spare couple of days, he's been using the gap between the two trips to complete shooting a BBC4 series on atheism; it should be on screens in September.

He's still pretty much as slender as he was in the days when he routinely popped up on the likes of the old Parkinson show to make hyper-intelligence seem fun - charming, dazzling and generally making most other guests look sluggish and pre-verbal. There's barely a hint of a senior citizen tummy, and not the faintest suggestion of jowls. The only real sign of advancing years - a price sometimes paid by those who don't have plump features - is that his face is now noticeably more lined, and - today at least - rather pale. Otherwise, it's the same Roman senator's profile, the same seethingly excited energy as ever.

As you might expect, the private man is every bit as restlessly energetic as the public maestro. "I feel livelier now I'm 70 than I did when I was 40..." Yes, Dr Miller, I can well believe that. Do you think it helps that you don't drink much? "I don't drink at all, though everyone in my family does. It's not because I disapprove of it, but because I can't bear the taste. Beer I can't bear because it looks like the frothing effluent of a cow-shed, and wine seems to me... well, why let grapes go off? I've never been able to drink enough to enjoy the supposed pleasures of drunkenness. No..."

Even sitting down, Miller remains strenuously active. He will deploy his arms like an impassioned conductor, to add physical eloquence to his verbal flights, tracing each fresh nuance in the air with a swift hand gesture, or he'll stroke his brow, or fold and refold his famously ectomorphic body origami-style to echo and amplify and enact the turns of his thoughts. (No wonder he has devoted a good deal of time to the study of non-verbal communication.) Every so often he jumps up and ransacks his ceiling-high bookshelves for some scholarly plum or other - his father's first edition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, or the essays of W H R Rivers (another pantomathic doctor), or a beautiful two-volume set of The Anatomy of Melancholy. As to the style of Miller's talk itself: it's exactly as you have no doubt heard it on radio and television: bursts of enviable fluency punctuated by careful pauses as he reaches for the mot juste... except that, off-mike, he enjoys swearing. He is very good at swearing.

Now, if you have been a sentient citizen of this country for the past few decades, you will not need much more in the way of introduction to Jonathan Miller, who among his other feats has gracefully sustained the cartoonish - and sometimes spiteful - popular myth of being the Cleverest Man in the World. A swift resumé might, however, be in order: Jonathan Miller made his first public appearance on 21 July 1934. (As far as we know, he was not at that time capable of flawlessly grammatical speech; but he's made up for it since.) He was put to school at St Paul's, where his fellows included the likes of Oliver Sacks - one hardly knows whether to pity or envy the masters - and then went on to St John's, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences, and qualified as a Doctor of Medicine in 1959.

Enter Fate. In 1960, in the company of fellow Footlighters Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, he co-wrote and co-starred in Beyond the Fringe, first at Edinburgh (1960), then in London (1961-62) and finally in New York (1962-64). Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive... As a member of the original Fab Four, Miller found all sorts of doors opened to his non-medical skills, and walked through most of them. He began to direct for the stage in 1962 with John Osborne's Under Plain Cover, became the film critic for The New Yorker (1963) and revolutionised British arts television as editor and presenter of Monitor (1964-65), enthralling or appalling a public who had never heard of Susan Sontag or Andy Warhol. Since then... well, were I feeling idle, I could more than fill the rest of this article with an unadorned list of his works.

He has staged dozens and dozens of plays, both classical and modern, live and recorded, in theatres and studios around the world. He directed at least two of the best, most underrated films in British cinema (or TV) history, Alice in Wonderland and Whistle and I'll Come to You. He has written and presented some innovative television series on the sciences and the arts, notably The Body in Question (13 parts, 1977), States of Mind (15 parts, 1982) and Who Cares? (6 parts, 1989). He has written and edited books on McLuhan, Freud, Darwin, the Don Giovanni myth, the history of art and the nature of theatre.

More recently, he has come out as an unexpectedly gifted visual artist, specialising in quasi-abstract photography of urban detritus, paper collages and junk-metal sculpture. Further details of his brilliant career may be found in the forthcoming authorised biography by my esteemed colleague Kate Bassett, theatre critic of this paper.

So, where does one begin a conversation with the World's Cleverest Man? Anywhere or everywhere; and in this case with assorted aperçus on the topic of atheism (though Miller doesn't like being called an atheist - there is no word which proclaims him a non-believer specifically in witches or mediumship, so why should non-belief in Gods be thought so significantly defining?) But before long we are following many another fast-running conceptual bunny, from the rise of Derridean deconstruction ("bullshit") to the fall of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic method (he doubts whether the Talking Cure ever has cured, though remains fascinated by Freud as a writer), from the history of mesmerism and Animal Magnetism to current philosophical work on consciousness. This last segues elegantly into a topic Miller has been thinking about a great deal of late - atrocities, and how and why they are committed.

"I've just been re-reading the Christopher Browning book Ordinary Men, and was very struck by the fact that many of the men who objected, or tried to opt out of the various shootings and massacres and cruelties which took place in Poland and Russia in 1941 and 1942 did so out of disgust rather than disapproval - the physical disgust at the splashing of brains and the fragments of skulls that they had to wipe off their bodies. There were surprisingly few people who objected on the basis of it appalling them morally...

"That whole business of submission to authority, and of what makes men do what they later felt to be horrible, and what they would have previously thought inconceivable, is a very complicated and interesting question. Browning asks it, as Goldhagen fails to do in Hitler's Willing Executioners, where he actually puts it down to a sort of psychotic peculiarity on the part of Germans with respect to anti-Semitism. Browning sees that it's much more complicated than that..." And Miller goes on to dwell on the cases of the eight or nine million Africans slaughtered in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold, at Pol Pot's Year Zero in Cambodia, at massacres in Armenia... "It behoves us to see this as a universal human problem."

This is profoundly glum stuff for an interview that is prompted by an upcoming birthday, so I try to lighten the subject a little by asking Miller for some appropriately retrospective remarks. He is, I think it fair to say, not greatly given to introspection. With a bit of prompting, though, he is willing to reminisce a little. How, for example, did he look back on his relationships with the late Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?

"Well, I didn't see all that much of them after Beyond the Fringe. I did direct Dudley several years after we had separated. When I did my Mikado in Los Angeles he played KoKo, and I spent a little time with him then. But he had already been rotted by Californian life - psychoanalysis and New Age drivel... Peter I saw from time to time - we were never very close friends, but once a year or so I went round for a chat." No great sense of bereavement, then? "I was saddened, because I think they died rather wretched deaths, particularly Dudley, a victim of this really quite appalling disease - a horrible disease: locked-in disorders are really impossible to imagine; and Peter who died quite unnecessarily because he was drunk. He had a wretched life, I think, towards the end. So, no, I don't feel bereaved, but I do have great compassion for the lives they had to endure up to their deaths...

"I think there was also a distance created by the fact that he [Cook] was the proprietor of a magazine [Private Eye] which hounded me for so many years... I was, for them, the epitome of the title they invented - the 'pseud'. What they were, that Ingrams crowd, was minor public-school Christian bullies, for whom I was the smart-arse Jewboy... They had that sort of public school prefect's world of rancid jockstraps, canes and roughing up the swots..."

How about major regrets? You've sometimes spoken rather wistfully about your move away from science to the arts. "Yes, I do look back on that with regret - and I have made failed attempts to get back to what I believe I ought to have done in the first place, which is to carry on being a neurologist." The seductions of the theatre were too great? "I think it flatters the theatre too much to say that they were seductions. I will never extinguish the regret I have for not going on to be a neurologist, or a neuropsychologist - but then there wasn't any neuropsychology at the time I was going into it, there was just hard-grind neurology, and the slow climb up the registrar ladder. You were paid very little, you worked very long hours with uncertainty of promotion, and you were often not a consultant until you were 40. Now people get to be consultants by the time they are 31 or 32...

"What drew me into medicine was neurology, and what drew me into neurology were philosophical interests in the nature of intentional action, volition, perception, what it was to recognise things and to understand what things were and the ability to name them and use them..." Well, you don't need to have read much modern philosophy to recognise that these are some of the key topics of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations... "Wittgenstein was an enormous influence on me when I was at Cambridge, but by that time I was already in medicine, so I think that I was drawn to Wittgenstein for interests which I had before I read Wittgenstein, in the same way I was drawn to Erving Goffman [the extraordinary sociologist] for reasons which were already in existence - it was a shock of recognition when I read Goffman. I know that many philosophers would now say about Wittgenstein, 'Oh, that's really very old hat stuff,' but I still keep the Blue and Brown Books beside my bed, rather like a Bible.

"One of the wonderful things about the development of thought in the last 20 years has been the convergence of philosophy and neurology. The more sophisticated neurologists have become acquainted with modern philosophy, and modern philosophy has become more and more preoccupied with the facts of the brain, so that someone like Daniel Dennett will actually acquaint himself with clinical disorders...

"I would very much like to go on writing about neurology. And I would like to go on thinking about it. And I would like to spend time being allowed to attend ward rounds or to attend clinical conferences, which I have done more recently. But I'm an outsider, now, necessarily; I would be an informed amateur."

Does he nurse any outstanding ambitions in the arts? Our culture isn't very good at letting older people direct movies, but in Japan and elsewhere it has often been commonplace for film directors such as Ozu, Bresson or Dreyer to work well into their eighties and nineties. "I would very much like to work in films again, though I'm not sure that I could cope with meeting the people you have to deal with nowadays to get films made. Many years ago, when I was trying to get Alice in Wonderland made as a commercial film, I visited a man called [deep, oily, Californian schmoozer's voice] Bud Ornstein from United Artists. And he came out of his bedroom, and gave me that incubating handshake where one of your hands is taken in both of his, and gave me that absolutely mirthless sincere look, and said 'Jon-a-thaaaahn, we at United Artists are very interested in the idea of getting into the zany area...' Hopeless.

"But there are films I'd very much like to make. Though it would be almost unbearable to sit through, there's something about Christopher Browning's book which would make the most extraordinary film. If what's-isname, Spielberg, can make Saving Private Ryan and have the first 20 minutes full of people being disembowelled in the sea off Normandy, I think one could have equally horrible scenes and expose something much more serious... And for years and years, I've wanted to make a film of Kafka's Amerika, which is the most wonderful thing... It connects with Alice in Wonderland - Kafka's character is really a male Alice, wandering through this dishevelled dreamscape of an America which Kafka had never visited... But today, you've got to be 23 to be considered. You only become attractive when you've worked with Nicole Kidman."

You've been actively involved in British culture for well over 40 years now: what is your view of its state nowadays? Flourishing, promising, mediocre, hopelessly debased, or just as bad as ever but in a different way? "I think it's differently bad. People always rashly say that things have deteriorated, and you have to be very careful about your partiality. But there are unquestionably certain things which have deteriorated very badly indeed. The cult of celebrity, which never existed 30 years ago... There is undoubtedly dumbing down almost everywhere, in the name of opposition to what is called elitism..." Which thoughtlessly conflates notions of unfair social privilege and... "And, simply, the excellent. It's lucky Newton isn't alive today. People would have said that the Principia is simply the result of elitism - how dare someone project the differential calculus and make it all so difficult...

"Excellent, difficult thought was once approved and applauded. Take the Reith lectures. In my day, and my father's day, the Reith lectures were looked forward to every year by a serious, attentive audience who would make an appointment to huddle over the wireless - as it was called - and listen to someone speak, for an hour, to a subject. Now, Sue Lawley presides over a 20-minute presentation in front of an audience at the Royal Institution. Something very serious has happened to the life of the mind if such things have to be a form of entertainment or, if it's not understood that it's extremely entertaining to listen to consistent, uninterrupted thought.

"It is far more difficult than it once was to get a sustained, serious set of documentary programmes on television now... We didn't have 'commissioning editors' in those days, and the BBC was populated by people who would otherwise have been schoolteachers, and who were, in fact, intellectuals. I remember Peter Ustinov once did a wonderful spoof... he did a tour of the BBC, and said 'Now we're going round the back, and here's the doorman at the entrance to the Third Programme, reading Proust - no, I'm wrong - re-reading Proust...' The very fact that you could make jokes like that was an acknowledgement that there was this section within the BBC made up of Fitzrovian intellectuals, people who would find no employment there now."

And Miller himself says that he has found it increasingly hard to find employment in Britain - though not quite impossible, as the forthcoming series on atheism shows. He has sometimes waxed intemperate, and said that he's about to give up on the UK because he's never invited to direct any more by, oh, the RSC or the National or the Donmar. This clearly wounds him deeply; but surely he must be aware that he still has a large and varied audience in this country who feel respect and affection for him, even if they've only ever spotted him on the more sedate chat shows or heard him on the radio?

"Oh, yes, I know - and Rachel [his wife] always reassures me when I get depressed - that there is a constituency of people who like what I do, enjoy my appearances, like my productions, agree with what I write and think that I am a valuable presence in the English life of the mind. But on the whole they are very quiet - they have no reason to declare themselves on the subject. It's only opposition which is eloquent..."

That loyal constituency will be cheered to learn that Miller plans to be spending a lot less time overseas after the next couple of years: "I am now very very impatient with the operatic world, I am doing my best to get out of it. I'm already reducing my engagements. I certainly can't think of any more operas I want to do - and then there are all the other things I want to do" - activities which include a lot more sculpting and collage-making, as well as that long-postponed, semi-outsider's return to neurology and philosophy.

In sum, does he feel inclined to celebrate his imminent 70th? "No, I've never celebrated my birthday since I was 14. All that I celebrate, and it's not so much a celebration as a sigh of relief, is that I'm not derelict yet, I'm not disabled, I haven't had a heart attack, I haven't had a stroke, my blood pressure is still normal, I can still remember things and think clearly... and I find that my work is as productive as it was, say, 15 years ago. I've lived so long and seen so much - like Lear! - that I have a great deal to bring to the theatre. The scales of bullshit have fallen from my eyes. I see life fairly clearly. And I have seen the full span of human existence from childhood to old age, and what I see on the stage I think is clearer than most of my younger colleagues."

He then concedes that on the evening of the day itself he will in fact be hosting a small dinner in New York, with old friends from the New York Review of Books circle and the theatre world. As I am very much of the party which holds that Jonathan Miller should be acknowledged as a Living National Treasure, let me quietly propose that we - all of us who have relished his productions, laughed at his witticisms, learned from his erudition or simply felt relieved that his refreshingly sane voice can still be heard from time to time amid the froth and dross and bile of the media - should lift a glass in his honour on 21 July. A glass of some suitably non-alcoholic beverage, of course.



Appeared in Miller's 'Alice' and his ENO 'Mikado'

We could only get standing tickets [to see Beyond the Fringe], but it was just as well because I would never have stayed in my seat - I was rolling around the walls. It changed my life absolutely. It was like a liberation, going from a grim boarding school to that world where you could laugh at all the things that were repressing you. It was a direct influence on Monty Python ... [although] with his flowing conversational monologues, Jonathan was actually very modern, like today's observational comics in an odd way.


Author, neurologist, lifelong friend

I sent a box of my writings to Jonathan [in 1960], asking him to do the right thing if I died. Many of my friends thought I would not make it to 30. I was not only self-destructive but negligent or destructive of many of my manuscripts. I think the original manuscript of Awakenings got destroyed in 1969. I had mercifully given a carbon copy to Jonathan, but forgotten this. In 1972, he took it over the road to his neighbour, the publisher Colin Haycraft. Then Colin said he loved it ... and this becomes my own story now. However, it was Jonathan who, in fact, saved my writings.


A director at the NT under Peter Hall, before Miller's 1974 resignation

I thought that Jonathan was worth his weight in gold at the National with this quite dazzling cross-referential mind, his ideas coming from outside the theatre. It jostled the pack. But this was in conflict with Peter Hall's notion of the correct production and, at one point,

he cancelled a whole raft of Jonathan's planned productions. It was an absolutely devastating blow to Jonathan's belief in himself, but he is, of course, irrepressible ... He has made ideas exciting, made people reconsider the classics and brought people to the opera.


The conductor who, with Miller, made Kent Opera headline news

It was magic [working with him], like those bread-makers where you just turn the handle. It shouldn't be so easy. He has a historical awareness which most directors don't have. As a doctor and a comic, he's a brilliant observer of human behaviour. I would say he did a lot to naturalise acting in opera.


Director of the TV series, 'The Body in Question'

He would throw up these suggestions, comparing the body to, say, an Underground map ... a mass of metaphorical examples. He's only nervous about one thing: his stammer. Words beginning with "g" become like fences in the Grand National, so I had to think of all sorts of ploys ... In the end, we became like a band of guerrillas inside the BBC. We filmed a post-mortem, without actually getting permission - pulling out the intestines, the whole lot. It was pretty amazing they let it through.


Owner of the Old Vic, of which Miller was artistic director in 1988-90

Jonathan gave us the most compelling vision of what could go on [at the Old Vic]: European classics staged extraordinarily imaginatively. He had a profound impact on English theatre; it still echoes. The best compliment I had was Stephen Daldry saying how the Miller years affected how younger professionals looked at theatre ... The only problem was we were not able to find a large enough audience. We stopped before I had to sell my art collection.

Interviews by Kate Bassett