How We Met: Sir Jonathan Miller & Barrie Rutter
'We agreed that Received Pronunciation is based on public schools, and it became them and us'
Sir Jonathan Miller CBE, 78
Despite training as a doctor in the late 1950s, Miller (left in picture) came to public prominence as part of the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe with fellow performers Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. He is now one of our most renowned theatre and opera directors. He lives in north London with his wife.
I was directing The Taming of the Shrew, at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, and Barrie was a very good young actor playing a minor part. We got on well and had easy gossips together.
I've been doing operas for 30 years now, and I don't follow anyone's career – I can scarcely follow my own – but I did hear a few things he got up to, such as when he cast Lenny Henry [ in his stage production of Othello, in 2009], which I thought was an interesting idea.
Then last year I got a call from him, asking me and my wife to come and see a Shakespeare production in Halifax being put on by his company, Northern Broadsides. I was pleased with what we saw: it was nice hearing it in local accents instead of in that awful Shakespearean tone. What I like about Barrie is that he's straightforward with no silly arty-crafty pretensions. I'm particularly pleased with how he's helped get rid of all that Received Pronunciation bullshit that people like Olivier and Gielgud created by putting on a special voice.
What's interesting, too, is that [Northern Broadsides] is not based in a glamorous theatre but a converted industrial mill, [a world away] from the gilded world of conventional theatre which I'm impatient with as well.
He asked me to direct him in a production of [Githa Sowerby's] Rutherford & Son, for his company, with him playing the title role. It's a wonderful, unpretentious play about an industrial family suffering during a recession, and has some qualities of the best of Chekhov, and I agreed. He came down with the rest of the cast and they all sat in our kitchen and did read-throughs. While he formed the company, he's very humble; he doesn't lord it over the others.
The function of all art is that it draws attention to things the audience has seen all their lives but have simply not been smart enough to notice; you make the negligible considerable. And Barrie's a particularly great practitioner of it.
Barrie Rutter, 66
The Yorkshire-born actor and director founded touring theatre company Northern Broadsides in 1992, setting Shakespearean and classic texts to local accents. He lives in Yorkshire.
Way back in 1968 I was doing an apprenticeship at the National Youth Theatre and Jonathan was a guest there [for the performances]. He prompted a director he was working with, to go see this "dynamic young kid", and that director gave me my first job. So with that casual acknowledgment, my life was mapped out.
I didn't actually meet Jonathan, though, until 1987, when he cast me as Grumio in his production of The Taming of the Shrew. And although we got on well, I didn't see him again until two years ago!
I wanted him to come up and see the space we normally work in, with Northern Broadsides. So I wrote to him, saying it's rough and ready and you're entitled not to like it, but you must come and look at it. He was too busy with an opera at first but when the opportunity to stage Rutherford & Son came up, I thought it perfect for Jonathan, so I wrote to him again and he said yes.
Jonathan has 50 years' worth of skills in working in the theatre and opera and he's staged world-famous, staggeringly original productions such as his Rigoletto and I knew we could use those skills. As he says about directing, you need to remind actors what they already know, and get out of them what they shouldn't have forgotten in the first place.
So he came up to see [our production of] Love's Labour's Lost in the spring with his wife, and he loved the production. With Shakespearean performances we both agree that the birth of Received Pronunciation was based on stubborn public schools, and it became them and us, and I'm a believer in the nobility of my own voice and pricking that bubble.
I've read every word of his biography by Kate Bassett – it's a terrific read. How would I describe him? Passionate is a good word. He's every adjective you want to put on him. He has this incredibly imaginative approach to life without being prissy and he can't bare the fripperies of his profession. I, on the other hand, quite like the bling.
But he's sensitive to criticism, too. I know his children used to watch him being caricatured on Spitting Image and take the piss out of him. It was a good show for puncturing the ego, but his kids were puncturing [it] every day!
'Rutherford & Son' is at Northern Broadsides' theatre in Halifax (northern-broadsides.co.uk) until 8 February then tours until 1 June
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