When his production of a little-known Handel opera, Tamerlano, opened in London last week, Jonathan Miller was 8,000 miles away, touring the scrapyards of Santa Fe. The New Mexico desert town is staging a festival at which Miller is directing a production of Verdi's Falstaff, but it also gives him the opportunity to indulge the latest of his many passions sculpture.
"I go down to the scrapyard every few days and come back with all sorts of bits and pieces," he says. "Lumps of metal, steel plates. I've just picked up a rusting alternator."
Miller has learnt how to weld and thus the doctor, writer, TV programme-maker, director of opera and plays, and one-time satirist has added yet another string to his bow.
"I just like tinkering around," he explains. "Most of one's activities aren't really to do with self-expression. You just tinker. If you ask arts people what they're doing when they're working on something you'll find that they just like playing with stuff. Then you stand back and look and it can be very gratifying."
The abstract compositions Miller has created out of all this discarded machinery are, he says, "very derivative", and he mentions Kurt Schwitters, the German collagist who spent time in the Lake District in the 1940s, and the school of Russian Constructivism that was prominent earlier in the 20th century . "I don't think these pieces are statements," Miller says. "I'm just very pleased with the geometrical arrangements that are possible. And I've never met an uninfluenced artist in my life. I'm an old-fashioned modernist, I suppose. I'm not of the Tracey Emin world."
Miller may have discovered his most personal creative outlet yet, and he makes no great claims for his work. But that hasn't stopped him wanting to try it out on the public. In the autumn, the Angela Flowers gallery in London will be giving Miller his first show. It will comprise mainly collages, with, he hopes, some of his Santa Fe sculptures, but that depends on whether he can get these enormously heavy objects transported across the Atlantic.
Already he is bracing himself for the "jack-of-all-trades, too-clever-by-half" accusations that have dogged his career ever since he emerged from the Beyond the Fringe quartet in the mid-Sixties to pursue a range of projects from arts to medicine that has been so eclectic that some critics have found it hard to accept him. But he points to the endorsement of Flowers, who, he says, has plenty of celebrities coming to her with paintings they'd like exhibited, only to discover that she judges them on the same merits as she would with an unknown. "I was reassured by that," Miller says. "There's no way she would put on this show just because of who the work is by."
Very little of the work Miller is best known for his opera productions has originated in Britain in recent years. Back in the Eighties he was responsible for two English National Opera productions a Mafia version of Verdi's Rigoletto, and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado that reinterpreted them so successfully that they remain in the repertory. But with later work he felt the chill winds of critical disfavour, and in the Nineties sought to re-establish himself abroad, enjoying critical successes in Santa Fe and, in particular, Zurich. "I'm made to feel quite valued there," he says. "I got into trouble at home a few years ago for complaining about the peevishness of English critics, and I suppose I've always had a bumpy ride. Then about five years ago I came back and did A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Almeida, and condescension was just poured all over me. That was really that."
At 66, Miller finds criticism harder to take. "The senile skin gets thinner. In a way you ought to be stronger, to be able to say, well, I've done this for 30 years, I really do know more than most of the critics, I've got lots to my credit. It's do with getting old. You don't sleep too well, you feel illnesses are coming your way, you get shakier about the way you're treated. But I don't want this to sound like a sob story. It's no worse for me than it is for my colleagues."
And as much as the reviews, it is the practicalities of life as a touring director that Miller says he has increasing difficulty with. "Lining up in airports and taking long journeys is all very exciting when you're a young man. But sometimes I look at myself and wonder what I'm still doing. I'm whittling away my life, and really I'd rather be at home with my family."
Miller and his wife have two sons and a daughter, and two grandchildren. They've lived in the same house in Camden in north London for 45 years, just across the road from Alan Bennett, another member of the Beyond the Fringe team, and the two remain friends. Of the other two, Peter Cook is dead and Dudley Moore lives in the US, ravaged by an incurable brain disease. He and Miller had not been in contact much since long before Moore fell ill. "Dudley very much kept himself to that Hollywood world. He was busy marrying and re-marrying, and you didn't get to see him really."
With a book, a sculpture or an opera production on the go sometimes all three Miller's only form of relaxation is, he says, "domesticity". Certainly the more conventional forms of putting one's feet up are quite alien to him. A few years ago, he and his wife booked a holiday over Christmas in Grenada in the West Indies. It was so much not the sort of trip they had ever taken that Miller might have known it was a mistake. "Within three days I was so exasperatingly bored that we came home. My children were rather surprised when we turned up for breakfast with them on Christmas morning."
Miller traces his lack of interest in the exotic back to his mother. "I remember when I was young and all my friends were going abroad and I would ask her if we could go abroad too. And she always said that if you couldn't find interest in what was surrounding you then you wouldn't find it anywhere. She was a devotee of the negligible and the trivial and the commonplace, and I've become like that myself. That's what my sculpture is all about."
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