Rebecca Tyrrel: 'So talented is Jonathan Miller, 'Spitting Image' cast him as a surgeon on the phone to the ENO'


Who knew that there maybe something at which Jonathan Miller is not wildly talented? Three sculptural 'assemblages' he displayed in the front garden of his Camden home were removed in the belief that they were unwanted detritus. "We are having our old cast-iron bath replaced, and it was broken in half and left in the front garden," a crestfallen Miller revealed in 2007. "A group of people with some utterly forgettable title … offered to clear the garden … It was only a couple of hours later that we noticed the sculptures had gone."

An utterly forgettable title, such as scrap-metal merchant, may be better than no title at all. The removed objets were never entitled by Miller, who disapproves of naming art on the grounds that this is limiting. "That's the great discovery of abstract art," he once explained. "It doesn't have to be about anything." With hindsight, this looks like what the Woody Allen art pseud might describe as a touch jejune: had they been adorned with brass plaques, they would never have vanished.

This was a rare failure for the Steptoe of Gloucester Crescent, the Camden road famously crammed with leading thinkers such as Alan Bennett (though no metal merchant ever cleared his garden of the metal accoutrements belonging to his Lady in the Van). So multifaceted is Dr Miller, theatre and operatic director, satirist, author, actor and general all-round smartypants (technically, intellectual), that Spitting Image portrayed him as a surgeon on the phone to the English National Opera, while simultaneously running a minicab service and performing an organ transplant.

What inspired this latter-day Leonardo to turn his hand to sculpting is unknown, though some art historians will see the influence of an American polymath barely less revered than Miller himself. In a 1999 Simpsons episode, 'Mom and Pop Art', the result of Homer's bemused attempt to execute the instructions on a self-assembly barbecue kit so impresses an art-dealer as an expression of channelled rage, that it is exhibited in a major museum.

Homer has been described by Simpsons director David Silverman as "creatively brilliant in his stupidity". Whether Dr Jonathan Miller is stupidly creative in his brilliance, happily he suffered no Van Gogh-style crisis of confidence after the disappearance. "I actually got rather good at it," he wistfully reflected. "I liked them. They were some of the best pieces I've done."