Jonathan Miller: man with two brains who straddled the worlds of arts and science

Jonathan Miller, still from The Body in Question (1978).
BBC Pictures

Rohan McWilliam, Anglia Ruskin University

Pretty much all the tributes to Jonathan Miller, who has died aged 85, end up using the term “Renaissance Man” at some point. Miller had a mastery of arts and science that few achieve – he was, at various points, a doctor, an actor, a director, a writer, a darling of the TV chat show circuit and a sculptor.

For many, he will be remembered as one of the dazzling four performers in Beyond the Fringe (along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett), who launched in 1960 the satire boom which later gave us Monty Python. For others, Miller is known for his major documentary series, The Body in Question (1978), which – literally – opened up the body and – less literally – medical history in much the same way that Kenneth Clarke opened up Civilisation for a mass audience.

But Miller was also known for a remarkable number of pioneering theatre and opera productions, such as the English National Opera’s enduringly popular “mafia-style” Rigoletto, with its 1950s New York setting.

Miller clearly made a huge difference but how can we define his importance, especially as it was spread across so many fields?

Two cultures

Miller’s arts and science background enabled him to cross disciplinary boundaries and make exciting connections. He was the perfect riposte to the Two Cultures debate (1959-62) between F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow, which focused on the lack of conversation between arts and science. If we consider how scholars now embrace interdisciplinarity, we should note that Miller blazed the trail.

Miller should also be viewed as one of the architects of liberal Britain in the post-war period. He rejoiced in being an irreverent free thinker (presenting a television series about his atheism) while saying, on one occasion in a lecture he gave, that censorship was about as ridiculous as adjusting one’s clothing when leaping out of a burning building. Miller paid no regard to traditional ways of presenting a play. His 1970 production of The Tempest broke new ground by presenting it as a drama about colonialism – now a standard interpretation.

Jonathan Miller, far right, in Beyond the Fringe, 1962, with, from left, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook.
Friedman-Abeles, New York

Miller was the product of what Frederick Raphael called the “glittering prizes” generation of the 1950s in which Oxbridge-educated graduates, such as theatre director Peter Hall and TV presenter David Frost, moved effortlessly into major posts in the arts and the media. A star turn in the Cambridge Footlights led Miller to Beyond the Fringe, which became a huge hit.

He performed in the show while carrying on with his medical training by day, but, having become a doctor, he was soon seduced away to become the producer of the BBC arts programme, Monitor, where his focus on figures like Susan Sontag led to accusations of pretentiousness.

Private Eye frequently ridiculed him as a “pseud”. This was not helped by his 1966 film of Alice in Wonderland, which dispensed with Lewis Carroll’s wit and interpreted the story as the adolescent dream of a girl on the verge of puberty.

The popular press wrongly claimed he was deploying Freud to sexualise a children’s story (or creating an “X-certificate Alice”). The ambition of Miller’s version is a rebuke to the more conventional literary adaptations on television today.

Theatrical trailblazer

At the National Theatre Miller directed Laurence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice (1970), adopting a Victorian setting that brought out the links between capitalism and antisemitism in the play. He quickly gained a reputation for presenting classical plays in the costumes of another period so as to emphasise a particular aspect of them. In fact, most of his productions were presented in period, paying careful attention to the visual culture of which they were a part.

He was influenced by the social psychologist Erving Goffman, which is why his productions paid careful attention to manners, hand gestures, silences and the varying protocols of conversation.

When he came to direct Eugene O'Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night with Jack Lemmon (1986), he notoriously made the very long play run much shorter by having the protagonists frequently speak over each other, imitating speech patterns in ordinary life.

There was a strongly anthropological feel to his productions. Miller’s ability to make intellectual connections made him unusual among modern directors. He once complained to me that Peter Hall (with whom he had a long-running feud) never bothered to read a book. Hall, for his part, felt Miller took on the task of directing in the same spirit as if he was writing for the New York Review of Books.

It was, however, in opera that Miller really made his mark, travelling the world putting on productions for many of the great opera houses. Miller brought psychological realism to the operatic stage, insisting that singers also had to act.

Although he directed productions from across the repertoire, he had a love of Mozart as a great musical dramatist. He became a major figure in opening up opera to a wider audience, stripping the form of its exclusivity.

Miller became the producer of part of the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 1980s where he developed effective ways of doing Shakespeare by using the close up for soliloquies and employing contemporary paintings for inspiration. His Taming of the Shrew enjoyed the casting coup of John Cleese as Petruchio. When he took over the Old Vic in 1988, he produced the most intellectually ambitious repertoire that London has seen in a long time. His production of George Chapman’s Bussy D'Ambois (1603) was probably the first since the 17th century.

Two minds

Kate Bassett called her 2012 biography of Miller In Two Minds, which captures the split in his life. Miller was haunted by his decision to abandon the medical profession where he had hoped to excel.

Jonathan Miller’s pop-up book, The Human Body.

But his restless intellectual energy was, however, a key part of the arts scene over four decades and he became a major force in making scientific knowledge available (he was happy to produce a pop-up book about the body and a book about Darwin in comic book form).

Miller felt he was never truly appreciated in his own country. Yet this was not true – he was hugely admired in Britain. Few did more to excite people about the arts and the sciences or make them confront the world of ideas in an accessible way. For those who grew up with Miller, paying tribute to him is a debt of honour.The Conversation

Rohan McWilliam, Professor of Modern British History, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


alternative Amanda Palmer Amazon ambient Andrew Elias andy warhol animal farm anna freeman anonymous Anthropocene Anthropology Anxiety Archaeology aristotle ars electronica arse art art news Art therapy Arthur O'Shaughnessy articles artists Arts Arts funding artzine ash audience Austerity australia avant garde Axwell babel bacon Bacteria bame bangalore Barnabe Barnes bat bats BBC BBC charter BBC licence fee BBC television Be Bop Deluxe beardsley bebop beer bengaluru Berlin Berlin Wall Bhutan bigotry Bill Nelson Billy Bragg billy childish Bird conservation Birds Black academics Black history Black History Month 2019 black lives matter blinded by the light blue light Blur Boards Bob Dylan books Boris Johnson bow box sets British art British Empire British Museum Bronze Age BST Byron Camper Van Beethoven cartoon castle Cate le Bon cats cds celery channel charity charlie chaplin chatterley Cheese Cheesemaking childhood rhyme choir Christina Rossetti christmas cinema Classical music Climate change clocks clothing Clubs Cold War collage colonial Comedy Coming up for Air Community competition Composition Coolio coorg Coronavirus Courtney Barnett covid-19 COVID-19 lockdown COVID-19 recovery creative industry creativity Cultural institutions culture curator curious Curious Kids D H Lawrence dada dadaism dale harding dance Dance music Darren Hayman David Bowie david hockney death declan welsh deliveroo democracy Desert locust destruction Diet digital Digital archives DJs Dominic Cummings Dóra Maurer Doris Day download Dr Johnson dream Drenge drums Dumfries dundee Dylan Thomas e-book E. E. Cummings East Germany ECO economics economy Edgar Allan Poe Edinburgh Edna St Vincent Millay Edward Lear electronic Elizabeth Barrett Browning Employment English language Ensemble environment Epicurus Erasure Eric Ravilious Esra Furman essays Ethnic minorities European Research Group Evelyn Ida Morris exhibition extinction rebellion Ezra Furman facebook fanzines fashion Federico García Lorca Feminism Feminism and art festival film folk fontaines dc Fontaines DC Food Food science foot artists France free free russia Future Gare Loch GDP gender inequality George Gascoigne George Harrison George Orwell Gig economy Glasgow Global perspectives GMT Grammar Grayson Perry green issues grenfell Grime grotesque handel happiness Harry Graham hate Heatwave heaven 17 heritage heroes history hogmanay Hollywood homeless Homer Hot Chip humour if you feel it it's real iggy ignorance illustration Inclusive Music Making india indian Indie music Industrial Revolution instagram Interdisciplinarity international labour day international workers day interweb Iron Age Isolation Italy ITV Jack Peñate James Joyce James Taylor janey godley jazz John Cooper Clarke John Keats john Lennon John Linney Journalistic ethics Judi Werthein kara walker Karl Marx Karnataka kat himmel Katharina Garrard (no relation) Katherine Mansfield Keep the Aspidistra Flying keith haring Ken Loach Ken Sprague kensington Kenya Khalil Gibran labour Lamb Language Laurie Anderson les dennis Lewis Carroll lgbtq lgbttqi lights literature live live performance lockdown Locusts london love lucy spraggan lyrics Mae West magazines Malcolm X manchester Martin Niemoeller Marvin Gaye Matthew Arnold may day Maya Angelou McGonagall Meat Meat eaters memorials mental health messiah MGM Michael Sailstorfer Milk Milton mind MISSY HIGGINS Mistakes Mobile apps modern Monty Python moon Museums music music hall Music industry Music therapy music venues Musicals Musicians my map mysore mysuru nanohour national gallery of scotland National Orchestra For All neil finn neon news nhs norfolk norwich Nostalgia Not sure if it's a poem novara media Ocean Colour Scene of course older age Older people Oliver Herford online Opera Orchestras For All Ensemble Ornithology oxfam pain Paramount Pictures Patrick Staff Paul Garrard Paul McCartney Pay gap peace Pensions financial planning people people power perception Performance Philip Larkin photo photography photos picture pitchfork podcasting podcasts poem Poet Laureate poetry Political accountability Political communication Political journalism politics Pop music poster pottery poverty Primal Scream print printing prints Psychasthenia public domain pubs Purple pussy riot quote Race racism radio rainbow Raves RBSA Relaxation religion research Retirement Rewilding Richard Hawley Ringo Starr Robert Burns Robert Frank Robert Herrick Roman Empire Rose Finn-Kelcey Roy Lichtenstein Rudyard Kipling Rutles salad sandalwood satire sayings science scooty Scotland Serpentine sex Shakespears Sister Shelley Shocking Blue Sierra Leone silvery tay sin Sixties Sixties culture sketches Slave Trade Sleaford Mods snippet Snow Patrol social media socialism soundscape sparks Species reintroductions springsteen stained glass stand up comedy Stanley Spencer Steve Knightley Stewart Lee stratford-upon-avon streaming Strypes stuff style Swinging Sixties Switzerland Sybil Andrews Sydney Smith taking back control tapes tate tay Techno music Telegram Tennyson the arts The Beatles The Clergyman's Daughter The Jam The National Gallery The Only Ones The Pocket Gods Theatre thing time tips toilet humour tories traffic trains Transatlantic slave trade Trumbull Stickney trump Turner Prize tv twitter type Uber UK comedy UK culture UK economy UK election 2019 uk music UK politics UK pop music UK theatre UKIP understanding Unemployment unfinished unions Universities unknown author US movies valie export Van Gogh Veganism Vegetarianism Victorians video Vijaya Vitthala Temple vinyl Voter registration Voting W B Yeats wanted war Wassily Kandinsky water Wellbeing Welsh poetry Wendy Cope West Germany Wetlands WH Auden whales what is art WhatsApp Wildfire Wilfred Owen William Blake William Shakespeare William Wordsworth Wilson Keppel and Betty Wolfy O'Hare women women academics Women in film woody guthrie Wordsworth working from home Writing yeah yeah yeahs Young Composer Youth Orchestra youtube Zero-hour contracts zines Zoom
Show more