I arranged to interview Sir Jonathan Miller when I was chief feature writer of the Sunday Telegraph, but they made me redundant (along with a lot of others) just before it could happen. He agreed to go ahead anyway and enjoyed the subterfuge, as we did it at a festival sponsored by the Telegraph and just didn’t tell anyone from that title. He was grumpy, acidic, funny, waspish, taking aim at everyone from the “twerps” running the BBC to the “idiot” Prime Minister and from Richard Dawkins to his old colleague David Frost. I wrote it up and sold it to Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday, which gave it a great show. Many years later, I am still writing for them, so thank you very much Sir Jonathan. You were a bloody difficult but hugely entertaining, multi-talented man. That was a life well lived.
You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Sir Jonathan Miller.
The Cleverest Man in Britain, as he has often been called, can be spectacularly rude about those he dislikes.
‘God forbid David Frost has anything to do with this at all,’ he growls when I bring up the satire boom of the early Sixties, in which both became famous.
Miller starred in Beyond The Fringe with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
It was a huge hit in the West End then transferred to Broadway – and while they were in America, Frost brought the same style of humour to British TV with That Was The Week That Was. Miller called him The Bubonic Plagiarist.
‘Frost simply stole most of the ideas,’ he says, unmellowed by the death of his former rival last year.
‘He was a man with grotesque ambitions – to the extent that when he died he managed to have a commemorative service at Westminster Abbey!’
Miller chuckles as if this was a con trick. Curled in a chair at a literary festival, his long, thin body forming a question mark, he seems to burn with frustration. The question is, why? Few people could hope to match his spectacular, multi-faceted career.
After helping to invent modern comedy he went on to become a television star, a public thinker and latterly one of the world’s leading opera directors.
On top of all that, this former doctor continued to study neuropsychology and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. So why does he get so rattled by any mention of his rivals?
Take Richard Dawkins, the biologist who has challenged him for the title of Britain’s Brainiest Atheist.
‘I hope I am not seen like that. He is a fundamentalist.’
The put-down is drawled, as if he almost can’t be bothered to say it. Miller has Jewish roots, but seems to think the notion of God is beneath him.
‘It is scarcely worth anyone dedicating themselves to arguing against it as Dawkins seems to do.’
He is impressed by the science in books like The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, but not by the brash way Dawkins slaps down anyone with a faith.
Miller is fascinated by believers, while Dawkins condemns them as fools.
‘He’s too much of an explicit fundamentalist. He happens to be an extraordinarily inventive biologist, but extraordinarily uninventive when talking about the culture of religion.’
Ouch. He is as dismissive as a teacher marking a troublesome child’s homework, and makes ‘uninventive’ sound like a swear word.
Miller is an intense presence, a tall, pale and serious man with a head of white hair like a controlled explosion. Despite being nearly 80, he is recognisably the man who made ground-breaking TV for the BBC.
The Body In Question was a serious, detailed look at how we work, and also the first TV programme ever to show a human corpse being dissected. It was followed over the years by documentaries exploring the science of the brain, language and madness.
His last major documentary for the BBC was on atheism, back in 2004. But none of these acclaimed programmes would get made now, he says. The BBC is run by ‘twerps who all have degrees in Media Studies, which is like having a degree in stationery’.
Miller used to just ‘go upstairs’ and tell the bosses what he wanted to do.
‘Now you go to a person called a commissioning editor, who says, “You haven’t described the journey.” I don’t have the faintest f idea what they mean. A curiosity about how we work is not enough for the Media Studies twerps.’
He’s off again. The Prime Minister is the next target – ‘that idiot Cameron’ – but then Miller has been a socialist all his life. He has a lot in common with Ed Miliband, having grown up in a socialist family in London, and been a member of the Labour Party, but dismisses the Labour leader as ‘no good’.
‘There was a period when socialism had a grand initiative. That won’t be on offer at the next election. It has dwindled away.
‘I have a forlorn memory of what was once a noble enterprise, of a genuine big society,’ he says. ‘That has been forgotten.’
Behind all this, even the politics, is a sense of immense personal frustration. The reason for it emerges slowly.
Miller says he was ‘seduced’ by showbusiness long ago, and wishes it had never happened.
‘I deeply regret having been in this business.’
That is astonishing when you consider his achievements in the arts and the praise showered on him over the years. The knighthood he received in 2002 was chiefly for his achievements in theatre and opera.
Miller set Rigoletto in the Little Italy of Mafia days for English National Opera and rebooted La Bohème and The Mikado in a similar way. His productions are performed around the world today. Soon he will direct King Lear for the Northern Broadsides theatre company, and is publishing a collection of writings called On Further Reflection.
But somehow, all this is not enough.
‘With hindsight, I slightly deplore what I did,’ he says. ‘It diverted me from what I was intending to do in my medical studies, which was to find out how we work.’
Miller qualified as a doctor in 1959 and worked at Central Middlesex Hospital before he was invited to join three other recent graduates from Oxford and Cambridge in a topical revue at the Edinburgh Festival. ‘It was only supposed to last a fortnight.’
The critics loved Beyond The Fringe, which transferred first to London then New York. Miller found himself locked into a demanding run of shows that lasted three years.
The four performers were given a Tony Award in 1963 ‘for their brilliance which has shattered all the old concepts of comedy’.
Even John F Kennedy came to see himself lampooned. But while they were in America, David Frost sold the same approach to the BBC, says Miller.
‘Peter Cook had ideas about a show on television which was satirical, but by the time Peter came back from New York, Frost put it on. He’d stolen the idea.’
Beyond The Fringe was shocking for the times, as demonstrated by one of its most famous sketches. Cook appears in RAF uniform to address Miller as Flight Officer Perkins.
‘We need a futile gesture at this stage,’ says Cook’s wing commander. ‘It will raise the whole tone of the war. Pop over to Bremen. Take a shufty. And don’t come back.’
Miller says goodbye, pauses then says perhaps it is really only ‘au revoir’, suggesting they will meet again. To which Cook responds blankly: ‘No, Perkins…’
They were taking the mickey out of myths that had grown up around the war. There were veterans in the audience and people who had lost homes and loved ones in the fighting. Some were outraged.
Others were delighted. Nobody was making jokes like this. For that reason the cast of Beyond The Fringe are regarded as godfathers of modern comedy, having bashed down the door for the likes of Monty Python to come strutting in behind. So what does Miller make of them?
‘Well, the Pythons were just simply another lot who happened to be university-educated rather than the usual comedians.
‘The Ministry of Funny Walks is something that makes us laugh because it draws attention to the peculiar varieties of human locomotion.’
This is so po-faced it makes me smile. Thankfully so does he. Should the Pythons have reunited?
‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ says Miller, who certainly doesn’t believe the hype. ‘People turned both what we were doing and Monty Python into a more grandiose achievement than it was.’
Jonathan Miller still lives in the house in north London he bought half a century ago. He was married in 1956, long before fame and fortune, to Rachel, who is still his wife. They brought up two sons and a daughter (Tom, 52, William, 50 and Kate, 47).
Was he a good father? ‘Looking back, I have a sense of guilt about not being attentive enough to my children, not having read to them in the evening.’
This great storyteller rarely sat on the end of the bed and spun tales. That seems odd, but those were different times. He also sent his three young ones to the local state schools, at the time in utter chaos.
His son William later said: ‘It turned out to be a cavalier social experiment that saw all three of his children fail to gain a single qualification. He is right to feel guilty: it was a wholly avoidable disaster.’
Miller insists his heart was in the right place.
‘We did it because I was an old-fashioned socialist for whom going to an expensive private school wasn’t right.’
William eventually went to Bedales public school in Hampshire. So will Miller admit it was a mistake?
‘No, I didn’t make a mistake. There was no way I could afford sending them to private schools [for their whole education].’
Really? ‘The four of us who did Beyond The Fringe should have been millionaires, but we were cheated by the man who put it on. Most of the work I do in opera, I get no royalties.’
The house is now worth £3 million, but Miller insists he is ‘not prosperous’. Though two years ago Miller admitted he felt ‘rather ashamed’ to be helping pay fees for his grandchildren – William’s two daughters – to attend an independent school.
He once claimed his children were not interested in ‘the life of ideas’. Surely they had to hide all that when they were young, though, to avoid the bullies they encountered at their rough schools?
‘That’s probably the case. My eldest son Tom was bullied, and he retreated into a compartment in which he was safe: the photographic dark room. He was able to hide from rather aggressive children. Looking back, I think I rather regret it.’
We finish, and Miller goes through to the Great Hall at Dartington, where an audience of 500 waits for him to perform. He takes a seat and doesn’t leave it for the next hour. There are no jokes, nor grand declarations.
‘What becomes increasingly apparent, the older one gets, is that there are no simple conclusions.’
Still, Miller is mesmerising. His mother Betty was a novelist who wanted her son to become a great doctor like his father Emanuel, a psychiatrist. She was disappointed when he went into the theatre, but told him to concentrate on observing the small things of life.
That is what he does as a director and when talking at literary festivals, taking what he has learnt in medical science and using it to help actors break hearts on stage.
So he shows us how he taught a diva how to convey grief during an aria by twisting her hair and staring sightlessly into the middle distance, as people had been observed to do.
For a moment, he becomes her. His eyes even well up. Then the spell is broken and he moves to another tale, being brilliant and showing every sign of knowing it. But that is deceptive. Talk over, Miller asks the same question over and again to those around him.
‘Was it OK?’
Yes, they say. Five or six times. It was good. And every time, this man who has done so much but found so little comfort in it, gives a brief smile of relief.