“I deeply regret having been in this business.” An interview with the brilliant, grumpy, funny, waspish, late Sir Jonathan Miller

Sorry to hear of the death of Sir Jonathan Miller, a brilliant man. I arranged to interview him as the 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. Five 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.

Here’s the original piece in Event.

Gary Lightbody: a deeply personal interview about life, love, loss and the crisis that kept Snow Patrol apart for years

Gary Lightbody has not had a girlfriend in eight years. He’s a handsome rock star, the lead singer in Snow Patrol, known for great anthems of love and longing like Run and Chasing Cars, but still he’s single. “Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, does it?” says Lightbody with a wry smile, running a hand through his longish black hair.

Snow Patrol are about to make a comeback after a very long time away, but they are still one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Lightbody can connect with whole stadiums full of people, so why does he have nobody to connect with as a partner?

“I wasn’t a great boyfriend. I cheated and I was shut down, emotionally. All the clichés of terrible boyfriends. So I wanted to sort myself out before I started anything with anyone. That coincided with us coming off tour seven years ago. And I started drinking heavily. And I thought, ‘That’s another reason not to get involved with anyone.’ I didn’t want them to be with me in this mess…”

And what a terrible mess he was in, it turns out as we talk in a deserted hotel bar in New York, ahead of an intimate warm-up gig at the Irving Plaza (see video for a clip of the band performing Run). Today, Lightbody is feeling much better and ready to solve the mystery of where Snow Patrol have been all this time, and why they quit at the height of their fame back in 2012 … Continue reading “Gary Lightbody: a deeply personal interview about life, love, loss and the crisis that kept Snow Patrol apart for years”

Derren Brown: ‘I totally saw how you can start to go mad.’

Derren Brown looks deep into my eyes and smiles. ‘Being a hypnotist is the ultimate fantasy of control really, isn’t it?’

I can only agree with this master of manipulation, a grand illusionist with the power to read the minds of strangers and make them do outrageous things like rob a security van, shoot Stephen Fry or push an innocent victim off a roof. Those were faked for television specials The Heist, The Assassin and The Push (To The Edge) but the men and women involved though it was all happening for real.

So did the viewers who were alarmed when he risked blowing his brains out on television with Russian Roulette – or astonished and envious when he seemed to predict the right numbers on How To Win The Lottery.

So is that why Derren Brown became what he is: for the sense of power over people? ‘Big time. The desire to perform was huge, and so was the controlling aspect of it.’

Continue reading “Derren Brown: ‘I totally saw how you can start to go mad.’”

Hear how a young man’s death broke the heart of an Irish island community, on the Great Blasket 70 years ago

IMG_2752Seventy years ago, a young man known as Seánín died on the Great Blasket, a remote island at the tip of the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. He was one of the few remaining strong, youthful men in an island community that had once been strong and vibrant and famous for its oral, storytelling culture. Most of the young had gone to America, where they gathered again in a place called Hungry Hill and flourished. The death of Seánín broke the hearts of the remaining islanders and ultimately led to the evacuation of the Great Blasket in 1953.

I was privileged to be able to tell his story and go in search of the islanders for the book Hungry for Home (published by Viking 2001 and later by the Curragh Press, and now being prepared for a revised, updated edition with details here) with the help of my friend and guide Mícheál de Mordha. The photograph above shows Dr Mike Carney looking out across the Sound to the island where his brother died, when Mike risked his life to go back for one last look in 2013, at the age of nearly 93. In tribute to Seánín and the rest of the remarkable Ó Cearna – or Carney – clan, here is Enda Oates reading from the first chapter of the book, describing those final moments. It was originally broadcast by RTE.

Since posting this, I have learned of the death of Ray Stagles, a fellow Englishman who was passionate about the Blaskets. He was a friend, a mentor and a great support when I was writing the book and I will always remember him as a gentleman and a scholar.

 

Listening to Henry Allingham, the boy who saw the Somme from the air: “Those were my pals.”

Henry Allingham saw WG Grace bat. He saw the battle of the Somme from the air in an aircraft made of wood, cloth and wire. He was the oldest man in the country when I met him in 2007 and he lived to be the oldest man in the world, dying just over a year later at 113. I publish this edited version of my story from The Independent today, the centenary of the start of the Somme, in honour of the boys who were lost. They were still boys in his eyes and always will be. 

Henry is a very, very old boy indeed. Nearly a century has passed since he flew over the trenches of the Somme in the back seat of an aircraft. The pilot was hit by rifle fire from below and began to pass out. The ground came up fast but Henry survived the crash landing. He knew he had to haul his friend out of the cockpit before the engine fumes caught fire and they were both burned alive. He had seen that happen to other people.

“Bunny Edwards!” he shouts suddenly, startling the only other resident in the lounge. That was the pilot’s name. “Beautiful swimmer,” says Henry. His milky, half-blind eyes are weepy. “I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin.”

Continue reading “Listening to Henry Allingham, the boy who saw the Somme from the air: “Those were my pals.””