“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”

So long, and thanks for all the laughs: Terry Wogan’s last interview

Ah, Sir Terry. The old gent. I went to interview him at home last year and he was every bit as charming as you might hope. The piece appeared in October and sadly it turns out to have been his last interview.

The conversation was surprisingly candid, we did talk about his own end because Dignitas was in the news (he said he thought he might go, if he was being a burden) and because he had written a book of short stories that looked back to his younger days, and looking back always prompts thoughts of what is to come.

Some people are formal when they are being interviewed. Some are friendly and ask questions in return. Sir Terry was that and much more, a really lovely man. Afterwards I asked him a favour: my Mum has loved him forever, would he do her a little message on my phone?

I would not normally do a thing like that but she is one of the millions of listeners who have come to regard him as a friend, because his voice has always been there, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the car. He did, without hesitation. It was charming, self deprecating, generous and a wonderful thing for her to have.

Sir Terry Wogan died on 31 January 2016 at the age of 77.

Here is an edited version of that interview then, which appeared in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday. 

‘I don’t believe in God, but when the Grim Reaper turns up, I may well think, “Oh, just in case, let me leave an exit door open. Maybe I do believe!”’

He does still go to Mass, despite being an atheist, with his wife, Helen. They have been married for 50 years, but he still refers to her on air as The Present Mrs Wogan, so clearly he likes to keep his options open.

Wogan is always playful, a charmer with a voice as rich as a pint of the black stuff (with a good creamy head, because he likes things light) but today he is in a very unusual mood, giving vent to opinions that are provocative and startling.

This is going to be a conversation about everything from his wealth (‘I should be richer, but I couldn’t be bothered’) to the fate of his beloved BBC (‘There must be a question mark over the licence fee now’) and even his friendship with the Queen. (‘Don’t say I said that, for God’s sake. Her husband will never speak to me again. The Duke’s a funny old boy’).

I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing, but maybe he is so open because he feels secure. Sir Terry and Lady Wogan value their privacy highly, but today he has invited me behind the electronic gates of his Berkshire mansion to talk about his new book, a debut novel called Those Were The Days. Inspired by his early life as a bank clerk in Dublin in the Fifties, it is charming and nostalgic.

‘In those days they used to drive the cattle all the way down the main road to the docks. I went back to see the bank. I think it’s a kebab shop now.’

He has come a long way from the cattle market to this large house in the countryside, with its mock-Tudor beams and an entrance hall dominated by a portrait in oils of the man himself.

Wogan is a little heavier than he used to be, there are flashes of white at the sides of his curious comb-over (which is clearly not a wig, despite the rumour that was once so popular around Broadcasting House) and his right hand trembles as he pours the coffee, but otherwise he looks tanned and rested in his raspberry cords and plaid shirt.

‘My health seems OK, but I am 77 now. Things will go wrong. I am clinging to the wreckage,’ he says.

He’s quoting his friend John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole Of The Bailey and the sort of witty, wistful writer Wogan aspires to be.

IMG_1180There’s a lilt in his voice that suggests he is full of the joys and absurdities of life, no matter what he is discussing.

That’s why viewers and listeners warm to Wogan and trust him. Blankety Blank and his weekday television chat show made him a household name in the Eighties, and he has hosted the BBC’s Children In Need for 35 years.

Then there was his long-running Radio 2 breakfast show, the most popular in the country, which had an audience of eight million when he handed it over to Chris Evans in 2009.

His loyal listeners, known affectionately as TOGGS (Terry’s Old Gals and Geezers), provided much of the material for the show with their emailed quips, comments and stories. You can still hear Wogan on Radio 2 on a Sunday morning.

But we can’t get too cosy, because I want to ask him about something very nasty, a long-time colleague of his who was also a national favourite but betrayed the trust of his audience in a hideous way.

We have to talk about Jimmy Savile, I say tentatively. Wogan sighs, looks up to the ceiling and says, ‘We do.’

They were both disc jockeys at the launch of Radio 1 in 1967 and worked alongside each other for many years at the BBC.

Was Wogan really never aware that Savile was abusing so many men and women, boys and girls?

‘No. I was aware, along with everybody else, that he was not a real person.’
What does that mean?

‘There was a carapace, a front. You never had a proper conversation, it was always this…’ and Wogan attempts the trademark Savile gargle.

‘All of that ebullient northern behaviour. I have a low threshold of embarrassment, so I tend to withdraw in the face of stuff like that.

‘You couldn’t like him, but nobody ever suggested he was doing what he turned out to be doing.’

He once made a joke on air about Savile wandering the BBC late at night, making strange noises. Was he trying to tell the viewers something?

‘No. That’s all he ever did, make strange noises. You never had a proper conversation, you never heard, “How are you? Are you well? Do you have a family?” No, nothing like that. It was all this…’ And he does the gargle again. ‘Inhuman.

‘You knew he was a rascal – flash car, big cigar – but on the other hand, whatever he did was masked by the fact that he raised massive amounts for charity. Prince Charles was taken in.’

IMG_1175Suddenly the conversation takes a bizarre turn, as Wogan wonders out loud about the relationship between Charles and the DJ – and launches into an unexpected attack on the late Lord Mountbatten, uncle and mentor to the Prince of Wales, calling him a ‘chancer’ and a ‘charlatan’.

Again, I can’t believe I’m hearing this from Sir Terry, who was given his knighthood in 2005. Won’t the Queen be livid?

‘She’s always been very friendly to me. I think she used to listen to the radio show,’ said Terry of the Queen (pictured with John Humphrys, James Naughtie, Chris Moyles and Jenny Abramsky at the BBC in 2006)

‘Oh, don’t say I said that, then, for God’s sake. Her husband will never speak to me again,’ he says, laughing. ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’s a funny old boy.’
Would he consider himself to be friends with the Queen?
‘Yeah, she’s always been very friendly to me. I think she used to listen to the radio show.’

She may not be so friendly after this, but Wogan doesn’t seem to care. Nor does he mind being frank about why he has written a novel: his agent asked for one.

‘I’m not a great raconteur, I’m not a tremendous person to keep the party going with fine-sounding talk, but I do find it easy to put things down on paper.’

Wogan writes on his iPad, despite the time lag between pressing the keys and seeing the letters appear.

‘It gives me time to think.’

PG Wodehouse and William Trevor are two of his favourite writers, and he went to the same secondary school in Dublin as another. ‘They never mentioned James Joyce, not once.’

The Jesuits who ran his school practised controlled brutality.

‘The Jesuits had great intellectual pretensions, so their punishments were calculated.

‘You’d make a mess of your Latin homework, the priest would give you a little chit and you had the morning to look forward to your punishment, which I think was a bit severe.’

What happened then?

‘You lined up with a load of other penitents, put out your hand and got a leather strap hammered across it once, twice, three, four, maybe six times.

‘Then in the afternoon, it would happen again. I don’t think they thought of it as cruel. I do in retrospect, of course.’

Among the many photographs on the walls of this room, the most striking is of Helen in the Sixties, when she was a model for Vogue.

Wogan had talked his way out of the bank and on to Irish television as a newsreader when they met at a function.

‘If I was still a bank clerk I don’t think I would have crossed the room, but I wasn’t so I did. I took her off for a sandwich.’

It’s a line delivered perfectly: offhand, cheeky and a bit more Irish in the accent than usual; but it’s also true.

‘There was a sandwich bar across the road that was the only place open that time of the morning. Then I took her home in my Morris Minor.’

She was reluctant to let him meet her parents, for reasons that became obvious one morning.

‘We went to a thing called the Press Ball and I had far too much to drink. I’m swerving in and out of the trees that line the boulevards of Dublin…’

Hang on, does he mean on foot?

‘In the car. Then I eventually get her home, we arrive outside her place just as her mother is coming out to Mass. She says, ‘Oh, would you not ask Terence in for a cup of tea?’’

Helen said no, firmly.

‘As her mother disappeared down the road, I opened the car and threw up on the street outside. So there you are, Irish romance.’

IMG_1182Have they ever come close to splitting up?

‘No, never. You argue about the tiny things, never about the big things. Certainly my wife took a number three iron to me once on the golf course.”

Is he serious? ‘She felt that my advice was becoming superfluous to needs. There’s nothing worse than husbands and wives playing golf together, so we rarely do it now.’

They had just married when he joined Radio 1, and she was his saving grace.
‘Because you’re well known, you’ve got to be terribly careful. You’re going to find women coming to you and you’ve got to find a stout stick with which to beat them off. I found it very easily.’

Several of his former colleagues have been accused of having wandering hands.

‘You can’t do that any more. That’s gone. Things were a bit different then.

‘You can’t justify what went on, but it was a lot more lax in the sense of the way men and women, boys and girls behaved towards each other.’

Did he think at the time that it was a bit off?

‘No. It was accepted.’

That’s a very honest answer.

‘Obviously, in my case and in the case of the great majority of disc jockeys and presenters, we weren’t that foolish.’

He would like to see changes to the way the BBC is run and funded to reflect those new realities, but still thinks we should all pay something towards its survival.

‘If you lose the BBC it will be like losing the Royal Family, it is so much of a part of life in this country.’

Wogan went freelance before there was a huge fuss about the amount BBC presenters were paid, but how much is he worth? I have read a figure of £20 million: is that true?
‘No. Nothing like it. How could I possibly be worth £20m?’

OK then, £10m?

‘Well, yeah. Maybe a bit more than that. I’m a former bank clerk, I know exactly how much money I have.’

He could have been far richer if he’d formed a production company to make his shows, as his successors have done.

‘Graham [Norton] has done it, Jonathan [Ross] has done it. I never did it because, well, I couldn’t be bothered.

‘I didn’t want to be a producer. I just want to sit in front of a camera or a microphone and make it all up as I go along.’

That’s what he’s doing now, improvising. I wrap things up by asking if he is going to leave his money to his three grown-up children?

‘I’m already doing that. You’re mad if you wait until you’ve kicked the bucket before your children get the benefit.

‘I don’t interfere with their companies, they’ve done all that on their own, but school fees for their kids and things like that? Yeah. Of course. Everybody has to. It’s the bank of Mum and Dad.’

He’s always felt weirdly like family. I remember his voice being in the room with us years ago, on cold winter mornings when my Mum poured hot milk on to cornflakes before school. Millions of us have the illusion of intimacy with him, as he well knows.

‘You’re only talking to one or two people at a time when you’re on the radio. They go out to the car and there you are again.

‘You’re not remote like a film star, you’re familiar like the wallpaper. They think of you as a friend.’
He has been a very lucky man, I say.

‘Oh God, if you are successful and you forget how big a part luck plays in your life, you’re mad. I mean, you could be born into poverty in Sudan, couldn’t you?

‘Luck plays a disproportionate part in life,’ says Sir Terry, and as he shakes my hand and flashes an expensive smile, I think that yes, he does know exactly how lucky he is.

Photograph by Harry Borden for Event magazine

Jeffrey Archer: Cancer surgery has made me impotent

He’s survived prison, penury, a very public affair, political scandal and now an illness that’s robbed him of his virility. So what if he sounds like the villain of a potboiler? He’s sold 270 million of them.

Source: Jeffrey Archer: Cancer surgery has made me impotent | Daily Mail Online

Brian Sewell: ‘I have been facing death for almost a year. I am very lucky to be still alive’ 

He’s our most ferocious art critic, the enemy of ‘detestable’ Damien Hirst and ‘vulgar’ Grayson Perry. But, Brian Sewell says his battle with cancer has exposed his inner softie.

Source: Brian Sewell: ‘I have been facing death for almost a year. I am very lucky to be still alive’ | Daily Mail Online