Died: November 27, 2019
SIR Jonathan Miller, who has died aged 85, had dazzlingly successful careers in half a dozen different fields, any one of which might have seemed sufficiently impressive for someone less versatile.
As a member of Beyond the Fringe, he helped to start the satire boom of the 1960s, then became an innovative television producer and director; his direction for the stage included spells helping to run the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, and a series of wildly popular operas (frequently revived) for the English National Opera. He drew on his background as a doctor and neurologist to produce documentaries such as The Body in Question (1978), States of Mind (1983) and Madness (1991), and his extensive knowledge of art history to curate exhibitions on reflection and motion, and branched out into producing photography and sculpture himself.
Miller was exceptionally knowledgeable about, and held original opinions on, almost every subject under the Sun, from Shakespeare to Vermeer, the biology of the eye and the philosophy of language, the music of Bach and the histories of atheism, camouflage and public drainage, Marshall McLuhan’s theories of media, or the physical comedy of the Marx Brothers.
To be a polymath and, worse, a public intellectual, having started out as a comic actor in undergraduate revues, made Miller a target for those who saw his range of interests as pretentious. In particular, the magazine Private Eye – with which he had been involved in its early days – relentlessly mocked “Dr Jonathan”, the sage of Camden Town.
Miller’s own tendency towards cantankerousness, his obvious inability to suffer fools gladly, and his own immodesty (even if there were little about which he needed to be modest) did not help to diminish this characterisation. And he was, in his public statements and political opinions, a stereotypical, if outstandingly able, example of the trendy, liberal London literati.
He lived in Gloucester Crescent, near Camden Town tube, in a huge, cluttered house where the neighbours included Michael Frayn, George Melly, Anna Haycraft, AJ Ayer and his old colleague Alan Bennett. Visitors would be greeted by Miller smoking on the front steps, then invited, as they went down the stairs to the kitchen, to admire some “particularly good” piece of collage hanging on the wall, which would turn out to be one of his own productions.
But despite his reputation for grumpiness, Miller could be a charming, kind and gregarious figure when he found the company intellectually congenial. His endless curiosity made conversation with him rather like a hilarious tutorial in a dozen subjects at once. The actress Rebecca Front recalled going to interview him, armed with 20 questions about directing Shakespeare: “He answered them all in his first answer.”
Jonathan Wolfe Miller was born on July 21 1934 at St John’s Wood, north London, into a prosperous and intellectual Jewish family. His father Emmanuel, a physician and psychiatrist, was one of the founding fathers of the field of child psychology; his mother Betty (née Spiro) a popular novelist – some of whose work remains in print – and biographer of Robert Browning.
He studied natural sciences and medicine at St John’s, Cambridge, his father’s old college, where he was a member of the Apostles, an intellectual club, and became involved in student revues. Two of these, Out of the Blue (1954) and Between the Lines (1955) were huge hits, and led to his recruitment for Beyond the Fringe, which was a spectacular success at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960. Miller, along with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett, had already begun to appear regularly on radio and television, and at the London Palladium; meanwhile, he continued his medical training as a houseman at the Central Middlesex Hospital.
But Beyond the Fringe, which after Edinburgh ran for three years, first in the West End and then on Broadway, seemed to scupper Miller’s medical career – something he afterwards thought had been a mistake. Though he left the cast in 1962, not long into the New York run, when he returned to London it was to direct, making a successful debut with John Osborne’s Under Plain Cover; in 1964, he directed Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory in New York.
Interested in television directing, he approached the BBC’s Huw Weldon about joining their training scheme. Weldon instead offered him the job of editor and presenter of Monitor, assuring him he would “pick it up as he went along”. After a year, Miller left the role, but began making films for the BBC; striking adaptations of Alice in Wonderland (1966) and Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968) were notable.
He had a stint at the Nottingham Playhouse, directing Michael Hordern as King Lear, and then supervised a National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice, with Olivier as Shylock, whom Miller presented as (in the quip from Beyond the Fringe, “Not really a Jew, just Jew-ish”).
He supplemented his role as an artistic director at the National in the early 1970s with a three-year research fellowship at University College London (his work on the history of medicine later informing his documentary series The Body in Question), writing a book on McLuhan, and directing for Kent Opera and Glyndebourne, though he was unable to read music.
He was to go on to direct more than 60, notably at the ENO, in Florence, Santa Fe and the Met in New York; he set Rigoletto in 1950s Little Italy (1982) and The Mikado in the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia (1986), they and his productions of Rosenkavalier (1994) and Traviata (1996) were frequently revived.
In the late 1970s, he worked on several of the BBC’s complete Shakespeare series and in 1986, directed Jack Lemmon and a young Kevin Spacey in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which he made less long by having the actors’ speeches overlap.
In the 1980s, he returned to neuropsychology, with stints at Hamilton University and Canada and a fellowship at the University of Sussex; this work later sparked television documentaries on language acquisition, madness and psychology and exhibitions on reflection and motion in art. He made a series on atheism, returned to the theatre to direct The Cherry Orchard (Crucible, Sheffield, 2007) and put together an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on camouflage. His later operatic work included La Bohème (ENO, 2009), and a dramatic staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion (2006).
He was appointed CBE in 1983 and knighted in 2002, and received numerous other honours and awards. In latter years, he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. Jonathan Miller married Rachel Collet, a GP, in 1956. She survives him with their sons Tom and William and their daughter Kate.