Writers & Company

The multi-talented Jonathan Miller: a life of creativity, curiosity and comedy

Eleanor Wachtel revisits her 2000 conversation with comedian, satirist, doctor and stage director Jonathan Miller. He died on Nov. 27, 2019.
Sir Jonathan Miller was an actor, a writer, a satirist, a cultural commentator and a trained neurologist. (Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode52:14

This week, Writers & Company revisits Eleanor Wachtel's conversation with Jonathan Miller — the extraordinary British writer, performer, satirist, medical doctor, stage and opera director and artist. Miller died on Nov. 27, 2019, at his home in London. He was 85.

Miller rose to prominence in the early 1960s when he performed in Beyond the Fringe, a satirical theatre review that began at the Edinburgh Festival and became a hit in London and New York. 

He went on to international success as a theatre and opera director, famous for his innovative re-imaginings of classic works. Miller's production of Cosi fan tutte, a staple of the Royal Opera House for nearly 20 years, brought Mozart's comedic love story into modern times. His take on Rossini's Hermione for the Sante Fe Opera relocated the story from Greece just after the Trojan War, to the United States in the aftermath of the American Civil War.   

Miller was also a qualified physician and is widely known for The Body in Question, a television series about the history of medicine that aired in the late 1970s, and was also published as a book. 

He is the author of The Afterlife of Plays and two books on visual art, including a collection of his own photographs called Nowhere in Particular

Jonathan Miller was knighted in 2002 for his services to the arts. In 2000, Eleanor Wachtel spoke to him in Sante Fe, during rehearsals for Hermione.

Curiosity at home

"I don't really know where original curiosities arise. I can remember opening my father's copy of Grey's Anatomy and came to the section where there were coloured illustrations of the brain. I asked him where the mind was and I think he was stopped short in his tracks.

I was interested in what it was that made creatures behave and why it was that they didn't behave like rocks and puddles.- Jonathan Miller

"I think from the outset of studying biology, I was interested in what it was that made creatures behave and why it was that they didn't behave like rocks and puddles — that they tended to have what seemed to be a mind of their own."

Performing

"When I was about 16, I found that I could collaborate with colleagues and invent comic sketches. It was nice making people laugh. I didn't think it was very important and I didn't think I was going to ever do it professionally. But I went on doing it in Cambridge — not very much. I was too busy dissecting the human body and washing the rancid human fat off my hands at the end of the day. I did these things from time to time.

"I became quite well known for doing them. After I left  and went to do my clinical work, I was invited along with the other three —  Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore — to participate in this late night show at the Edinburgh Festival, which became famous as Beyond the Fringe. And it was downhill all the way from there."

Jonathan Miller (left) directs Shakespeare's Taming Of The Shrew with Monty Python's John Cleese (right) on Dec. 12, 1980. (Associated Press)

Drawing attention to the known

"What was fresh about Beyond the Fringe was that we were drawing attention to stuff that was not showbiz. Our approach was to just draw attention to things that were ludicrous, interesting and comic about ordinary life — often trivialities.

"This has continued to be my policy as a [theatre and opera] director. People often ask me what being a director is and it's very much the same as being a good comic performer. You're drawing attention to things which people had known all along, but had forgotten. Some of the most exciting things about humour is in bringing to the surface things that have been forgotten not because — as Freud might have said — they've been repressed, but simply because they become second nature."

Seeking approval

"Very often you do things that people value very highly. I want to be satisfied with that, but you see I was brought up as a scientist. I lived in this rather freakishly otherworldly domain of Cambridge and was conditioned to think that certain things were achievements and other things were just sort of frivolous pastimes.

"I once went to visit my father on a Saturday morning and he was sitting behind his consulting room desk. He said, 'Well, have you made up my mind what you're going to do?' I did have to say, 'I haven't made up my mind, but I seem to be doing what I probably will go on doing.' He looked rather glum about that.

I live in a state of all tolerant discomfort. I put up with the discomfort that I've committed myself to. I can't change now.- Jonathan Miller 

"I live in a state of all tolerant discomfort. I put up with the discomfort that I've committed myself to. I can't change now. There's no way in which I'm going to discover anything fundamental about the nervous system and I'm sad won't. But I think I've discovered lots of things which are not scientific about the nervous system by watching what we do with it."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.