Thursday 5 December 2019

Obituary: Jonathan Miller

Outspoken scientist, author, theatre and opera director and satirist

Jonathan Miller has died aged 85 (Jeff Overs/BBC)
Jonathan Miller has died aged 85 (Jeff Overs/BBC)

Jonathan Miller, who died last Wednesday aged 85, was a neurologist turned author, art lecturer, broadcaster, director of theatre and opera - and Britain's most established anti-establishmentarian.

Miller's career took many guises, stretching from the anarchic comedy of Beyond the Fringe, to presenting Who Cares Now? - a BBC documentary series exposing the lamentable state of elderly care in the 1990s.

Common to all his pursuits, however, was his outspokenness as Britain's leading public intellectual and champion feuder. His encounter with the radical Catholic Victoria Gillick on BBC2's The Late Show in 1989 riveted viewers with what one critic described as their "passionate, electric dislike of each other... going far beyond the usual discourtesies that pass between opponents on television shows".

Jonathan Wolfe Miller was born in London on July 21, 1934, son of the eminent psychiatrist Emanuel Miller. He was educated at St Paul's.

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Despite later declaring that he never possessed a sense of humour, the undergraduate Miller joined the Cambridge Footlights. After graduation, he turned down offers to go with them to the West End and continued his medical training at the Central Middlesex Hospital in London.

Miller's commitment to his chosen specialty of neurology was interrupted, however, when - under the auspices of Footlights - he teamed up with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and took Beyond the Fringe to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1960.

Although the show would later be an institution, at the time it revolutionised the revue scene and established in Miller the zest of iconoclasm that was to become the hallmark of his career.

In the wake of their festival triumph, the impresario John Bassett - then in charge of the Edinburgh Fringe - invited the quartet to lunch in London. Bassett soon had them onstage in London and New York, and Miller's medical career was abandoned.

He did revert briefly to his academic vocation in 1970 when he took up a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College, London. The return was short-lived, however, and after three years, with a characteristically Milleresque leap, he moved to the National Theatre, then at the Old Vic, as associate director under Sir Laurence Olivier.

He stayed there until 1975 when Peter Hall took over.

Miller subsequently wrote and presented his own television series, The Body in Question - a science programme, the breadth of which appealed to what he called his "grasshopper" nature.

Then, in 1979, Miller was requested to assume control of a BBC series of Shakespeare plays. A great "informaliser" - a word he himself used to describe his rendering of St Matthew's Passion in February 1993 - Miller was wont to shift the time and place of his productions.

The technique worked with varying degrees of success.

Miller's 1982 English National Opera production of Rigoletto, set in a 1940s New York of Mafia dons and Little Italy low-lifes, with sets inspired by Edward Hopper paintings, played to huge critical acclaim (though when it transferred to the US there were protests from Italian-American civil rights groups). His Tosca in 1992, set in Fascist Italy, excited few people, however, beyond an offended section of the Catholic church.

Miller "fell" into directing opera aged 40 in 1974, despite admitting he had never "done" an opera before and knew nothing about music.

His operatic career took in the big names on the international stage: La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the New York Met.

Miller also regularly directed at the ENO. His former vociferous criticisms of the institution were forgotten as he accumulated an impressive roll-call of productions which ranged from The Turn of the Screw (1979, 1991) to an Armani-clad Cosi Fan Tutti in 1995.

During this time, Miller never fully relinquished his links with academia. He held a research fellowship in neuropsychology at the University of Sussex, and was appointed a Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1991.

Miller was a compulsive communicator - Born Talking, the title of his 1990 series about language, was as appropriate to him as to its subject matter. A natural performer, he enjoyed, and needed, the buzz of playing to an audience.

His art lectures at the National Gallery in April 1994 were a sell-out

In 2007 Miller directed The Cherry Orchard at the Crucible, Sheffield, his first work on the British stage for 10 years.

He also directed Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in Manchester and Bristol, and Der Rosenkavalier in Tokyo.

In January 2009, after a break of 12 years, he returned to the ENO to direct his own production of La boheme, notable for its 1930s setting.

He was appointed CBE in 1983, and knighted in 2002.

In 1956, he married Rachel Collet, a general practitioner, who survives him with their two sons and one daughter.

© Telegraph

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