“If anyone was both the justification and embodiment of the BBC Reithian ideals of popular seriousness in the arts, languages and science, it was [Jonathan] Miller,” writes Michael Coveney in his Guardian obituary of the English doctor, comedian, broadcaster, satirist and theatre and opera director, who has died aged eighty-five.
And yet – rather unlike Lord Reith – Jonathan Miller had difficulty in being wholly serious, or indeed wholly anything.
His big failing, somebody once said, was that he was interested only in everything; his curiosity, and his ability to formulate ideas in cascades of language around it, knew no bounds. As a child, he challenged the received notions of chicken speech by conducting his own in-depth survey. Instead of them going “buk buk buk buk” followed by “bacagh” he found a quite different pattern of chicken speech: six “buks” followed by a soft “bacagh”; two “buks” followed by a further soft “bacagh”; and nine further “buks” followed by a loud, conclusive “bacagh”.
It is scarcely surprising to hear that one of his early heroes was the American comedian/singer/dancer Danny Kaye, whom he saw live at the Palladium as a teenager.
Seamus O’Mahony has written in the Dublin Review of Books of Miller’s early years in a review of a biography by Kate Bassett:
Miller achieved fame and success in show business while still an undergraduate. Recruited by the future novelist Frederic Raphael, he starred in a Footlights review, Out of the Blue. Miller appeared in drag as Elizabeth I, and performed a pastiche of Bertrand Russell. The review was a huge success, and transferred to the West End. Harold Hobson, the legendary Sunday Times critic, wrote: “… if the whole world is destroyed, but Mr Miller preserved, it will be possible … to start the entire adventure over again”. Miller acquired an agent, and appeared in several TV and radio shows. He was, in the eyes of fellow undergraduates, a “superstar”. He affected to regard his revue work as “juvenile prancing”, and wished to have it understood that his real passion was for medicine, but showbiz was to win out, rather easily. As well as the review, he acted in the Marlowe Society’s production of Volpone; fellow cast members included John Bird, Daniel Massey, AS Byatt and (improbably) Sylvia Plath. (Did all of Miller’s Cambridge contemporaries from the 1950s go on to become famous?) Miller joined a new Footlights review, Between the Lines, in 1955. This was as big a hit as Out of the Blue. Bernard Levin wrote in The Guardian: “If the Home Secretary cannot be persuaded to schedule him as a National Monument, then I am prepared to perjure Mr Miller off the [medical] register.” Princess Margaret announced that she “simply must meet him”. Inevitably, Miller was recruited to Beyond the Fringe, the review which made stars of Miller, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.
Miller qualified as a doctor, but worked in that profession for only three years, returning briefly and not wholly successfully to research later in life. That he did not remain a doctor, and contribute to medical science, is something he always regretted. Seamus O’Mahony argues that given the sheer scale of his early success on the stage and on television it would have been virtually inconceivable for any normal young person to decide to turn his back on it. Or as Kate Bassett put it, he “mistakenly calculates that dozens and dozens of drama productions [Miller’s later career was more as director than performer] aren’t equal to one scientific paper”.
Miller’s success, his cleverness and failure to apologise for his cleverness (and perhaps also his Jewishness) led to him getting some stick from the London satirical establishment, which he resented, seeing the jibes as emanating from a world where “swots and Jews” are routinely put down and where there are no intellectuals, just pseudo-intellectuals. The satirist John Fortune tended to agree: “If he’d been born French there would be streets named after him.”
Seamus O’Mahony on Miller: http://drb.ie/essays/guilty-truant
Image: Appearing in Beyond the Fringe: Jonathan Miller (right), and (from left) Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook.