Not what the doctor ordered

In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller, by Kate Bassett, Oberon Books, RRP£20, 488 pages

With Beyond the Fringe in 1960, Jonathan Miller was part of cutting-edge comedy. Since then, he has directed classical plays and operas across the world. He is medically qualified and has worked as a pathologist at Addenbrooke’s and the Marsden. He is the most exuberant chat-show guest since Peter Ustinov. He has read every book, visited every gallery ...

Miller’s bravura is exemplary and life-enhancing, so it is sad to learn from Kate Bassett’s magnificent biography (brilliantly researched – even the extensive endnotes are a joy) that the man himself somehow feels hard-done-by, unappreciated and under-rewarded. And that is despite the CBE, a knighthood, and innumerable honorary degrees and fellowships.

Perhaps he is one of those egomaniacal creative types for whom nothing less than the throne would be satisfactory? Barry Humphries is on record as saying he always wants more – more applause, acclaim, adoration, luxury and splendour. Bob Hope said he left England at the age of four, “when I found out I couldn’t be king”.

In Miller’s case, the unhappiness seems to stem from the fact that he is divided against himself. His father, Emanuel, was a Harley Street psychiatrist and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Miller read medicine at Cambridge, where he was taught by Nobel laureates. These were the men he set out to emulate – and so what happened?

Beyond the Fringe happened. Miller’s “linguistic flair” combined with that of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, and they became a comedy version of The Beatles. Miller earned far more acting the giddy goat in a West End revue than he ever would poking and prodding patients. He has never quite forgiven himself.

Returning from the Broadway run of Beyond the Fringe, Miller made films for the BBC. His adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, starring Peter Sellers and Michael Redgrave, is a masterpiece. Shot in sepia, with a Ravi Shankar score, it is set in a Victorian lunatic asylum. Next came assignments at the Old Vic and National Theatre. Miller directed Irene Handl as Lady Bracknell, Laurence Olivier as Shylock, and (for television) John Cleese as Petruchio.

Miller’s opera productions for ENO remain in the repertoire – a Mafia-influenced Rigoletto and a version of The Mikado located in the palm court of a grand hotel. Rehearsals, apparently, turn into seminars or tutorials. Miller brought his medical knowledge to bear when directing the many operatic heroines who expire of tuberculosis.

According to his biographer, however, Miller “mistakenly calculates that dozens and dozens of drama productions aren’t equal to one scientific paper, thinking that all his directing adds up to nothing”. Well, theatre is ephemeral by nature, as if writ upon the winds and running water. Perhaps what Miller regrets is that it has all been too easy for him, and that solid graft in the lab would have been better for the soul?

This is puritanical nonsense – yet it is nevertheless a common Cambridge outlook, to see the arts and sciences as distinct worlds, with the former as frivolous and somehow morally lesser. (I’m an Oxford man and thus not guilty about pleasure.) Miller, when he falls into a funk about abandoning medicine, ought to be reminded that Wittgenstein, his hero, loved nothing more than watching silly Carmen Miranda movies.

Roger Lewis is a biographer of Peter Sellers, Laurence Olivier, Charles Hawtrey and Anthony Burgess. His latest book is ‘What Am I Still Doing Here?’

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