Sunday Times, 13 January 2013
Camden Town, 10.15am, Jonathan Miller. And we’re off.
“A spider’s web is always the same. We change our clothes, our buildings, our scruples” — I am struggling to turn on my recorders — “our idea of what is right and wrong. All that is culture. [He is riffing on the title of this magazine.] It’s just the name of the extraordinarily versatile, ongoing development of human relations and structure. But now we have that ghastly thing called The Culture Show on television. I was in Australia when I saw this enormous termites’ nest…”
Miller will be 79 in July. Probably under the weight of his brain, the great head has slumped forward, but otherwise he’s upright, energetic and talking, talking, talking. I’ve interviewed him three times over the years; the next time, I will just send the recorders round by courier. No, I won’t — I love it, this Miller flow, like sinking into a hot bath.
“I realised if I’d been here 150,000 years earlier, they would have been exactly the same…”
He’s still on the termites. I’d better remind him of the ostensible reason for our meeting.
He ditches the termites without missing a beat. “A remarkable piece of work — it has a sort of reticent modesty about it. It doesn’t set out to make any particular points.”
Probably under the weight of his brain, the great head has slumped forward, but otherwise he’s upright, energetic and talking, talking, talking. I’ve interviewed him three times over the years; the next time, I will just send the recorders round by courier
Rutherford & Son, by Githa Sowerby, is an insufficiently known gem. A sensation when it opened in London in 1912, it is about the intergenerational tensions within a northern industrialist’s family. It is being staged and toured by Northern Broadsides in Halifax, and stars NB’s formidable artistic director, Barrie Rutter.
“An extraordinary man. He’s been running the company for 20 years, producing a whole series of productions done in local voices. I went with my wife about a year and a half ago, and we were struck by the simplicity and reticence of the presentation.”
Miller is directing; it’s his first play in five years. He is grateful for the chance. “I don’t get offered much these days.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve got three opera revivals coming up.”
“Yes, but they’re revivals. I don’t even get royalties — it’s the way things are done in opera.”
The cast of Rutherford came down to London and did a run-through in Miller’s basement kitchen, watched by his wife, Rachel. They were so good that, after 20 minutes, she announced: “This is ready to go.” Some directors might have felt crushed; not Miller. “I realised there was actually very little for me to do. I could make tiny suggestions about the peculiarities of talk that don’t often appear in the script.”
This is a big point: I’ll come back to it. For the moment, though, stand back and look at the big picture. Miller started his show-business career as Paul McCartney to Peter Cook’s John Lennon, Alan Bennett’s George Harrison and Dudley Moore’s Ringo Starr. The cast of Beyond the Fringe were, for a brief, bright moment, the theatrical equivalent of the Beatles, four more moptops announcing the start of the 1960s. In fact, BTF was way ahead. While the Beatles were still sweet pop singers, Miller and friends were stunning the West End and Broadway, taking apart the wartime generation, lampooning politicians and treating “the Establishment” as a gang of thick, corrupt buffoons. The word “thick” was important, because these boys were clearly the brightest things on the block. Miller, though he never bore the title and did not even realise it himself, was their director, establishing with just four chairs his preferred style of absolute simplicity.
Cook and Moore are dead, and Bennett is a successful playwright; Miller has made two superb films (Alice in Wonderland, Whistle and I’ll Come to You), directed countless plays and operas, and made great television, notably The Body in Question. Now here he is, talking his head off in the house on Gloucester Crescent, London NW1, where, to a rough approximation, he has always lived. Kate Bassett notes in her recent biography, In Two Minds, that his whole life can be mapped on a double-page spread of the A-Z.
Miller started his show-business career as Paul McCartney to Peter Cook’s John Lennon, Alan Bennett’s George Harrison and Dudley Moore’s Ringo Starr
The road has been rocky. As Bassett shows, he can get angry, hurling obscenities at competing drivers and, once, leading a charge of corduroy-trousered intellectuals out of a Bloomsbury cinema in pursuit of muggers. There was also the row with Peter Hall at the National Theatre. “Your colleagues make too much of that conflict,” he says. “It wasn’t too much of a conflict. In fact, it was a very mild sort of thing.” Er, mild? At the height of the row, Miller called Hall “a ball of rancid pig’s fat rolled around the floor of a barber’s shop”.
Anger is, in a way, an essential part of the package. The satire in BTF was meant to hurt, and he has never lost his socialist disdain for the ruling classes. “I call them the Bullshittingdon Club,” he says of the present Etonian junta. “They are startlingly indifferent to any life that is anything other than that privileged, bankers’ bonuses world, and to the fact that a very large percentage of the country is in very great difficulty. How dare that man talk about the big society?”
Perhaps it all stems from his relationship with his high-achieving but distant parents — his father was a distinguished psychiatrist and his mother a successful novelist. Or, more exactly, it may spring from a familial sense that no achievement was ever high enough. Bassett reports that his father’s last words were: “I’m a flop. I’m a flop.”
“Oh, she put that in, did she?” Miller wilts slightly. He has not read the book. “I do every now and then feel exactly as my father did — perhaps if I had committed more single-mindedly to one thing, then I might have done something. But, as my wife constantly reminds me, I have done some things that are excellent, and I should be satisfied with that. She reminds me, my friends remind me and my family reminds me. How greedy can you be? I ought to feel satisfied with the work I have done.”
The heart of the matter is that he gave up a career in medicine for the theatre, almost as soon as BTF was a success. He was heading for neurology. He would have been good at it, although he has, as they say, “authority issues”, and says the modern consultant’s life is dismal, surrounded by machines that sap human authority. He still feels he could have done something worthwhile in science.
Yet the old-school medicine of close observation defined his theatrical style. He holds out his hand, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. “If you see a patient doing that, it could be a first sign of Parkinson’s.”
Little things mean a lot. In truth, they mean everything. He launches into a brilliant riff about how the tape recorder changed theatre. It made us notice the “linguistic rubbish” — the ums and ers — that make up so much of human discourse. There are also “subintentional actions”, odd little mannerisms, such as stroking the arm of a chair or staring out of a window, that people do when they are talking. These are not involuntary — they can be stopped — but they are an essential part of the truth of the human world.
Noting these things and incorporating them into opera and theatre is, he believes, one of the most important things he has done as a director, and they are why, though Rutherford & Son looks finished already, he knows there is much he can add. “People sometimes stop me in the street and say something I did a long time ago changed their mind. It’s because I drew their attention to something commonplace and dignified it and made it something important — which actually, I suppose, is what most of the serious works of art do.”
So it goes — talking, talking, and continuing to do so long after I turn off the recorders. Occasionally he leaps up to grab a book from the shelves that line the room, or to show me one of his paintings, sculptures or photographs. With these he fills his time. Rachel, having retired as a GP years ago, took up the cello and is often out of the house. At one point, she comes into the room and demands that he commit to a Wigmore Hall concert. He agrees, but, I detect, mainly because he does not want to be left out. He admits to feeling panic alone in the house in the long afternoons, not knowing what to do with himself.
‘It’s because I drew their attention to something commonplace and dignified it and made it something important — which actually, I suppose, is what most of the serious works of art do’
“I could read, I suppose…” he says unenthusiastically. But he has four grandchildren now, and many tales to tell them. They should be very proud.
I leave, having, as instructed, admired the photos in the loo. He decides to help me find a taxi. Outside, he loses 20 years, springing into new life. The familiar long-legged lope is intact, and he seems to know everybody, including the stallholders at the market. He lapses into an Ulster brogue with the Northern Irish fruit-stall guy, makes jokes about the Troubles. It crosses my mind that, if he needs something to do in the afternoons, he could go back to comedy. That way, he could keep talking, talking, talking…