Director, doctor, actor, presenter: Jonathan Miller has one of the most bulging portfolios of our time. Now his restless mind is back on the theatre, as his latest production heads for Surrey. Lucy Johnston meets him at home
I’ve never been so terrified of being late. I’ve hardly slept for fear of not hearing my alarm. And now I’m trotting at such a pace down the street that the man on the fruit and veg stall glances up in surprise. Four avocados for a pound? No time, thanks.
I’ve been invited to interview Jonathan Miller, at home in Camden, ahead of his return to directing after a five-year break from the theatre. The Yvonne Arnaud will be one beneficiary of his comeback, when the touring production of Rutherford and Son comes to Guildford in May.
Arriving at the door of an imposing four-storey townhouse, afraid of ringing the wrong bell, I check the address for the umpteenth time. Yes, this is the place. Time to stand and collect myself.
I’m mid-exhale when the door is suddenly flung open, the doorway filled by a tall frame and shock of white hair. He may be nearly 79 and starting to frail, but Jonathan Miller has lost none of his distinctive poise. I must have looked like a rabbit in the headlights.
“Are you looking for me?” he enquires, gazing at me quizzically with a slight twinkle, though his face remains severe. Eventually he breaks into full beam, clearly satisfied that I will be amusing company for a while, and steps aside for me to enter.
He leads me along the hall and down a flight of stairs into the sunken kitchen. I perch at the end of the big kitchen table while his wife makes coffee and we chat about the weather – naturally – and cycling. One of his sons, William, also at the table, has recently biked all the way to Oxford for a friend’s wedding, clearly demonstrating the Miller eccentricity. A steaming mug is placed before me and I’ve just carefully lifted it to my lips when Jonathan suddenly stands.
“Right, let’s go up!” he announces, causing me to jump to my feet and spill coffee onto an adjacent newspaper.
Back up the stairs we go and into his sitting room, a peaceful blue-green room that feels removed from the rest of the world. One wall is floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – from which he will pull down a book, in reference, a few times during our conversation – while another has the appearance of the RA Summer Exhibition. And every horizontal surface is crammed with sculptures, ornaments, curiosities and more books. At a stretch, I can balance half the base of my mug on the coffee table.
The overall impression is of a three-dimensional representation of the hidden workings of Jonathan’s mind, which has conquered impeccably the study and practice of topics as diverse as medicine, anthropology, comedy, opera and film.
Frequently described as a polymath, Jonathan brushes this aside with a hand and a slightly impatient sigh, as if he’s bored of the silliness of the title.
“Oh, I really don’t go in for all that,” he says. “It’s just a label used by people who don’t see that being interested in, and knowing about, a range of subjects is simply the sign of a civilised gentleman and of a life well lived.”
His father – an eminent doctor, who founded child psychiatry – was also an accomplished painter and sculptor.
“You see, for him, back in the early 1900s, it would have been most odd if anyone had suggested he might be unusual in his versatility. That’s one of his there,” he says, waving his hand towards a beautiful, finely sculpted clay bust on the mantelpiece. “It’s of my mother. She was a wonderful woman. Interested in so many things too. And an accomplished novelist.”
His parents have clearly been a strong inspiration, but there is also an invisible weight attached to this inheritance, as he considers his achievements relative to his father’s at the same age. Not a life crisis, as such; more an in-depth review.
He leans back into the cushions on his sofa, long legs crossed, fingertips resting together over his stomach as he ponders.
“In many ways my life has been a series of distractions from what I perhaps should have been doing. Far from being a particularly strong character, I have simply given in to one curiosity after another. I just accepted invitations because they intrigued me, and never really thought beyond each one.”
The distractions began early, at once defining the opposing scientific and, as he puts it, “fluffy” interests that he has battled between ever since. Having followed his Jewish roots and studied medicine at Cambridge, he was then swept up in the dazzling success of Beyond the Fringe, the satirical revue he wrote and performed with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, and which rocketed them to fame in the 1960s. This led on to glamorous invitations to make documentary films, present the BBC’s arts programme Monitor, write extensively and direct numerous operas and plays. All of which took him further and further from the other side of his brain: the side that craves serious study and a scientific justification for living.
“I do wonder now if I should have stayed with medicine, as I intended at the start. Does it make me weak that I accepted so many other invitations?” he asks wistfully, without giving time for, or expecting, a response. I’d heard that, if he’s in full flow, one barely needs to speak. And here it was. The Miller flow. “I could have made more of a difference to the world, I think, as a doctor.”
One of the ways in which he certainly has made an impact has been in staging sensational productions for English National Opera, with a skill for reinterpretation that has opened up the world of opera to vast new audiences. He may no longer be involved with ENO – they never ask him now, apparently – but shows like his Mikado and Barber of Seville still pull in packed houses 25 years after he conceived them.
“They still benefit from my work,” he digs mildly, shrugging with a mix of melancholy and resignation. “I don’t know why people don’t ask me to do things now – I think you get better the older you get because you’ve seen more and you know more.”
His mind craves multiple thought processes, multiple purposes. So, after a break of five years, he is turning his attention back to the theatre. At the invitation of Barrie Rutter, Artistic Director of the Halifax-based Northern Broadsides, he is directing an intimate, touring production of the 1912 play Rutherford and Son, an atmospheric story of a quarrelling industrialist family in the North of England. It was written, initially under a pen name, by Githa Sowerby, the daughter of a similar family. And, true to form, the curiosity of this piece has drawn Jonathan in.
“It’s a rare gem, and an excellent study of people, which I like. And when I learned that it was written by a woman, I thought this was most intriguing. Women simply didn’t do that sort of thing then.”
Jonathan, as is widely known, abhors getting cultural or period details wrong. So does he need to do a lot of research?
“Research? Not as such. I know a lot of it already from other experiences. I store it all up in my head. I know what works, what will make it seem real,” he says simply, without pomposity. “I love piecing it all together. All the negligible details of human behaviour that make up a person’s character. That’s what fascinates me.”
He is staring intently at my hand, which I now realise is fiddling minutely with the fringe on the arm of the sofa.
“Life is really about the details and how they come together. You know, I don’t actually think I have lots of capabilities. I just see the connections between things – the details in the connectedness of the world – which other people miss.”
He rises and paces to the window restlessly, as if uncomfortable from the weight of knowledge held in his head. His long gait carries him there in two strides, and he peers out at the street.
“When we moved in nearly 50 years ago, this was a bohemian neighbourhood, with all sorts of characters. It was quite wild, and we had fun, but now we’re being invaded by the bankers, one house at a time. It’s frightfully dull. This house is like the last bastion of an era,” he mourns.
He talks with utter assurance – but mixed with a self-deprecating tone that makes him more likeable than I was imagining. Though he’s clearly been less withering with me than with others, and we don’t have time for some of the topics to which he notoriously takes exception. Either way, it’s compelling.
A month or so later, I see him again up in Halifax for the opening night. It’s the interval, and he’s pacing slowly up and down outside the bar, drawing on a cigarette raised and balanced on his middle finger – the enduring image of him across his career. His eyes are sharp.
“Hello dear,” he beams, as I approach to ask how he’s feeling.
“I feel good, yes. This must be one of the best productions I’ve ever been involved with,” he pronounces, but with an awed manner, as if he’s just woken up and found himself in the middle of this theatrical triumph.
“It’s pretty brutal, isn’t it? And to imagine such a thing was written by a woman in 1912! The media raved about it, until they realised,” he cackles. Jonathan himself may question the impact of his life, but inspiring multitudes worldwide through his operas and plays seems a pretty good legacy to me.
Rutherford and Son is showing at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, May 14 - 18. For tickets visit Yvonne-arnaud.co.uk