Jonathan Miller’s career has covered many different fields: author, lecturer, television producer and presenter, theatre, opera and film director. He co-wrote and appeared in Beyond the Fringe with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore which opened at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960 and later transferred to London and New York.
His theatre productions include The Merchant Of Venice with Laurence Oliver, The Taming Of The Shrew (RSC) and as artistic director of the Old Vic Andromache with Janet Suzman and The Tempest with Max Von Sydow.
His opera productions include The Marriage Of Figaro, The Turn Of The Screw, Rosenkavalier, Cosi Fan Tutte and Rigoletto.
Television credits include his 1966 film Alice In Wonderland and 11 plays for the BBC’s Shakespeare series. He has written and presented several major series including The Body In Question, States Of Mind and A Brief History Of Disbelief.
In June 2002, he was knighted in the Queen’s Jubilee birthday honours list.
Nick Ahad talks to Jonathan Miller
Many consider you a polymath, but you don’t like the word?
I hate the word polymath because it’s meaningless. My father was an accomplished painter and sculptor and writer but he was also the founder of child psychology. He would have been appalled if anyone said he was a polymath or a renaissance man or any of those things. He was just a man, like many of that period, who took pleasure in pursuing his varied interests.
Is that how you see yourself?
I don’t consider myself as having a particular being, I just see myself at this moment in engaged in this, a week or two later, engaged in something else. I don’t think of myself as having a sort of continuous sense of being, I simply continue to be alive until I die and that is all.
How do you choose what to do?
Very often if it involves theatre or television or opera I do what I am asked to do. Someone
invites me to do a play or an opera or a television programme or whatever and what I do is the next thing – provided it is something I think I can do and that interests me.
Do you ever have a plan?
No. It just comes up one after another. Most of the requests I have had to do plays or operas have been unsolicited invitations that I have not asked to do. I mean there are several things in the early days when I went to the BBC and asked if I could make things like Alice in Wonderland or Whistle and I’ll Come to you but otherwise I undertook to do what I was asked to do in the belief that I would be able to do it.
Do you ever stop and look back on your extraordinary career?
No. I get told it’s extraordinary and people start using these ridiculous terms like polymath and all that sort of thing. I sometimes look back at the age of 80 and think “was it all worthwhile” and “ought I to have done that, ought I to have left medicine”, for example and then an invitation comes up and I am engaged in nothing other than doing whatever is I was invited to do.
Even though it is an extraordinary career?
So I am told. From my point of view, it was just one thing after another that I did because the invitation interested me. At the beginning I was asked to direct a play and I did so with some misgivings because I had never directed a play in my life. I didn’t know if I would be able to do it. The first play I ever did was at the Royal Court and I was asked to do it and I remember saying I don’t what it’s like I’ve never directed a play. I was assured that I would pick it up as I went along. I don’t know why they thought that. When I did direct I learnt to my pleasure that one of the skills I had picked up as a doctor, as a diagnostician, watching what people do was transferable to encouraging people to do things that were realistic in theatre.
A very particular skill?
It just is observationalism. I was encouraged when I was learning to be a doctor to look at what people did and getting hints as to what might be wrong with them. Well that skill of looking at often trivial, previously unnoticed details of behaviour which give the game away when it comes to making diagnosis, that skill is something which is immediately transferable to telling your performers to do what is real. It’s not telling the truth that dignifies it too much; it’s just noticing what people do. I never take taxis I always go on public transport and I watch what people are doing – reading newspapers, chatting to each other, looking at the list of places where they need to get off, things like that, those trivial details are all that we do as normal creatures. But people don’t notice that and what I have spent my time doing as a director is restoring the commonplace and the ordinary to performances. I enjoy doing it because it gives me the opportunity of trying to repeat for the public observers what they haven’t previously noticed.
King Lear seems a play to which you return.
I’ve done it several times. I enjoy it and I think it is one of the best plays that Shakespeare ever wrote. I have been asked to do it several times. I think all in all five different performances and two television performances. It’s not that I am tremendously interested in doing it. I do enjoy doing it and am pleased to come back and reconsider it but I don’t make dramatic changes when I do. I suppose a lot of the productions I have done have a lot in common with each other.
Why is it such a special play?
What’s extraordinary is the strange realism of the behaviour of a person who in fact is an
incompetent monarch. It draws attention to things we haven’t previously noticed. We always assume someone who is a monarch – particularly in those days, occupied that role because he was qualified to exercise the authority that a monarch had. But in the case of Lear we have someone who, as his daughter says when he goes out of the room, “he has ever but slenderly known himself” and that he was actually a foolish old man and probably a foolish young one. It may well be the fact that many people who inherit monarchy are not in fact qualified to exercise monarchy.
Why do you set your play in the period it was written, rather than when Shakespeare set it?
It seems to me that many playwrights and people who compose operas more often than not backdate their work, people complain about directors like myself who update their works. I don’t think Shakespeare knew anything about Julius Caesar – most of the information he would have had about Julius Caesar at that time was much more limited than us because we have many more techniques for uncovering the past. But I felt that Lear was a play that was much better if it was set in the year that it was written.
How much have you had to do with casting?
Not a lot, since I have worked with Barrie (Rutter) in the past, I know he has a company
who have always been exponents of naturalistic skill and therefore I left it to him when I did Rutherford and Son and I have confidence in him doing it now for Lear. I gave him one or two recommendations about how old certain people should be – the fool should not, for example be young. Even though he is endlessly referred to as boy, he is not a boy, he’s an old man the same age as Lear. He happens to be someone we regard as as fool, that’s his role. In all probability he was the same age as Lear and it’s rather interesting when you have someone who happens to be a monarch and another man who is the same age who is his fool.
Do you expect to find anything new returning to the piece?
There’s always something comes up, things you see in hindsight – oh I forgot that or oh I never noticed that and when you cast it with new actors and they bring something original to it and you think how stupid not to have thought of that, when they reveal something about the play.
Will this piece be traditional? Avant- garde?
I don’t care for avant-garde – it is a meaningless term exercised by people who have no idea of the commonplace. My mother who was a novelist said to me “I hope you do, if you work in the theatre, do what I do what I do when I am writing novels and make the negligible considerable”.
It was a surprise to see you working with Broadsides when you directed Rutherford and Son.
It wasn’t a surprise to me, I had an unexpected invitation from Barrie to do it, that’s all. I was startled and intrigued by the play written by this woman in 1912, at a time when people in the theatre had a contempt for women and having discovered that it was by a woman, having given it a lot of praise, sought to slag it off.
Why do you enjoy working with Broadsides?
They are very naturalistic and unpretentious. I am sure I will find, when I direct this Lear, a
group of people with whom I work quite naturally and don’t have to boss around. I think too many directors are too bossy and tell people that they must raise their hands at this exact moment right there. That is not what I director should do. What you do is to remind actors of what they know anyway, those things people do without knowing what they are doing.
What’s your take on the state of British theatre?
I never go to theatre I don’t have an opinion I don’t see enough of it. I do what I do and the rest of the time I do the things that I am interested in, which is writing my books or making TV programmes until someone asks me to do a play or an opera.
Is there anything left to achieve?
There must be lots of things I could or might achieve if I got interesting invitations but you get to be 80 and you don’t get asked. Barrie rather flatteringly asked me to do this as he did with Rutherford and as that was rather successful I imagine this will be pretty good.
What happens is that I don’t have elaborate ambitions for the show – I want to make it as
accurate as possible and like my mother said make the negligible considerable. That’s all we are, negligible creatures who happen to be interesting when you look at us closely.
You and Barrie must be a formidable team in one room.
We get on very well, there are obviously moments when he might disagree with me about
something and then we come to some sort of settlement about how it ought to be done. I don’t think of myself as an important personality and I’m sure Barrie doesn’t. He just has been doing Northern Broadsides for a long time and has become a very distinguished member of the theatrical profession.
Why should audiences see this production?
Because it’s the next version of Lear, that’s all. They have reasons to expect it will be
interestingly original and draw their attention to aspects of the play which they had not
previously noticed, that’s all. That’s why they come to my productions and I think the same is true of Barrie. They disclose previously unacknowledged aspects of the work and they will sayoh yes, I knew that, why hadn’t I noticed it before?
What’s your take on Broadsides?
I very much enjoy the company, one of the most important companies in the United Kingdom. I wish that more recognition was extended to it. There is a curious metropolitan complacency about everything that occurs in the National Theatre and the big theatres of the West End and once it goes North of Watford it’s sort of negligible, which is one of the things I deplore about the English artistic world.
By Nick Ahad