An audience with Jonathan Miller

An Audience with Jonathan Miller takes place in Regent s College Theatre in the Inner Circle of Regent s Park on Thursday night, (September 25). Here he is interviewed by CHARLOTTE NEWTON You might not have known it from the media coverage, but the deva

An Audience with Jonathan Miller takes place in Regent's College Theatre in the Inner Circle of Regent's Park on Thursday night, (September 25). Here he is interviewed by CHARLOTTE NEWTON

You might not have known it from the media coverage, but the devastating Hurricane Ike had a life before it made landfall in Texas.

The damage Ike did in the Lone Star State was savage enough, but while the world's media seemed interested only in its impact in the US, I had already been receiving regular messages from friends in Cuba, where it had unleashed its terrifying force on the beautiful Caribbean island days before it hit Texas.

Around this time last year, I was fortunate to be holidaying in Cuba. Now the hotel I stayed in has been wiped off the face of the earth. Worse, many friendly Cubanas who made my stay so memorable are out of work, trying to repair their homes and their shattered lives without the benefit of the meagre income their tourist jobs afforded.

One newly-found friend sent a lengthy message describing the extent of the damage, then apologetically admitted that her family's main concern was finding a way of replacing the windows and doors in their own home.

Cuba is among a group of Caribbean islands that take a pounding from hurricanes every year. To be fair, the authorities there are well versed in ensuring that the loss of life is minimised. On this occasion, from what I'm told, the evacuation plans were executed in a calm, orderly and highly efficient manner.

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But Ike was a monster and the damage caused to homes and businesses was immense. It will take many months for the worst-affected parts of the island to recover.

So why is it that we hear so little about hurricanes until they are spinning their way towards Florida or Louisiana? America is the wealthiest country in the world, and yet the hurricane season there still leaves a legacy of abject misery behind it. What must it be like for inhabitants of im EVER since Sir Jonathan Miller made his debut on the London stage with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, he has had a prolific influence on British culture and thought.

The comical quartet met through the Cambridge Footlights and their play - Beyond the Fringe - led to a boom in satirical comedy in 1961.

Although each went on to achieve great things, it was arguably Miller, who has lived in Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town for 50 years, who eclipsed them in the breadth and variety of professions he mastered.

He has, among other things, completed a natural sciences degree at Cambridge, trained as a hospital doctor at University College Hospital, presented television programmes on science and medicine, directed opera at the world's greatest opera houses including Glyndebourne, the Met and La Scala, been a director of the National Theatre and produced stage works at the Old Vic, lectured, written and more recently, became a sculptor.

He is also renowned for attracting controversy, famously by refusing to work with Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti because he was "a ridiculous performer who could sing beautifully - but could not act" and for saying the Royal Opera House was "a kind of wife kennel" for rich men because of the "curious, snobbish prestige" attached to being seen there.

So it was little surprise that Sir Jonathan, now 75, offered me as sharp and original thoughts on the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank as on the sale of Damien Hirst's tiger shark for £9,561,259. And that was at 9.30am in the morning, when most people are still reaching for the coffee percolator to jump-start their day.

"I think Damien Hirst is a very interesting example of how celebrity culture has intoxicated British society," he said.

"I don't think any of his work is particularly interesting yet he has been blown out of all proportion by the media, which makes the very wealthy feel they have to pay an absurd amount of money for a shark.

"Meanwhile Francis Bacon, who is in my mind a great artist and whose work is currently on show in the Tate Britain, laboured away all of his life and didn't make any money until much later on."

The subject of Britain's trashy celebrity culture provokes an extreme, hilarious reaction from the great man.

"Put it this way," Sir Jonathan says, "If this culture had existed 2000 years ago, there would have been a sign just above Jesus Christ's head on the crucifix saying 'I'm a celebrity get me out of here!"

Yet underneath the jokes and witticisms, signs of exasperation shine through Sir Jonathan's remarks. He rejects the label of being a polymath as "journalistic peevishness" and instead argues that his talents and range of interests are mere by-products of being a civilised, educated man:

"My father was a psychiatrist, who also read in many languages and sculpted but he would have been appalled to be called a polymath. The problem is that serious thought has vanished from public life and it is now considered boring or elitist to be interested in the arts.

"There is not one serious arts programme on the BBC anymore which is a travesty. Instead they're all about Strictly Come Dancing, cooking and DIY."

Intriguingly, Sir Jonathan believes the global financial meltdown could actually salvage British society.

"Cataclysms of one sort or another can lead to a massive change in values and change people's ideas on how important it is to go on a very expensive holiday or to own the fastest car," he says

"My mother, Betty Miller, was a very talented novelist and a wise woman who brought us up during the War. She always taught me to appreciate the negligible things in life which is why I derive so much satisfaction from visiting Camden market, sitting in my back garden and reading."

You can hear more anecdotes from Sir Jonathan Miller's extraordinary life in An Audience with Jonathan Miller which takes place in Regent's College Theatre in the Inner Circle of Regent's Park on Thursday, September 25.

Tickets for the Ham&High sponsored event cost between £12.50 and £17.50. For more information telephone 020-7487 7540.