Jonathan Miller reflects on a rewarding and successful life
- Credit: CREDIT Photograph by Nobby Clark
Bridget Galton meets the 79-year-old doctor turned director bringing a rarely-performed northern classic to the stage
Jonathan Miller decides to step outside during our interview because his family “get very bored by my talking”.
Over the course of our lively chat he fires off ideas; from the perils of updating opera, to quoting philosophy, and unleashing the kind of scathing satirical quip reminiscent of his Beyond the Fringe days.
But then even for polymaths, it’s your family’s prerogative to roll their eyes and complain they’ve heard it all before.
A qualified doctor, leading opera, theatre and TV director, comedian, writer, presenter and artist, at 79 Miller shows little sign of losing interest in the world.
“I’ve never played golf in my life and the idea of retiring at 50 is complete nonsense – people do that because their work has been unrewarding, but I have enjoyed my work, it’s been playful and interesting and I’d much rather go on, if only to keep occupied. It’s sometimes quite difficult to fill your days.”
He’s lived with wife Rachel for more than 50 years in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, a street that once boasted friends like fellow Beyond the Fring-er Alan Bennett, but is now “full of bankers and lawyers”.
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“My mother once said, when I asked to spend two weeks in Paris, that travel narrows the mind. If you are not fascinated by what goes on immediately where you live, you can go a thousand miles and learn nothing,” says Miller, who grew up in St John’s Wood.
“I’ve lived within a mile of here all my life, although Camden has undergone a rather ghastly change. It’s become very vulgar and commercial around Camden Lock where half a million people come every weekend to look at leather rubbish, and the street has changed a great deal. It was a shabby Bohemia of writers and artists, now the people are totally different.”
With houses in the street topping £3million, Miller is fretting about the “idiotic” mansion tax.
“It has gone up in value but we didn’t buy it to invest, we bought it to live in. I am not making any money, we won’t be able to afford £10,000 or £15,000. We’ll have to sell and live in a small flat in Ealing...” and, he rounds off dramatically: “I will finish my life.”
It’s all the fault of the Tories he adds, with a flavour of the humour that propelled Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Bennett and Miller to fame in the early ’60s: “What I call the bulshittingdon club talk about the big society but are totally unacquainted with the life most people live,” he fumes.
“I grew up at a time when the government invented ideas like free education and the National Health Service and saw its function as producing fairness. But today the rich are very, very, rich and the poor increasingly deprived.”
In recent years, Miller has won acclaim as an inventive director of operas and theatre. His latest stage project is Rutherford and Son, a rarely performed classic written in 1912 by glassmaker’s daughter Githa Sowerby.
Barrie Rutter, who runs Halifax-based theatre company Northern Broadsides asked Miller to direct this stirring tale of an iron-fisted industrialist who puts his business before his children’s happiness when his son and daughter rebel.
Miller has invested this study of a self-made patriarch with an oppressive gloom and shards of psychological insight in a production, which arrives at the St James Theatre freighted with comparisons to Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw.
“Sowerby is very little known but that often happens in the arts. People who are major contributors get ignored. I didn’t really know about her until Barrie sent me this rather marvellous piece that was so obviously a masterpiece, rather like the Cherry Orchard in its social care and issues.”
He adds: “Rutherford is a fiercely socially ambitious working class boy who has worked his arse off and taken great pleasure in promoting his family into a prosperous middle class world. He’s maddened when his son marries a working class girl.
“There is something rather commendable about his industrious work ethic and battle against anyone who threatens the integrity of the firm.”
Miller, who previously ran the Old Vic theatre and directed Lawrence Olivier in a memorable Merchant of Venice, insists he’s “not an intrusive director” and put the show together in 10 days.
“I can get a production on a lot faster than younger colleagues who fuss about for weeks with improvisation,” he boasts.
“I don’t tell actors what to do, I remind them what they know, and get them to forget what they think they know. The script is self-evident, you haven’t got to interpret, just get them to be absolutely natural and real.
“To me the whole business of acting is playing – it’s no accident it’s called a play – and the purpose of theatre is for the audience to discover truths about human existence they had not previously noticed – you don’t go to the theatre to be taken out of yourself but to be taken into yourself”
Miller decries the theatrical trend for “idiotically updating everything to the Afghanistan war or something in last week’s news.”
Although he has successfully updated operas, he has strict rules about it.
“I would never update an opera like La Traviata that’s been written by a composer in their own period, but 90 per cent of operas are backdated and you often don’t believe the period.
“There has to be correspondence between where you update it and where it seems to have come from as with the Rigoletto I did 30 years ago which seemed to come from the same world as the Italian-American Mafia.”
Far from being respectful of the high art form, Miller is scornful of much of the cannon.
“Fifty per cent of opera I would never dream of directing, they are fatuous, implausible stories with wonderful music best heard in a lift or on a DVD.
“I have done all the operas I can bear to do.”
In addition to painting him as brilliant and funny, Kate Bassett’s recent autobiography Two Minds (Oberon Books) reveals a restlessly ambitious, curmudgeonly, sharp tongued, gloomy character, highly resistant to criticism.
Although Miller agreed to be interviewed, he hasn’t read the book because, “I know everything about myself already”, but was flattered anyone was interested.
“I haven’t got any picking of projects,” he replies about future work.
“The problem with this business is once you’re a certain age everyone thinks you’re past it or to all intents and purposes dead.
“But if you keep your wits about you, you get better as you go along because you’ve seen the whole range of human life.”
n Northern Broadsides’ Rutherford and Son runs at St James Theatre, Victoria, from June 4 to 29. Box office 0844 264 2140 or www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.