As a comedian, TV presenter, satirist, stage director, man of medicine and all-round intellectual, Jonathan Miller, who has died aged 85 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was unrivalled in his own lifetime.
He had wise words on almost any subject under the sun. His big failing, somebody once said, was that he was interested only in everything; his curiosity, and his ability to formulate ideas in cascades of language around it, knew no bounds. As a child, he challenged the received notions of chicken speech by conducting his own in-depth survey. Instead of them going “buk buk buk buk” followed by “bacagh” he found a quite different pattern of chicken speech: six “buks” followed by a soft “bacagh”; two “buks” followed by a further soft “bacagh”; and nine further “buks” followed by a loud, conclusive “bacagh”.
The critic Penelope Gilliatt reported this breakthrough, adding that Miller could also enact objects: “I saw him imitate the sound of a sofa being sat on. His face expressed outrage on behalf of sofas everywhere.”
Miller was a very funny man. He was also a polymath, a dangerous word, with its overtones of “too clever by half” and dusty, book-bound isolation. But he was no snob. He loved low comedy and the Carry On films. It was his fate, however, to be branded a “pseud” in Private Eye; he became, in those pages, a cartoon character, Doctor Jonathan, a preposterous figure holding forth in Camden Town on Jung, Freud, Shakespeare, Schiller and schadenfreude. The fact that Susan Sontag, in some ways his opposite number in New York, branded him as “one of the most valuable people in the United Kingdom” did not help.
Theatre people saw him as a dilettante. Music critics were quick to capitalise on his admission that he could not read a score. Miller himself, although he held many academic posts, felt a fraud when attending medical conferences, where his knowledge was outstripped by that of dedicated professionals.
Nonetheless, he remained as involved in the disciplines of philosophy, neurology and art history as he was in the more raffish perennial pastimes of theatre and opera production. It is hard to think of anyone in British public life who could be as triumphantly at home as Miller was in the theatres, the lecture halls, the television studios and the great universities and libraries of Europe and America.
With his fellow Oxbridge comedians Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, he changed the face of British entertainment in Beyond the Fringe (1961). This was the start not just of the satire boom, but also the postwar reaction to political stuffiness, religious hypocrisy and cultural stasis. There had been nothing like it on the stage before, certainly no prime minister had been so openly derided before as was Harold Macmillan, and the gifted quartet became the toast of the town.
Cook and Moore toasted the town right back while Miller and Bennett diversified into fascinating, self-fulfilling careers as, respectively, theatre director and much loved playwright and diarist.
In Miller’s case, his success with the show in New York took him to the heart of the city’s intellectual life, and he became a familiar with the New York Review of Books crowd, who included the poet Robert Lowell and the editors Elizabeth Hardwick, Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein. Years later, he would still be contributing spellbinding essays on such topics as producing opera and, suitably enough, mesmerism.
In one Beyond the Fringe sketch, the lanky and bendy-limbed Miller played an ingratiating vicar telling Moore’s bone-headed Teddy boy that the thing about violence was to get it “off the streets and into the churches where it belongs”. As the acute Gilliatt also observed, Miller’s work in Beyond the Fringe confirmed him as a specialist in the comedy of mess: “He jolted muddleheadedness into lucidity by re-enacting confusion.” The golden rule in the case of nuclear attack? Get right out of the area.
Beyond the Fringe occupied Miller and the rest for three years, from Edinburgh to London and New York. The show, as he ruefully remarked, was catastrophically successful. His career in medicine – he had been addicted to biology since his teens, studied natural sciences at Cambridge and qualified as a doctor in London in 1960 – was disrupted and he succumbed to the blandishments of TV, a move that haunted him for the rest of his life. He was an innovative producer on Huw Wheldon’s Monitor at the BBC in 1965 and later with his idiosyncratic BBC films of Alice in Wonderland and MR James’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You.
His brilliant series The Body in Question (1978), which he also presented, continued a great BBC tradition of intellectual talking heads such as Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Galbraith. If anyone was both the justification and embodiment of the BBC Reithian ideals of popular seriousness in the arts, languages and science, it was Miller.
An early idol was the comedian Danny Kaye, whom he saw at the London Palladium after the second world war, when Kaye sat on the stage and swung his legs over the orchestra pit with the audience in the palm of his hand; you could say that Miller was the Kaye of the mind, if that did not belittle Kaye’s genius for utter nonsense.
Miller was also an imaginative supremo on the BBC Shakespeare series (1979-81), which had got off to a more sedate start under a more senior and entrenched producer, Cedric Messina.
In the theatre, he became one of the star directors of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in the early 1970s, though he fell out badly with Olivier’s successor, Peter Hall.
He was also a renowned opera director, a reputation rooted in his stunningly fresh and original stagings at the English National Opera of a 20s New York mafia version of Rigoletto in 1982 (no one who ever saw La Donna è Mobile kickstarted by a sharp blow to the juke box will ever forget it); and of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado transposed in 1986 to the Freedonia of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Miller cherished the incredulous laughter that greeted Eric Idle, as KoKo, opening the letter from the Mikado with an indignant: “I can’t read this; it’s in Japanese.”
These productions, along with his ENO revivals of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1994) and Verdi’s La Traviata (1996), became audience favourites, returning to the repertoire year after year, much to Miller’s annoyance on the grounds that his efforts – and his contribution to the ENO’s box office income – were not recognised with appropriate remuneration. In later years, Miller worked increasingly abroad, slightly bitter at what he took to be an ageist policy of employment at the major theatres at home.
He was temperamentally indisposed, anyway, towards the institutionalised nature of theatre, as he saw it, at the monolithic National on the South Bank and the Royal Shakespeare Company; he had had his time at the first when Kenneth Tynan was Olivier’s literary manager at the Old Vic and the offices a couple of Nissen huts round the back. And Tynan’s company and intelligence suited him.
Miller’s interest in the visual arts, and the work of such historians as Ernst Gombrich and Frances Yates, was constantly apparent in his stage work. A Measure for Measure at the National in 1975 – a low-budget touring show, set in the Vienna of Freud and Schoenberg – was directly inspired by a book of August Sander’s photographs.
The ENO Rigoletto quoted Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks before the painting was widely known. Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande sounded like Monet to Miller; so the medieval setting was translated to the world of Monet’s literary counterpart, Proust, and the Château de Guermantes. The little boy was obviously a young Marcel.
These adjustments earned Miller a reputation as an iconoclast, but he rarely strayed from the period setting of any piece. When he did so, as in the above examples, there was only a brilliant, metaphorical interpretation at work, never a mere rough and ready “update”.
His 1970 National Theatre Merchant of Venice was transposed to the Venice of the 1890s, with Olivier as a frock-coated Rothschild of the Rialto. This was not totally successful, but the idea was so fresh and so brilliant that it justified the cliche of seeing an old play in a new way.
No production was conceived without recourse to a wider frame of reference. This was not a fetish, but a genuine modus operandi. Over the years, Miller developed a passion for photography and then took an even more “hands on” practical line. While directing an opera in Santa Fe, he was initiated in the art of welding. He started collecting bits of brick, torn posters, splinters of wood and shards of metal; these “assemblages” as he called them were exhibited in various art galleries. Commenting on this new activity at the time, Miller claimed that growing older had sharpened, not blunted, his intelligence. “I think more imaginatively because I have such an enormous amount to draw on. I am like my garden, my brain has been mulched and manured, things have grown and I am more complicated.”
His piercing gaze and curly hair (changing over the years from sandy salt and pepper to a distinctive white) defined an instantly recognisable sage of the age. Even at 70, he would lope lithely as ever around his local market in Camden Town on a Saturday morning, bemoaning the closure of another fruit and vegetable stall in the rising tide of “Euro-slush groups who siphon their way through Camden Lock buying eighth-rate black leather clothes and awful Turkish food being served in a slatternly way”.
Born in St John’s Wood, north London, Miller was educated at St Paul’s school, where the neurologist Oliver Sacks and the bibliophile Eric Korn were contemporaries and, thereafter, lifelong friends, and St John’s College, Cambridge. His father, Emanuel Miller, was a child psychologist and psychiatrist, and his mother, Betty (nee Spiro), a popular novelist and biographer of the poet Robert Browning.
He married Rachel Collet, a contemporary at university, and later a general practitioner, in 1956. They bought a house in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, in 1960 and became indelibly associated with such neighbours as Michael Frayn, George Melly and his old friend Bennett – who lived directly opposite – as the trendy literati of NW1.
After the success of Beyond the Fringe, and despite holding academic posts at Sussex University (researching cognitive behaviourism) and McMaster University in Canada (as visiting professor of medicine), Miller’s theatrical career was tumultuous over three decades.
His first play as director was John Osborne’s Under Plain Cover (1962) at the Royal Court, his first Shakespeare a memorable King Lear at Nottingham Playhouse in 1970, in which Michael Hordern and Frank Middlemass were a blithe King and Fool of a similar age.
Around this time he even found time to direct two student productions of Hamlet and Twelfth Night for the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company, unforgettable experiences for the students finding themselves caught up in the sheer fun and exuberance of his observational humour and unbridled intellectual vitality. He made the same impact wherever he went. Olivier said of working with him at the National that he was excited beyond measure “by the limitless variety and the fascinating colour in the expression of his ideas”.
Speed, flexibility, vivacity: the suppleness of Miller’s mind found perfect expression in his early productions for Kent Opera, or in a trilogy of thematically interlinked plays – Hamlet, The Seagull and Ibsen’s Ghosts – performed under the generic title of Family Romances at Greenwich theatre in 1974, with a core cast of Irene Worth, Robert Stephens, Peter Eyre and Nicola Pagett.
In 1986 he directed a notably speeded-up version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, at the Haymarket, with Jack Lemmon as the overwrought patriarch and Peter Gallagher and Kevin Spacey as the sons. The actors were incited to overlap their dialogue, a technique rooted in behavioural psychology and the way families butt in on each other.
In 1987, returning to the Royal Court (though only in the Theatre Upstairs), he staged The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuściński’s account of the last years of the Abyssinian empire under Haile Selassie, as an echo chamber of spies and whispers, all doors and keyholes, and a text arranged by Michael Hastings from verbatim interviews.
His tenure as artistic director of the Old Vic (1988-90) under the patronage of Ed and David Mirvish gave London some of the most brilliant productions of the period, including Richard Jones’s black and white, rabidly cartoonish Feydeau, A Flea in Her Ear, and Miller’s own second look at The Tempest (the first was a pioneering anti-colonial version at the Mermaid in 1970), starring Max von Sydow.
He was back in New York, at the Metropolitan Opera House, with acclaimed productions of Katya Kabanova in 1991 and Pelléas in 1995, but he fell foul of the administration when he refused to sanction Cecilia Bartoli inserting two alternative arias for Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. His view of star singers was dim. He referred to the Three Tenors – Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras – as “Jurassic Park”.
In the end, he felt there were only about 40 operas worth doing and travelling around Europe doing them proved a congenial way of also visiting libraries and churches in the great cities. He may have run out of plays, too, judging by his disappointing 1996 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Almeida, in which the comedy’s magic was subverted in an abandoned 30s conservatory of glass mirrors, where Oberon provocatively coughed his way through I Know a Bank in evening dress and the music chosen to rock the ground was Noël Coward’s I’ll See You Again.
His last opera productions were of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House in 2004 (and again in 2010); La Bohème at ENO in 2009 (and again in 2018-19); Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in Zurich in 2005; and a staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2006 (and at the National Theatre in 2011).
His various publications include McLuhan (1971), a useful demolition job on the medium is the message guru, The Body in Question (1978), Subsequent Performances (1986), a superbly argued narrative about the afterlife of plays and their realisation in new cultural circumstances, and an enjoyable edition of essays, The Don Giovanni Book (1990).
He was appointed CBE in 1983 and knighted in 2002. He was an honorary fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the Royal Academy, received honorary doctorates from Leicester and Cambridge universities, and listed his recreation in Who’s Who as “deep sleep”.
Miller is survived by Rachel and their children, Tom, William and Kate.
• Jonathan Wolfe Miller, director and writer, born 21 July 1934; died 27 November 2019