The passing of Jonathan Miller’s father Emanuel Miller — a very distinguished psychiatrist — was terrible. ‘His last words, as he reared up on his deathbed, were: “I’m a flop! I’m a flop!” ’ One should be cautious about being Freudian here — Emanuel might approve; his son wouldn’t; his son’s biographer might, slightly — but that is a hell of a sentiment to inherit. As theatre and opera director, author of learned papers in medicine and neuropsychology, TV presenter and public intellectual, quotable crosspatch and lightning-rod for English anti-intellectualism, Jonathan Miller looks like someone for whom not being a flop consumes a lot of anxiety.
He came out of the traps as not-a-flop with some energy. His early success was astonishing. While Miller was still an undergraduate, Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times wrote that ‘if the whole world is destroyed, but Mr Miller preserved, it will be possible to start the entire adventure over again.’ He was offered a part in a West End show, appeared on TV variety shows, had a sketch pressed on vinyl and performed it on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He was drawn by Ronald Searle and photographed by Jane Bown. All this well before Beyond the Fringe.
And, my God, he knew everybody. His infant self appeared (unflatteringly) in a Stevie Smith poem. He palled about with Lord Lucan as a boy (Miller seems to have been the naughty one) and Oliver Sacks as a teenager. As an apprentice book designer he contributed the cover to Cape’s first edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (and almost got sued by Bridget Riley in the process). And — which quite boggled my mind — while at Cambridge he appeared in a production of Bartholomew Fair alongside Sylvia Plath and A.S. Byatt, who at that point (can this be right?) went by the name of ‘Toni Drabble’. The two-paragraph roll-call of his neighbours in Gloucester Crescent is an omnium gatherum of well-to-do late-20th-century lefty North London bohemia.
So it’s an insidery-outsidery sort of story: a man absolutely within an establishment, yet who frequently feels rejected and excluded; an academic dissatisfied with life in the theatre and a performer frustrated in academia; a ‘God-haunted atheist’; a man who rejects, yet circles, the psychoanalytic world in which his father made his name; a Jewish intellectual with a problematic relationship to his Jewishness. Miller’s physical and intellectual mobility bespeaks a man whose skin has never quite fitted him, haunted by what he hasn’t done and can’t do, possessed by the verdancy on the other side of the fence.
There are also all the feuds beloved of the gossip pages. Peter Hall said that Miller was ‘the only director I know who always likes his own work’; and Miller said that Hall was ‘a ball of rancid pig-fat rolled around the floor of a barber’s shop’. He said that Paul Johnson looked like ‘an explosion in a pubic hair factory’ (a quote curiously omitted from this otherwise comprehensive volume, unless I’ve turned two pages at once). One theatre critic was ‘a greasy old porker with a biro stuck in the cleft of his trotter’, another ‘a snaggle-toothed intestinal parasite’. Drivers who cut him up on the school run would get: ‘I’ll rip your fucking thyroid out! And I bet you don’t fucking know where that is!’ Of Covent Garden Opera (where he directed): ‘Harrods food hall yields up its dead.’ Of Monte Carlo (likewise): ‘An arsehole populated by tax-dodging, fur-coated fools.’ The Quotable Miller, as a short companion volume to this, begs to be brought to the Christmas market.
But all that fury is balanced by accounts of tender generosity with friends and collaborators. When Susannah Clapp did some secretarial work for him on a book he was stuck with, he made over a chunk of the advance to her, ‘more than half as much as I earned in a year’. This notorious prima donna will pick up a paintbrush and paint his own set, or volunteer to sell programmes to his own opera when the ushers fail to show up. This notorious intellectual snob is on record as having enjoyed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
He never made all that much money from his work — that his pop-up book of the human body sold a million and a half copies is all but an aside — and even at university he found it very easy to turn down quick-buck opportunities. He endlessly wonders whether he wouldn’t have been better sticking to medicine after all. It’s not money that seems to drive him. He’s an enthusiast in its fullest sense. Rehearsing Rigoletto, Miller was caught on camera physically rolling on the floor with delight at Eric Idle’s performance.
This is an admirably thorough job of a biography: sympathetic, deeply researched (it includes a chronology, full index and nearly 100 pages of digressive endnotes), informed by long conversations with Miller and dozens of friends, colleagues and, occasionally, enemies. It does plod a bit more than it zings, though — something particularly noticeable given the extraordinary zinginess of its subject. Bassett’s journalese gives us ‘locked horns’, ‘minced words’, ‘chameleon-like’ changes and so on. It’s a bit like watching someone trying to catch lightning in a cardboard box.
When Miller’s own language breaks through in quotation — ‘the cool unhurried morse of a cuckoo’; or of the clientele of a New York porn theatre, ‘sitting like strange molluscan sea creatures at the bottom of the sea: awful sessile anemones just gulping down this peculiar visual food’ — it stands out (as Bassett might put it) a mile.
A theatre critic by trade, Bassett is most at home with that side of Miller’s career. I’d have wanted more on his intellectual genealogy and his scientific and philosophical work. Several chapters in the second half of the book lapse into a diligent series of précis of Miller’s theatre and opera productions (there are dozens and dozens, given a paragraph or a page or two according to their importance) which are of interest more to the theatre historian than the general reader.
But in a moving closing chapter, Bassett gives a sense of her own affectionate relationship with her subject, and of Miller’s unquenched anxiety and ever-thinning skin. Nicholas Garland speaks with piercing bewilderment of a friendship that seems to have lapsed: ‘He was my closest and dearest friend …. I was — I was very sad. I really loved him.’
Now in his late seventies, Miller talks about the approach of death as being like a Channel crossing: ‘You get nearer to the shore and you can actually, for the first time, not just make out this dim insubstantial cliff, but you can see the little houses and cars moving.’ He associates dying, too, with childhood parties and memories of being collected slightly early, of there still being musical chairs, and jellies. It’s being taken into the darkened hall [by Nanny] and, half-glimpsed, there’s a pretty girl crossing a lighted doorway, in an organdie dress, and laughing en route to some festivity that one now can’t have.
That made my eyes prickle.
It seems telling, too. For all his intellectual sophistication Miller has, in this account, the curiosity, the jealous hunger for experience, the vulnerability, spite and generosity of a child who — since he first made his schoolfellows laugh doing chicken impersonations — never stopped being a child. You want to say to him: no. Not a flop. Not a flop at all.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012