Jonathan Miller: "Yes, I'm a Jew, and a chimpanzee"

By Ben Silverstone, August 24, 2006

As international cultural icon Jonathan Miller prepares to return to the British theatre, he talks about philosophy, humour and Jewish identity

One article pointed to the “red curly hair and blue eyes [which] call to mind Danny Kaye.” Another picked up on his “look of a shorn Marcel Marceau” and his “loping gait like a disciplined convulsion.” All of them referred to his extraordinary “success in medicine and triumph as a clown.”

It was 1961, a year throughout which the JC acclaimed a new, excitingly uncategorisable presence on the London stage — a Jewish doctor moonlighting as satiric comedian.

When the JC’s Chaim Bermant interviewed this 27-year-old actor-clinician and asked whether there was any clash between his theatrical and medical ambitions, he received the following reply: “None whatsoever. The one complements the other. But if there was a clash, my stage work would go — no question about it. There’s talk of us going on Broadway. I’d like that — but only with a job in a New York hospital.”

On a drizzly summer morning, 45 years on, Jonathan Miller stands framed in the doorway of the handsome Camden house which has remained his London home ever since those heady days of “Beyond the Fringe,” the student show that spectacularly launched the ’60s satire boom — and the careers of its talented Oxbridge quartet of performers, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett as well as Miller himself.

The red hair, though close-cropped still, has aged to white but, as he says hello and shows me into his book-crammed sitting-room, I see that his frame still lopes and his features retain that same clownish plasticity. A pair of half-moon glasses hangs from his neck, rather in the manner of a doctor’s stethoscope.

Hindsight, of course, belies Miller’s youthful medical resolve. In 1962, he did make it to Broadway with “Beyond the Fringe,” but that New York hospital job never materialised. Indeed, unlike Anton Chekhov, whose “Cherry Orchard” Miller will direct at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in early 2007, he would never again combine theatrical pursuits with clinical practice. Instead, Miller’s spell in New York exposed him to a new circle of thinkers and fresh philosophical preoccupations which set a course for his future career.

Miller looks back on that time in New York with a fondness that indicates how formative his stay there must have been: “It was rather a Viennese life,” he remembers. “Coffee houses, restaurants, long talks through the night, going to the theatre, to discussions. It broke open a world of New York intellectual life which enabled me to think about things other than medicine. American philosophy, history, literature, culture and sociology began to figure in my thoughts.

“I spent a lot of time with the staff of the New York Review of Books - the founding editors, Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein, and their surrounding band of joking thinkers for which there’s no equivalent in this country. I could have settled in New York with great ease.”

So, beguiled by an intellectual community which he seemed to relish as much for its informality as its urbanity, Miller quit medicine. While he still concedes “many regrets” about the decision, the variety and success of his subsequent career is, of course, remarkable.

The original multimedia man, Miller’s cultural forays are as comprehensive as they are difficult to summarise. In print, an early stint as the New Yorker’s film critic has been followed by a glut of published works on subjects ranging from Freud to Darwin, anatomy to art history. On the stage, his directorial work has encompassed Shakespeare at the RSC, Ibsen at Chichester and O‘Neill in the West End.

He has directed films, including the acclaimed “Alice in Wonderland” and “Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” and staged operas at the Royal Opera House, La Scala and the Met. His TV work includes 12 Shakespearean adaptations and influential documentary series on the human body, psychology and the history of atheism. Just recently, he has moved into the visual arts, with ventures into photography and clay and junk metal sculpture.

The dizzying range of Miller’s work is, however, underpinned by a long-term continuity in his philosophical concerns. Paradoxically, perhaps, his extraordinary career is characterised by a long-term, interdisciplinary fascination with the ordinary. “I’ve always been interested in the minute details of human behaviour,” he says. “It’s what is perhaps most characteristic of my directing. I think Chekhov - through being a doctor, I suppose - felt the way that I do. “The Cherry Orchard” is a collection of trivial details about utterly forgettable people. But then, so is “Ma-dame Bovary” - and didn’t Flaubert also study medicine?

“On the whole, the best works of literature simply address the tiny, quotidian questions - what happens when you get up? What stops you not going to bed earlier? In neurology, you’re also looking at the peculiar, anomalous ways in which patients do what they do: deficits, failures to say what they wished to say. In both neurology and theatre, subtle observation of what appear to be negligible details turns out to be the name of the game: that’s where the payload is.”

Miller is intriguing on the subject of these small tics and habits, partly because of the dual psychological and dramatic perspectives which he brings to bear, but also because of the idiosyncrasy of his own mannerisms. If, as the JC observed all those years ago, Miller once recalled Marcel Marceau, then it is a particularly donnish kind of clown you encounter now - something perhaps akin to one of those “joking thinkers” of his New York days. Eyebrows which curl like quotation marks as Miller satirises the words of some ideological opponent; limbs that knit together before he unravels a knotty philosophical point; eyes that glint in complicit humour over a cheeky remark - Miller becomes the embodiment of his own speech-patterns.

While his own distinctive demeanour - and the now-faint stammer which used to beset him - may feed into his career-long psychological interests, he also acknowledges an ancestral link. “My interest in the philosophy of mind is partly an accident of my birth,” he says. “I was brought up by a father [the eminent psychiatrist Emanuel Miller, who died in 1970] who had himself been taught philosophy at Cambridge in 1910. It wasn’t discussed that much at home, but I was acquainted with Bertrand Russell at a very early stage, because my father owned practically every book that Russell had written. They’re up there now,” says Miller, leaning back to indicate the book-shelves that clad half the room. “I’ve added to them vastly, but that collection includes the books I inherited from my father.”

Emanuel Miller went on from Cambridge to study medicine before becoming a child psychiatrist, founding the first institute for child psychiatry in Britain, the East London Child Guidance Clinic, in 1927. Miller frequently mentions his father in admiring terms, showing me a small, fine sketch drawn by Emanuel, of a patient under hypnosis, which hangs in the sitting-room.

“It’s actually rather an accomplished drawing,” Miller remarks.

But, while philosophical and artistic endeavours have united father and son (Miller later shows me one of his own art-works - a terracotta sculpture of a post-mortem, which bears a marked resemblance to his father’s hypnotic illustration), their paths diverged on the subject of Judaism. Miller fils has long professed to committed atheism (“it’s not that I think the idea of a supernatural deity is

wrong; it just seems as nonsensical as the idea of Jabberwocks”), whereas his father came to uphold a firmer, albeit still hesitant, allegiance to Judaism.

“My father was an amphibious Jew,” is how Miller puts it, “in that he was half in and half out of the water. By 1917, he had joined the army as Captain Miller, doctor to the Brigade of Guards, so he could scarcely have been more English. Nevertheless, he was still a creature of Jewish culture: he still engaged in the calendar of Jewish events, which he tried to get me to participate in.

“I went once or twice to synagogue just before I was supposed to be barmitzvah’d, but I didn’t understand why I should be reading this strange, backwards-reading quasi-Sumerian script. I felt no more engaged by that than I would be by Confucianism, which actually seemed more rational. In the end, I made life so difficult that the barmitzvah never went ahead.”

Ten years later, when Miller married Rachel, a fellow medical student whom he had met when they were pupils at the respective St Paul’s boys’ and girls’ schools, there were similar difficulties over the couple’s choice of civil wedding. “My father, who was about 60 at the time and rather indignant and arthritic, came to the ceremony at Marylebone Town Hall, in a room whose only decorations were blown-up prints of Hogarth’s ‘The Rake’s Progress.’ But he didn’t come to the nice, secular lunch that Rachel’s great-aunt threw for us afterwards.”

“He said he was busy, that he had patients,” laughs Rachel, who by now has joined us in the sitting-room.

Miller’s attitude to Judaism owes rather more, it seems, to his mother, Betty Miller, a much-admired novelist and biographer in her own right, who died in 1965. “Her first two books, which she wrote in her early 30s, were published by Victor Gollancz, who was a fully assimilated Jew,” says Miller. “He then refused her third novel, because he thought she was making waves in her references to English antisemitism.

“It’s recently been published by Persephone Books and, like her other novels on social life, it’s rather brilliantly written. But she was only interested in being a writer: she was aware that she was Jewish, but also utterly bored by it: she only ever felt Jewish because of the projections of antisemitism.”

Like mother, like son. Miller rejects a Jewish affiliation predicated on descent (“How far back should I go in order to identify? On that basis, if you’re going to be Darwinian about it, I’m also a chimpanzee”), choosing, instead, to assert a Jewishness by default, principally in opposition to antisemitism (“When I’m asked, I raise my hand and say, ‘Yeah, I’m one. What do you want to make of it?’”).

He has little time, too, for Jewish cultural allegiances. While he remarks upon the near-universal Jewish ancestry of his New York Review of Books crowd (“so insistent was it that [the poet] Robert Lowell, who was part of that circle, felt the need to assure me that he was one-eighth Jewish”), he also stresses the fact that none of his friends “ever discussed Jewishness or lived what you would recognise as Jewish lives.”

Indeed, in subsequently directing “The Merchant of Venice” with Laurence Olivier in 1970, it was Miller who had to rein in his lead actor’s Semitic tendencies. “Olivier arrived at one of the first rehearsals with all these completely clichéd ideas about how he ought to look since he was playing a Jewish character. I had to get him to take all this stuff off his face - ringlets, facial equipment, a pair of dentures on which he spent £1,500. ‘Shylock’s just a businessman,’ I said, ‘let the Jewishness take care of itself.’ In the end, I managed to get him to remove it all, except the teeth. I don’t think they were conspicuously Jewish teeth - whatever that might be - it was just that he spent so much money getting those teeth done and I felt it would have been uncharitable to ask him to shed the dentures.”

It’s not that Miller objects in particular to an attachment to the Jewish faith: more that he rejects the ideas of faith and attachment themselves. Just appointed as president of the Humanist Society, Miller recently had a three-part series on the history of atheism broadcast on BBC2. He professes a social, rather than philosophical, interest in the subject.

“I’m bored with metaphysics: what things are for, what the destiny of the human race is, what the purpose of it is. Although it looks like a vast cumulo-nimbus of significance, it means absolutely nothing to me. The only reason I feel a need to take a stand against religion is that it’s a powerful social force in the name of something absurd. For the series, I was interested in the fact that while disbelief is increasingly central to our lives, it’s threatened by the growth of various forms of fundamentalism, committed to serving a vengeful god. People are too obsessed with religious and national and ethnic identity.”

For Miller personally, affiliation is largely an irrelevance. “I’ve never willingly joined anything - no sort of social, philosophical, ethnic or religious group. Well, I briefly went and joined the Athenaeum as my father did. And I felt it was absolutely a waste of time. What’s the point of joining a club?

“It’s not that I struggle to enjoy it. It’s just that I’m too careless to be involved. I occasionally see people like Alan Bennett, who lives down the road, and Penelope Wilton, who’s an old friend, but I don’t have actors or singers I’m working with back for dinner. Really, my affiliations are with the few personal friends I have and the family [Miller has three children and four grand-children]. I don’t even belong to a political party: I couldn’t bear to ever vote for the Conservatives, but I feel an increasing reluctance to vote for that ridiculous seaside Prime Minister staying in Cliff Richard’s house in Barbados.”

In the artistic arena, too, Miller becomes frustrated with big institutions, with their bureaucracies and moneymen. “I do tend to fall foul of the people who run these things: a few years ago, I had a frightful conflict with Joe Volpe [the ex-general manager of the Met Opera] when I disagreed with one of the singers [Cecilia Bartoli] who wanted to perform some arias inconsistent with the enterprise. He fired me in favour of the star.”

With such wide-ranging intellectual reserves to draw on and so little willingness to accept what he sees as the “vulgarity” of much modern cultural activity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Miller has fallen out with individuals in the prickly world of arts administration. But it is somewhat ironic that, for some time, the “Dr Jonathan Miller” public persona has been imbued (in Private Eye, especially) with po-faced earnestness. For it is humour that first brought him fame and which has, in one way or another, remained at the centre of his world-view ever since - indeed, Miller laments the gradual disappearance of those “joking thinkers” he so joyously encountered in New York.

Irreverent, demonstrative, liberal with expletives and pitch-perfect impersonations, his combustible conversation is fuelled by a comic blend of outrage at the small-mindedness of his detractors (mainly critics) and the absurdity of human interaction.

In a piece on comedy written for Granta in 1988, Miller revealed that it was from his novelist mother, with her daily routine at the typewriter, that he learnt “the value of monotony… the pleasure of simply watching… in restaurants, in railway carriages or on street corners. Anywhere…

“Elevators are good places,” Miller’s piece continues. “I like to see the way we handle social encounters at awkward moments. I like to see the little signs, the tiny gestures, the twitches and grimaces of embarrassment. And it is here, amid the most minute detail of the commonplace and the ordinary and the mundane, that I find the greatest displays of humour.”

These are, Miller tells me, the elements that he enjoys exploring in rehearsal. “Rehearsals are amusing informalities and directing is about giving actors little exemplary prompts about human behaviour so that they know how to proceed. Occasionally, I may bring up some element of ‘history from below’ - how courtesy is expressed in the period that our production is set, or about what people ate, how they washed: trivial details which disclose what life might have been like.

“It isn’t that I’m not interested in the great, tragic, joyous moments of life - it’s just that most of life is filled with accumulated heaps of triviality. Get those trivialities right and the seriousness and drama takes care of itself.”

Having never directed “The Cherry Orchard” and having remained absent from the English stage since his 2002 staging of “Camera Obscura” at the Almeida “got pissed on by the critics even though it was one of the best things I’d ever done,”Miller’s upcoming production of Chekhov’s last play is an intriguing prospect, not least because of the play’s own collision of trivialities and seriousness.

“The Cherry Orchard” ends with a short scene depicting the aged footman, Firs, locked into a freezing house, left alone, apparently to die, after the departure of the entire Gayev household for the winter.

In Michael Frayn’s translation, Firs’s final words read: “My life’s gone by, and it’s just as if I’d never lived at all. I’ll lie down for a bit, then… No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing… Oh you… sillybilly…”

For Jonathan Miller, with his firm belief that great literature is “simply about what it’s like to get from one end of a life to another,” this Chekhovian character’s bathetic swansong will surely offer up familiar and provocative possibilities.

Sir Jonathan Miller in brief

London, 1934

Married to retired GP, Rachel. Three children: Tom, 44, Kate, 39, William, 42. Four grandchildren

St Paul’s School, London; University of Cambridge and University College, London

Favourite TV comedy
“The Office” - “A lot of humour is recognition: ‘The Office’ is so successful not because Ricky Gervais cracks jokes but because he simply makes apparent what we knew all along about people of that sort”

What he thinks of his knighthood (awarded in 2002)
“My wife wanted me to refuse the honour because she hates being called ‘Lady Miller.’ But I’ve been working for 45 years, and I’ve done more than anyone else, so I thought I may as well accept. But using the ‘Sir Jonathan’ is really rather common”

Career record
From medicine to Metropolitan Opera House, comedy to King Lear, writing, directing, performing. Current artistic projects: Abstract sculpture in metal, wood, paper, cloth and found objects

On “Waiting for Godot”
“A f***ing bore”

Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014