A brilliant, angry and divided self
A new biography explores the many paths -- far 'beyond the fringe' -- taken by a major cultural figure
In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller
Jonathan Miller directing John Cleese in 'Taming of the Shrew'
Only two? Jonathan Miller, famous practically since puberty, first burst upon the world as part of the legendary Beyond the Fringe team.
The reinvention of British comedy would be enough for most people, but Miller was running a concurrent career as a neurologist and also displaying his transformative genius as a director of theatre, television and opera.
Kate Bassett’s brilliant, exhaustively researched biography gathers it all together and reminds us what a truly astonishing man he is. Just try to imagine postwar British culture without him — he made opera singers act properly, and for that alone he deserves a statue.
Bassett is fascinated by the central dilemma of Miller’s life: the struggle between art and science. “Miller views medicine as his lost ideal,” she writes, “and comedy as his tragic fall.” There are other conflicts, too; notably between Miller and his own Jewishness. He both advocates assimilation and — as a snooty, upper-middle-class, public schoolboy — typifies it. “I’m not really a Jew,” he famously said in Beyond the Fringe; “Just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog, you know.”
Behind the joke lay a serious division between Miller and his father. After the Holocaust, the atheist Dr Emanuel Miller embraced his heritage and suddenly turned religious, alienating young Jonathan. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he recalls. “I used to be bullied into going to synagogue… To me it was as odd as going to a mosque… I was just more English than he understood.”
Bassett paints a brief but vivid picture of Miller’s extraordinary childhood. His parents, though loving, were chilly, undemonstrative and hard to please. The famous names crop up early. Emanuel Miller, son of a Lithuanian Jew, grew up in London’s East End alongside artists Isaac Rosenberg, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, and became a founding father of child psychiatry in Britain.
Jonathan’s mother, Betty Spiro (also of Lithuanian Jewish origins) was a novelist related distantly to Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust. When Jonathan (born in 1934) was a crazy, ungovernable little boy, the poet Stevie Smith spent a holiday with the family, and left a very unlovely picture of the future Renaissance genius: “Oh why is that child so spoilt and horrible?”
Miller’s closest friend at St Paul’s School was the very-nearly-as-brilliant writer and shrink, Oliver Sacks. He gives Bassett an entertaining account of the young Jonathan as a tall, gangling nut-case with a mop of reddish hair and a face like putty. He’s hilariously funny and a superb mimic, but he’s also fiendishly clever. Already the struggle has begun — Miller worships Danny Kaye but he’s also obsessed with his microscope.
While still at Cambridge, he’s making a name for himself as a comedian at the same time as qualifying as a doctor.
Bassett doesn’t shy away from the notoriously splenetic, grumpy Miller of the last few years — the man who says: “All religions are equally repulsive”; who has petty feuds with Frederic Raphael and Sir Peter Hall, who rails against women and homosexuals and distances himself from his oldest friends. At one point, she asks herself: “Should I re-entitle the biography ‘What’s With the Long Face?’”
But she balances this with the affectionate mockery of the great man’s wife and children (apparently he’s just an ordinary miserable old git at home), and her own admiration for Miller as “a leaper of boundaries… the best-known polymath of late 20th-century Britain.”
Kate Saunders is a writer, critic and former actress