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The doctor will see you now...
Steve Pratt is invited to the London home of Jonathan Miller – author, lecturer, television producer, presenter, director and sculptor – to talk about his many roles and why he disapproves of plays with so-called messages
THE obvious question to ask Jonathan Miller is why he hasn’t directed any theatre for six years. The answer is simple enough – no one asked him. “I did a Hamlet seven or eight years ago, and then I did a Chekhov. But I don’t get asked to do very many these days,” he says.
“You get to my age and they always assume you’re past it. But as long as you keep your wits about you, on the whole, the older you are, the better you are. You know a bit more and are also very accomplished at putting on a play or an opera.”
We’re talking at his London home, sitting at the large table around which the cast of his “comeback” production gathered before rehearsals for lunch and a read-through of Rutherford & Son, which was written in 1912 by North- East playwright Githa Sowerby Miller is directing the play for Northern Broadsides, the company that actor-director Barrie Rutter set up 20 years ago to give Northern actors a voice. The invitation to direct came from Rutter.
“I’ve known Barrie for a long time. I once directed him when he was playing a minor part at the RSC nearly 30 years ago. I hadn’t seen him until I went up to Halifax to see one of his Shakespeare productions,” he explains.
“He put this particular production in my mind and I rather liked it. I very much liked it. It’s very natural, very simple, very straightforward. There are no temptations to engage in fashionable concepts.
“It’s just a straightforward account of a family living in a time of recession.”
The career path of Dr (he never uses the “Sir”
bestowed on him in 2002) Jonathan Miller has been far from straightforward after the Beyond The Fringe satirical revue – written and performed with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – first diverted him from medicine to the bright lights of the theatre.
He’s an author, lecturer, television producer and presenter along with theatre, opera and film director. Now 78, he remains busy with other things in the absence of calls to direct. After the interview, he was off to work on his sculptures, showing me some work hanging by his front door on the way out.
A recent biography gained him fresh publicity regarding rows with Peter Hall when he took over the National Theatre from Laurence Olivier.
While I’m there Miller takes a phone call (from director Michael Blakemore) and a marvellously indiscreet conversation takes place about the situation.
I gather that “Larry’s boys” Miller and Blakemore weren’t Hall’s greatest admirers.
Miller won’t be reading the book. “I know perfectly well who I am, I don’t need to read it. It’s a sort of vulgar vanity to go on reading one’s biography,” he says.
“Of course, journalists have made a lot of this row. But there wasn’t a row, just that as soon as Olivier gave up and Peter Hall took over, he kept Michael Blakemore and me on merely to give the impression that he was not usurping the great man.
“No, it wasn’t a smooth takeover, but I didn’t care one way or the other. I was in it by accident in the first place. I’ve never tried to get into any of these places.”
And there we have the key to Miller’s varied career.
It’s all been a happy accident, or as the good doctor puts it, “My entire life in this business has been yielding to unsolicited invitations. I’ve never had to go and get a job. For many years jobs just came my way because they thought I might bring something of interest, but I’ve never gone looking for it. Now I don’t get invitations.”
Not fresh ones perhaps, but his opera productions live on. He has more revivals on at English National Opera than any other director, with his Mikado 27 years old, his Rigoletto nearly 30 and his Barber a mere youngster of 20.
He’d never seen an opera before being invited to direct one and still doesn’t enjoy a night at the opera. “I just like doing them. I never go to the opera, I’ve got better things to do,” he says.
He calls these productions “attractively ordinary” explaining, “A lot of directing consists simply of reminding people of what they knew anyway and had forgotten. I hate this fashionable thing that came from Germany called conceptual productions. You have ideas about how to do things but you don’t engage in concepts.
It’s always very foolish that.”
His disapproves of plays with so-called messages too. Rutherford & Son has no messages – it’s just a story. “I dread plays that have messages.
I only want plays that draw your attention to aspects of your own existence that you have previously overlooked. As my mother, who was a novelist of some importance, said, ‘the function of literature is to make the negligent considerable’. That’s why Chekhov is so interesting – they are all utterly forgettable people.”
He confesses to being forgetful himself these days (“my wife puts up a list of names of people I’ve forgotten,” he says, indicating a sheet of paper pinned to the wall), although he can quote verbatim a sketch from Beyond The Fringe from more than 50 years ago to illustrate a point he’s making.
He also does the voices from The Goon Show, which he listens to on the current radio repeats.
“It’s such a brilliantly funny show. The most imaginative thing. The nearest thing to ... there I’ve forgotten his name. He wrote Alice In Wonderland – (Lewis Carroll, I remind him) – They are the most wonderful Lewis Carroll jokes.
There’s a wonderful moment where Bluebottle’s sitting in a trench with Eccles...”
This Jonathan-of-all-trades he hasn’t acted since Beyond The Fringe. He was asked to appear in a play at London’s Royal Court Theatre but then accepted one of those “unsolicited invitations” to edit the BBC TV arts programme Monitor. He’d only gone there to inquire about the possibility of learning how to make films for the Beeb.
His approach was criticised for devoting too much attention to the arts outside this country, which such shows hadn’t done previously. Beyond The Fringe’s style of satirical comedy was new too. Miller hasn’t looked back on it since appearing in it in 1960, first in London and then Broadway.
“It’s such a long time ago. I can remember every word of what we did but I never think about it. There are people for whom it meant a lot. When I give talks around the UK, people want me to talk about what it was like to be in Beyond The Fringe. People in their 60s or 70s remember it as a very significant comic moment.
And it was very good. Very inventive and interesting.”
There are still a few things on his to-do list.
He’d like to have a go at “natural” plays that dramatise legal hearings, but there aren’t any plays. “I don’t want to do any more drama at all really once I’ve finished this Northern Broadsides.
I’m very happy to go on reviving my things, but I’ve got to a point where there aren’t any operas I want to do. Most of the ones left to do are so fatuous, often musically wonderful, but they’re such ridiculous stories you really can’t do anything with them.”
Rutherford & Son
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, April 3-13. Box office: 0113-2137700 and online
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, April 22-27. Box office: 01723-370541 and online
York Theatre Royal, May 28-June 1. Box office: 01904-623568 and online