wed 26/10/2016

Extract: In Two Minds - Jonathan Miller | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: In Two Minds - Jonathan Miller

Extract: In Two Minds - Jonathan Miller

In this excerpt from Kate Bassett's new biography, Miller recalls directing Olivier in The Merchant of Venice

Miller time: 'Thank God my father is too lame to get into the theatre!'

When I first mentioned to a colleague that I was embarking on a biography of the doctor/director Jonathan Miller, he instantly yelped, “My God, your work’s cut out! The man must have met half the famous names in the twentieth century!"

My subsequent conversations with Miller provided a cornucopia of highly entertaining anecdotes. These included his brushes with Princess Margaret (who was very taken with his comic turns in the 1950s); Bobby Kennedy (who told him to shut up, shortly before being shot); Bridget Riley (who nearly sued); and Kevin Spacey (who got his big break by stalking Miller for an audition).

Equally delightful, for me, have been Miller’s erudition, eloquence, and polymathic range. In his restlessly prolific career, he has not just switched from the operating theatre to opera and theatre, via the satiric hit revue Beyond the Fringe. He has run the Old Vic (1988-90), and been a chatshow favourite and a top TV presenter and producer – notably of the BBC’S 13-part history of medicine The Body in Question and the Corporation’s mammoth Shakespeare Series. More recently, he has curated for the National Gallery, and become an exhibited collagist and sculptor.

Though known for his insult-slinging bust-ups, not least with Sir Peter Hall, he has mainly been a brilliant connector, straddling the arts and the sciences. Yet he has felt endlessly torn, guilt-ridden that he didn’t concentrate on neuropsychology.

In researching this biography, I further learned of his complicated ancestry – his grandparents being illiterate Lithuanian immigrants who fled anti-Semitism – and of how the crucial arts-science dichotomy was rooted in his parents' marriage. His mother, Betty, was a Bloomsbury novelist while his father, Emanuel, a leading child psychiatrist, failed to prize his son’s life in the theatre.

The extract overleaf focuses in on 1969-70, when the elderly Emanuel was near death’s door, and Miller triumphed at the National Theatre, working with Laurence Olivier.

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