For all his many achievements in the world of theatre and opera, there was often a feeling Jonathan Miller wasn’t quite sure if “footling around on the stage”, as he put it, was a sufficiently worthy calling for a man of his protean intellectual capacity.
More than once, he resolved to quit directing altogether and return to medicine where he had started out. His friend James Fenton, the poet and literary critic, once suggested that Miller’s anxiety about wasting time on something as transitory and frivolous as the stage stemmed from the disapproval of his father, a distinguished child psychiatrist, who had always hoped his son would apply his brilliant mind to some higher medical calling.
Suffice to say, medicine’s loss was the British theatre’s immeasurable gain. While his head might have aspired to the lofty groves of academe, his heart was drawn to the bright lights and his effortless talent to amuse.
Over his uniquely distinguished 50-year career, he directed dozens of plays and operas, ran the Old Vic for three exciting and innovative years, and was a confidante and ally of Laurence Olivier (whom he directed as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1970) during the fractious directorial transition from Olivier to Peter Hall at the National Theatre in the early 1970s.
Having grown up in St John’s Wood, London, Miller attended St Paul’s School, where he met and befriended Oliver Sacks, the future neurologist and author. At St John’s College, Cambridge, where he studied medicine and neurology, Miller became heavily involved with the Footlights, where he stood out as a writer and performer of comedy sketches.
Talking to The Stage in 2010, he insisted he never had any thoughts of becoming an actor or comedian. He said, “I was cut out to be a doctor. I wanted to find out what happened when the brain didn’t work properly. It was pure abstract curiosity.”
Nevertheless, his first big success in 1960 – the same year he qualified as a doctor – was as a performer in the groundbreaking revue Beyond the Fringe, conceived by himself, along with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, which transferred from the Edinburgh Festival to the West End, and then to Broadway. All four went on to dazzling careers in different fields.
Miller always insisted his training in the natural sciences was transferable to the stage – “directing is nothing if not diagnosis” – and this was borne out by his early success as a director. Only his second attempt at directing, Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory at the newly established American Place Theatre, New York, netted five Obie awards in 1965, including Best American Play.
Believing television to be the way ahead, Miller wrote to the BBC’s Huw Wheldon about joining a director’s training course, and Wheldon, no doubt impressed by the young polymath, surprised Miller by inviting him to succeed him as editor and director of the flagship arts show, Monitor.
In 1966 he more than fulfilled Wheldon’s faith in him by adapting and directing a radical new version of Alice in Wonderland, casting acting legends John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave alongside the likes of Peter Sellers, Wilfrid Brambell and Malcolm Muggeridge.
Miller began directing opera in the 1970s with Glyndebourne and Kent Opera, progressing to the English National Opera with The Marriage of Figaro in 1978. His 1982 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto for ENO in 1982 gave it an unforgettable 1920s Mafioso setting. He went on to direct 15 operas for the Coliseum, including the oft-revived The Mikado, as well as many others at the Royal Opera House that have stayed in the repertoire for decades.
Running parallel with his stage directing work was an equally successful career as a TV documentary maker. He wrote and presented a fascinating series, The Body in Question, in the late 1970s, as well as States of Mind, a series of conversations with experts in the field of neuroscience.
Perhaps his biggest theatrical challenge was taking on the artistic directorship of the Old Vic, after it was refurbished at a cost of £2.5 million by Ed Mirvish in the late 1980s. They became the odd couple of British theatre – the lowbrow Canadian entrepreneur and the highbrow British aesthete. Ultimately Miller’s esoteric choices (Racine’s Andromache, Ostrovsky’s Too Clever by Half, etc) proved too much for Mirvish and he pulled the financial plug.
Miller was extremely popular with staff and actors at the Old Vic, bringing the same relaxed, collegiate and playful atmosphere to administration as he had always done to the rehearsal room.
There was a late flowering with the Halifax-based company Northern Broadsides for which he directed Rutherford & Son (2013) and most notably, King Lear in 2015, his eighth production of that play, with Barry Rutter, the company’s founder-director, as the troubled ruler, stressing the Yorkshire vowels and giving the play an earthy reality check.
Miller’s effortless fluency and sharp wit rendered him much in demand for talk shows and media forums, always ready with an outspoken jibe at some hated politician, bureaucrat or critic. Despite his patrician manner, intellectual snobbery and Roman emperor looks he never forsook his old-fashioned socialist values.
He was knighted for services to music and the arts in 2002.
Jonathan Wolfe Miller was born on July 21, 1934, and died on November 27, 2019, aged 85. He is survived by his wife Rachel and three children – Tom, William and Kate.