Last week, the world said goodbye to the inimitable Jonathan Miller, a true polymath, whose talents stretched into art history, sculpture and neuropsychology.
On top of all this, he was also notoriously grouchy and regularly doled out incisive insults that took no prisoners. He once recounted the experience of watching Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly as “like receiving a maple syrup enema”, and complained at not having made the millions he could have had he directed Mamma Mia! or Les Misérables, though he made sure to quip that, of course, he couldn’t bear to have done anything like that.
Miller’s directing career did see him run London’s Old Vic for a brief period and helm many productions for English National Opera and at Covent Garden. Both companies have been effusive in their tributes to him, despite having been on the sharp end of his tongue more than once. Some of his choice insults, as described in a 2010 biography, included calling Royal Opera House “a kind of wife kennel, a place where businessmen dump their wives in order to keep them quiet”, and even more unforgettably describing the ROH’s audiences as “Harrods’ food hall yields up its dead”.
He always saved a special wrath for critics, though, and when announcing he would quit opera direction in 2004 – a move on which he would later retreat – described reviewers as “parasitic invertebrates”, “tsetse flies” and, Tabard’s favourite, “midgets talking into a loud speaker”.