Free-rang­ing frag­ments

Robert Low en­joys words of a multi-tal­ented man. Madeleine Kings­ley en­joys a ser­e­nade One Thing and An­other

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Jonathan Miller (Ed. Ian Greaves)

Oberon Books, £20 Re­viewed by Robert Low

SIR JONATHAN Miller does not like to be called a poly­math. He prefers, he says in his new book, to be thought of as a jack of all trades, or even a grasshop­per. He is not nor­mally thought of be­ing a keen po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, more a muser on the deeper is­sues of ex­is­tence. But how about this for an anal­y­sis of re­cent po­lit­i­cal events:

“The knowl­edge ex­plo­sion has cre­ated an­other sort of so­cial refugee. These are the peo­ple who have no share what­so­ever in the new knowl­edge — the main bulk of the pop­u­la­tion, work­ing class and white-col­lar folk. . . Both in Eng­land and Amer­ica the com­mon peo­ple are suf­fer­ing from a tremen­dous sense of in­tel­lec­tual ex­clu­sion. In both coun­tries this has pro­duced a ris­ing tide of re­ac­tionary ir­ra­tional­ism.”

Ex­cept that this was writ­ten not in 2016 but in 1966 (in an es­say en­ti­tled On­wards and up­wards? in Vogue, of all places).

It is just one of the de­lights in this com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion of Miller’s writ­ings, ar­ti­cles and in­ter­views be­tween 1954 and 2016, edited with great thor­ough­ness by Ian Greaves.

They range from fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­views in which Miller ex­plains what he tried to achieve as a theatre and opera di­rec­tor, to lengthy dis­qui­si­tions on his first love, neu­rol­ogy, and much else be­sides.

His por­traits of some of his the­atri­cal con­tem­po­raries are full of in­sight and good hu­mour. In his Na­tional Theatre pro­duc­tion of The Mer­chant of Venice, Lau­rence Olivier, as Shy­lock, wanted to wear the full Jewish fig, as he saw it — “false nose, ringlets, a Dis­raeli beard, all ad­ding up to a sort of Ge­orge Arliss. I said, ‘Larry, please’ — as a Jew, I felt embarrassed — ‘please, we’re not quite like that, not all of us.’”

Olivier’s re­sponse: “In this play, dear boy. . . we must at all costs avoid of­fend­ing the He­brews. God, I love them so.” In the end, he agreed to drop the ringlets.

It’s a con­stant theme of Miller’s life, in­deed, that he feels embarrassed to be Jewish: it runs through this book. In the tran­script of the open­ing pro­gramme in his BBC4 doc­u­men­tary se­ries Athe­ism: A Rough His­tory of Dis­be­lief (2004), he re­calls his doc­tor fa­ther, the son of Lithua­nian refugees, send­ing him to St John’s Wood Sy­n­a­gogue (the build­ing which is now New London Sy­n­a­gogue) just af­ter the War be­cause he was ap­palled by the Holo­caust and wanted his son some­how to iden­tify as a Jew: the ex­per­i­ment failed mis­er­ably.

On Dick Cavett’s Amer­i­can TV show in 1980, Miller was blunt about it: “I have ab­so­lutely no sub­scrip­tion to the creed and no in­ter­est in the race.”

The most he would ad­mit to was: “I’m Jewish for the pur­pose of ad­mit­ting it to an­ti­semites, and that’s all.”

If noth­ing else, such in­ter­views re­mind us of how high­brow even the most pop­u­lar chat shows used to be. Can you imag­ine Gra­ham Nor­ton in­ter­view­ing Dr Miller?

The thought is too hor­ri­ble to con­tem­plate.

Robert Low is con­sul­tant ed­i­tor of Stand­point mag­a­zine. Dr Jonathan Miller: cast off Ju­daism and em­braced a mul­ti­tude of sub­jects

PHOTO: ALAMY

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