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