The man of many talents who first made his name in Beyond The Fringe talks to Nick to direct a play for Yorkshire’s Northern Broadsides.
OMETIMES you can do all the prep in the world and nothing really prepares you for an interview.
Especially one with Sir Jonathan Miller.
For a start there’s the fact that it is beyond the wit of most men to understand all the work he has accomplished in so many fields.
He has directed operas on some of the world’s grandest stages and won awards for doing so. His television presenting is recognised as some of the most intellectually rigorous ever committed to film. He directs plays with forensic intensity and revolutionised satire in the 1960s with his university buddies in Beyond the Fringe.
His books on philosophy, art and the craft of theatre require a serious degree of effort to grasp. Then there’s the fact that he is a qualified physician.
But the sheer breadth and depth of Sir Jonathan’s talents is not the only reason preparation goes out the window when we meet on the steps of his sprawling house a stone’s throw from an outdoor market in Camden. As I round the corner, he’s on the top step, his long legs crossed together, lit cigarette in hand.
“Are you the chap who’s here to interview me?” he wants to know. Yes. “Tell me, where are you from? You don’t look English.”
I’ve been bowled straighter opening deliveries.
He also wants to know if I’m Muslim and begins to explain how religious extremism is the great and dangerous evil of our age (oh, he’s also president of the Rationalist Association). All the prep in the world isn’t going to help.
Inside, his front room is lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with books. You get the feeling that there’s not a single volume that hasn’t been leafed through, thoroughly. It feels a little like being on a set for Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Professor Miller there to educate.
While I’m there to talk largely about theatre (he’s directing a new production for Northern Broadsides that opens in February), the “interview” is essentially an hour-and-a-half-long personal lecture.
Back to that opening question on the doorstep. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked where I’m from, but it’s the first time I’ve been asked it in the manner that he asks it. Sir Jonathan doesn’t pause for a moment to consider if there is any insult or injury in the question. He’s curious about something and wants answers in the most expedient manner possible.
He’s 78 now and has had the same inquisitive nature ever since he was a boy. “When people look, as it were, racially ‘different’, people are embarrassed to ask the question ‘where do you come from?’ Well okay, people look different but we are all the same species and can inter-breed and the more we inter-breed the better it is,” he says in a more matter-of-fact manner than you can imagine.
INTENSE: Miller has brought intellectual rigour to everything he tries his hand at, from broadcasting to directing opera.