6th December 2019

Sir Jonathan Miller

Last Tuesday proved to be a dark day for British television with an unprecedented amount of stars tragically passing away. The celebrated TV chef Gary Rhodes sadly died suddenly while at his second home in Dubai which spawned the overpouring of tributes lead by fellow culinary heavyweights Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. As the day progressed, news broke of the death of the legendary writer, arts critic and broadcaster Clive James who passed away aged 80 following a long battle with illness. Yet just as the sun was setting on such a dark day, another cultural icon unfortunately succumbed to the inevitable path of nature which would send shockwaves through both the comedy and academic world.

Born in St John’s Wood, London on the 21st July 1934, Professor Jonathan Miller would go on to make a substantial impact on Britain’s cultural revolution, easily straddling the academic and entertainment landscape. Yet an interest in medicine encouraged him to enroll on a Medicine degree at St John’s College Cambridge from 1953-1956. It was here that Miller realised his flare for performing when he joined the infamous amateur dramatics society The Cambridge Footlights. Appearing in the revues Out of the Blue and Between the Lines, The Footlights became the perfect grounding for the young performer to hone his dramatic prowess alongside notable peers including Peter Cook, John Cleese, Graham Chapman (a fellow doctor), Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden, Eric Idle, and David Frost. Nevertheless it was his association with Peter Cook which unbeknownst to either of them would remain vital in the years to come.

Making his directorial debut for John Osborne’s Under Plain Cover In 1962, Jonathan found himself directing the play The Old Glory by the American poet Robert Lowell in New York City. The play won countless awards including five Obies in 1965 including an award for “Best American Play” as well as awards for Langella, Brown and Rawlins. Such an association with Peter Cook led to the stage revue Beyond The Fringe which combined the comic talents of Miller and Cook with the versatility of Oxford graduates Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. The live show was an instant West End triumph and quickly generated an international following which promptly resulted in a US tour, culminating in a stint on Broadway in 1962 and played through to May 1964. Consisting of sketches written by Peter Cook who cleverly adapted material from other revues, the show quickly reached cult like status and attracted the attention of TV producers.

This popularity spawned the BBC2 TV version Before The Fringe broadcast during the infant stages of the new channel. While Cook and Moore developed formidable on screen chemistry, Miller began to think creatively about his next career. As a doctor of Medicine, Jonathan was constantly fascinated by the history of healthcare which he studied for a fellowship at the University College of London in 1970. The three year course made him the obvious choice to front documentaries surrounding similar subjects and by 1978 Miller had secured his own BBC factual series The Body In Question where he took an analytical look at all aspects of medicine and health science. One of the first programmes to be a dual venture between the BBC and CBS, this paved the way for transatlantic collaborations with our American cousins and helped to strengthen the special relationship outside the political landscape.

Being a natural raconteur made Jonathan Miller the perfect guest for the traditional chat show and throughout the 1970’s he found himself on the biggest interview shows of the day. This was extraordinary especially from a man who was born with a severe stammer which dominated much of his early childhood. Appearing on the Parkinson show an astonishing nine times in eleven years, Michael Parkinson once described him as “One of my very favourite guests and a most endearing man.” Alongside other cultural figures including Peter Ustinov, George Best and Mohammed Ali, these interviews contributed to the success of the programme and over half a century later are still widely regarded as some of the finest TV interviews of all time.

Television came calling yet again in 1983 when Jonathan wrote and fronted the seminal documentary series State Of Mind where he explored different psychological issues. Having written the book of the same title, Miller used his academic prowess to uncover the workings of the human brain. Featuring eminent writers and psychologists of the time, Miller set out to explore the complexities of our mental processes which make us human. Throwing his substantial comedy heritage aside, Miller was now a straight talking broadcaster and thus paved the way for other performers to cross the border into factual television.

In 1990, Miller wrote and presented a joint BBC/Canadian production entitled, Born Talking: A Personal Inquiry into Language surrounding the development of language acquisition of infants. This also contained in depth analysis of the development of communication skills of deaf children which was considered revolutionary for the time. Inspired by Oliver Sacks’ 1989 book Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, this groundbreaking series set about dissecting the history of sign language as a recognised form of communication. As the decade progressed, Miller wrote and presented the television series Madness (1991) and Jonathan Miller on Reflection (1998). 

As the new millennium dawned, Miller continued to be in demand across a whole host of forms. In 2004 he wrote and directed the BBC2 documentary Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief where he explored the history of atheism all over the world. Returning to his first love of the stage in 2007, Miller directed The Cherry Orchard at The Crucible, Sheffield, his first work on the British stage for 10 years. Now reaching legendary status, Miller could be selective with his career and in 2009 he returned to the English National Opera to direct his own production of La Bohème, notable for its 1930s setting. This same production ran at the Cincinnati Opera in July 2010, also directed by Miller.

A tragic diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the tragic disease which had been close to his heart for a long time, the legendary writer and director decided to withdraw from the spotlight due to ill health. His death on the 27th November 2017 possibly marked the end of an era for versatile theatrical figures within the arts. Yet his formidable repertoire of work which he leaves in his legacy remains glowing testament that Jonathan Miller may be gone but never forgotten.

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