Tony Cooper, Norwich-based arts writer, catches up with the British theatre director, Jonathan Miller, on the eve of his appearance in Norwich
Born in July 1934, Jonathan (Wolfe) Miller, one of the patrons of Norwich Playhouse, will be talking about his life, work and things at this well-loved theatre in historic St George’s Street on Thursday, 22nd November, 7.30pm, in what promises a very entertaining, illuminating and witty evening!
Actor, opera director, author, television presenter, humorist and sculptor (and, nearly, physician!), Miller has been honoured for his contribution to the cultural life of Great Britain by being awarded a CBE in 1983 and gaining a knighthood in 2002.
Educated at the independent school of St Paul’s in west London he then went up to Cambridge in the 1950s where he got his first taste of the lamp-lit stage (probably with Mrs Worthington’s daughter!) appearing with the Cambridge Footlights in such aptly-named revues as Out of the Blue in 1954 and Between the Lines a year later.
And through his association with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in the early Sixties, their unquenchable thirst for comedy brought about that bitchy, biting and acidic satirical stage revue, Beyond the Fringe, which took the country by storm. It played the Fortune Theatre in the West End for over 1100 performances before transferring to the Mayfair Theatre. On its Broadway run at the John Golden Theatre even President Kennedy was encouraged to attend a performance.
Miller is most certainly an extrovert figure or to put it another way a show-off who found he could amuse and keep people happy. He confesses that he was not a particularly impressive figure on stage compared to the likes of Peter Cook whom he describes as ‘mad as a hatter but an astounding genius and outstandingly funny in the most peculiar and unexpected ways’. ‘Beyond the Fringe didn’t feel like anything more important than something I did in May week,’ Miller confesses, ‘but its success certainly changed my life. The London and New York runs made me, Cook, Bennett and Moore household names.’ Indeed, they did!
Widely regarded as seminal to the rise of satire in Britain in the glorious and freewheeling Sixties, the idea for Behind the Fringe was actually the brainchild of Oxford man, Robert Ponsonby, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival. His idea (which paid off handsomely) was to bring together the very best members of the Cambridge Footlights and The Oxford Revue to give them space to let rip at the Edinburgh Fringe. And let rip they did!
If The Beatles were coined The Fab Four in pop music in the Sixties, the quartet of Miller, Cook, Bennett and Moore could well be described their opposite number in comedy. In fact, Beyond the Fringe - which won a Tony award in 1963 for a show shattering all the old concepts of comedy - had a massive effect on the professional careers of Miller and Bennett changing their career paths completely as both of them had been preparing for lives in academia and medicine respectively.
Miller also had another love, too, apart from comedy - a love for opera. And the company that gave him his first break, Kent Opera, was England’s first regional opera company founded by Norman Platt in 1969. Miller soon made his mark in the genre becoming one of the world’s leading opera directors with a host of classic productions to his credit.
Norwich audiences were some of the first to see Miller’s work as his inaugural production for Kent Opera, Così fan tutte, was seen at Norwich Theatre Royal in 1974. Following Cosi he then directed six more operas for Kent. And since those early days he has directed well over 50 operas in cities across the world including New York, Florence, Milan, Berlin, Munich, Zurich and Tokyo.
One of his best-known works, however, is reckoned to be his Mafia-style production for English National Opera of Verdi’s Rigoletto set in 1950s Little Italy, Manhattan, while his updated and extremely amusing 1920s-style production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado (again for ENO) starred Eric Idle in the pivotal role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. It was a knock-out from start to finish. Behold him! I say! The production was recently revived to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
In his early days, too, he was also an associate director at the Royal National Theatre and later the boss at London’s Old Vic. He even had a stint of directing the BBC’s flagship arts programme, Monitor.
At the Old Vic, Miller flourished like no other directing Jean Racine’s play Andromache in 1988 with Janet Suzman, Kevin McNally, Penelope Wilton and Peter Eyre in the cast while in the same year he directed David Threlfall in The Tragedy of Bussy D’Amboise, written by Jacobean playwright George Chapman and widely considered his greatest work. The play - focusing on French politics of his day - is actually based on the life of the real Louis de Bussy D’Amboise who was murdered in 1579
He also directed Alex Jennings in Pierre Corneille’s The Liar in a translation by Ranjit Bolt described by one major national newspaper critic ‘as the best translation of a French play into English ever done’. The cast also included Desmond Barrit who’s quite well known to Norfolk audiences as he has been highly active in the county over the past few years. He has appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Norwich Theatre Royal and latterly scripted and appeared in pantomime at Gorleston’s Pavilion Theatre as well as directing a few plays in the summer rep season produced by Sheringham’s Little Theatre.
Miller has also directed Shakespeare at the Old Vic with The Tempest in 1988 starring Max von Sydow, Alexei Sayle and Peter Bayliss while King Lear (a year later) found him working with the likes of Eric Porter, Paul Rogers, Peter Eyre, Gemma Jones, Frances de la Tour and Ian Hogg.
The past few years, however, has seen Miller leaning towards sculpture by turning junk metal into sculptured works. ‘I don’t think of it as taking up art, it’s more about messing about really,’ he honestly says. ‘I source my material from rubbish skips coming across bits and pieces of crushed or rusted metal plus discarded bits of wood and old newspapers and so forth. My work, I suppose, starts as a piece of neglected junk that has come to its useful end. I then reassemble it into a work of art.’
However, he had a fight on his hands to get his first exhibition mounted in East London at Flowers East. The gallery owner, Angela Flowers, was nervous of his celebrity status (but he doesn’t think of himself as being a celebrity) until he convinced her about the quality of his work. It proved to be a very successful show as he sold 40 pieces.
I asked Miller whether he had mixed feelings about giving up a career in medicine as a neurologist after Beyond the Fringe fame. ‘Yes! I often regret that I didn’t pursue a medical career,’ he says. But, after so many careers, he admits that sticking to one thing may be just a fantasy. ‘Perhaps I’m not cut out for long commitments,’ he muses.
Of his knighthood, he says: ‘I was pleased enough to accept it. I’ve worked very hard for 40 years and had lots of brickbats thrown at me. And very few directors get it, so it’s nice for my profession to be honoured. But a knighthood seems vulgar. I never use it, for instance, to get upgraded on air travel.’
A true man of the theatre one can expect some straight, frank and honest talking at his Playhouse date that promises to go well beyond Beyond the Fringe!
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