Jonathan Miller New Bio Mixes Insults with Intellect

Jonathan Miller has committed career suicide so many times, it’s a miracle he’s still working. Kate Bassett’s biography “In Two Minds” reveals why.

Miller, 78, is an opera and theater director, a presenter, satirist, writer, photographer, philosopher, conversationalist, and doctor. The word “polymath” (which he loathes) barely begins to do him justice.

He’s capable of rudeness, vitriol, pompousness and arrogance, and his grumpy promises to give up directing opera occur with amusing regularity. I’ve worked with him myself, and it wasn’t a happy experience: more about that later.

Bassett’s beautifully balanced account was written with Miller’s cooperation although neither read nor censored by him. It describes how caring he can be to friends, and how he can enthuse them with his dazzling cross-disciplinary ideas.

His secret of survival? For every bridge he burns, he’s somehow able to build another. He’s inexhaustible, and unceasingly curious.

Bassett treats her subject with respect, and, thankfully, without kid gloves. She describes Miller’s frequent outbursts in all their silliness and savagery, yet remains non-judgmental.

Naturally, the spats are the book’s most amusing parts.

One feud started at the Metropolitan Opera, where Miller was directing a new “Marriage of Figaro.” He called Cecilia Bartoli a “silly selfish girl, willful and wayward” because she wished to sing -- as per her contract -- accepted variants of two of the arias.


The affair blew up into a scandal. Miller claimed that Joseph Volpe, the general manager, had said “Don’t f--- with me” and then fired him. Volpe now says Miller fired himself, and invented the Mafia-style dialogue.

Another long-running imbroglio began when Peter Hall, the new artistic director of the U.K.’s National Theatre, promoted Miller to associate director in 1973. Miller trounced his boss in the press, and compared him to a “ball of rancid pig’s fat rolled around the floor of a barber’s shop.” Miller resigned in 1975.

When on form, Miller’s work can be of the highest rank. Several of his long-running productions, including a brilliant Mafia-style “Rigoletto” and a witty 1920s “Mikado,” are reliable cash cows for the troubled English National Opera.

When he’s not on form, it’s another story. My own experiences of performing in a work directed by him were dour.

Beggar’s Opera

In 1999, my friend the conductor Charlie Hazlewood invited me to play double bass in “The Beggar’s Opera” at Wilton’s Music Hall in London. The costumed musicians were to be fully incorporated into the action, he said. We’d be on stage, joining in, acting. It sounded fun.

In the event, it was fun in the way a car crash is. Miller’s mind was elsewhere. He barely acknowledged the musicians, and we ended up far from the stage, shunted away in a dark corner. I’ve wondered since if the reason was that he can’t read music. Whatever it was, he was distant and unapproachable.

“Jonathan relies on a flash of genius... and it never happened,” Hazlewood says in the book. “It was a duff month for him. The whole thing was ghastly,” he says. I can second that.

Bassett describes Miller’s difficult childhood. His father, a child psychiatrist, was an attention-seeking autocrat. His novelist mother was emotionally distant. Miller says his memories of early youth are mostly “wretched and miserable.”

It’s easy to speculate where the healthy and hysterical aspects of his ingrained anti-authoritarianism spring from.

Showing Off

One fascinating tidbit is that the novelist Stevie Smith wrote a story about Jonathan when he was a boy. It’s called “Beside the Seaside: A Holiday With Children,” and describes the pre-teen Jonathan as a brattish show-off.

Miller’s rise to celebrity in the 1960s with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett (in the satirical sketch show “Beyond the Fringe”) is recounted with liveliness.

The later sections can feel sometimes like a dutiful trudge from one production to the next.

There are plenty of pro-and-con comments from friends, family, colleagues, enemies, and admirers, and the end result is an elegant portrait of a complex man.

Hypersensitive Miller hates critical “contras” against him, as much as he enjoys the “pros,” and he once threatened to kill an opera critic for his negative comments. Here the plus and minus comments are about equal. Good luck to the author.

“In Two Minds” (479 pages) is published by Oberon Books at 20 pounds in the U.K. It is being published in the U.S. at $36 on Feb. 12. To order the book in North America, click here.


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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)