SIL Book of the Week : An occasional series

This week: The selected writings of Jonathan Miller, 1954–2016

Received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week,  this selection of essays, lectures and interviews spans seven decades of the varied (an understatement) life and career of celebrated intellectual Jonathan Miller. The title of the volume, One Thing and Another, encapsulates precisely the range of subjects to which Miller contributes and upon which he reflects – that is, anything which interests him!

NPG x27384; Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook; Jonathan Miller; Dudley Moore; Alan Bennett) by Lewis MorleyThe ultimate polymath, Dr Sir Jonathan Miller studied natural sciences and medicine at Cambridge, qualifying and working as a medical doctor. At the same time, he became involved with the Cambridge Footlights, the University’s amateur theatrical club which initiated many a famous career in comedy and acting – including his own. Miller made his name as a member of the quartet who brought us the inimitable satire show, Beyond the Fringe, starring Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as well, of course, as Miller himself. He then took up a position at the BBC, where, apparently, he picked up the art of directing ‘as he went along’. Here he produced and directed a wide variety of programmes  from plays and adaptations to various documentaries including series on the human body, the human mind, madness and the complexities of language.

Of particular interest to Shakespeare students is his role as director of six plays in the BBC Television Shakespeare series in the early 1980s. He also worked in theatre, producing and directing Shakespeare on the stage. Of this he observes, ‘It’s extremely unlikely that Monteverdi [Miller is also an opera enthusiast] and Shakespeare ever in their wildest dreams imagined that their works would be bequeathed to others who were so fundamentally and recognizably different from them and from their audiences. It’s very hard to put ourselves back into the imagination of people in the sixteenth or seventeenth century and conceive the notion of posterity as visualised by them’. But Miller has apparently coped with this difficulty admirably: His most recent directing role, in 2015 and at the age of 82, was Northern Broadsides critically acclaimed production of King Lear.

He also pursued his love of opera by directing productions for Glyndebourne and the English National Opera, this immediately following the holding of a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London. Later he studied neuropsychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, before taking up another research fellowship in the same subject at the University of Sussex. And so on.

And all these fascinating facets of his life are represented in this book: his thoughts on theatre, opera, comedy, philosophy, atheism and scientific debate; his undoubted intellect and his rigorous scholarship accompanied by his acerbic wit and humour. There is something here for everyone, for all of us, like Miller himself, must be interested in ‘one thing and another’. In a library devoted to Renaissance studies,  Jonathan Miller is surely the epitome of the ‘Renaissance man’.

Dr Jill Francis

Jonathan Miller, One Thing and Another: Selected writings, 1954-2016, edited by Ian Greaves. (Oberon, 2017). PN2598.M7.

Available in the Shakespeare Institute Library now.

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