Sometimes 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.
“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.
“I think the great thing about the Olympics was that it proved that we are, in ways that people like those who support the BNP wouldn’t want to admit, a multi-racial society.
“I come from a Jewish background and I have not the slightest interest in that or where I come from however far back – I mean, how far back do I have to trace where I come from? I’m also descended from chimpanzees, but I don’t have to say that I’m chimpanzee-ish.”
I haven’t asked a question yet and already the lecture has begun. I spot what looks like a set model box, the sort normally made by designers and unveiled by directors on the first day of rehearsal.
“Oh, I made that. I make them out of cloth, soak them in PVA so they go hard and then sculpt them,” says Sir Jonathan, as I ask about the many different fields he occupies.
“Well I do a lot of things. I often say that I get very embarrassed and rather disconcerted when people say that I’m a ‘polymath’ or a ‘Renaissance Man’ simply because I do a number of different things – I always refer to the fact that my father, who was a military psychiatrist in the First and Second World Wars, was one of the founders of child psychology, but was also a very good painter and a very good sculptor – that one he did there is of my mother – and he could write books and he could read and write things, do things, but he would have been appalled if someone said he was a polymath. He was just a civilised man, that’s all.”
Whatever you might feel you’ve achieved in life, Sir Jonathan Miller can make it feel like, to borrow a phrase from Yiddish, bupkis. If he’s not satisfied, then you’ve certainly no cause to feel so.
“I don’t excel in science, I’ve never done anything that is a serious contribution to it, I’m acquainted with it, and I continue to read it in great detail – an hour before you came I was engaged in trying to understand the nature of the nucleus, what it was that it contained, how it works and how it contributes to inheritance,” he says. “But I’m an onlooker that’s all.”
He could no doubt have been much more than an onlooker, but life took him in another direction. He stood on stage in London and on Broadway, with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, and revolutionised comedy and indeed British theatre. It all began when, as a Cambridge undergraduate he enjoyed getting laughs on stage while playing himself. He went on to study medicine, but was asked to join his friends Peter, Dudley and Alan on stage for a little show called Beyond the Fringe.
“My career on stage – most of my career in fact – has always been an accident, it became more deliberate as time went on, but I never intended to be in the theatre,” he says. “I unexpectedly got asked to appear in this comic show called Beyond the Fringe, it was an unsolicited invitation, I didn’t go asking for it, I was too busy doing my work as a trainee physician but I happened to have a gap so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do this thing for a little while because it might be fun’ and over the course of the next 10 or 15 years I kept getting these unsolicited invitations that I never went looking for and – perhaps regrettably – I submitted to the invitations.”
In 1962 he travelled with Beyond the Fringe to Broadway and, while the four performers were enjoying being the toast of the town, during the day he would attend Mount Sinai hospital and do rounds with neurosurgeons.
“I used to go two or three times a week. After the show I would have supper and go home to my newborn son and wife, but my days were free to attend the hospital. I always thought I would continue with medicine once Beyond the Fringe had finished.”
Was it a heady time?
“I suppose it was heady. The actual performance was simply a duty at the time. I mean it was nice to be applauded every night, but as far as I was concerned, its success diminished for me its interest.
“Receiving invitations from the vivid and fascinating intellectual world that prevailed in New York in the Sixties – I was asked to write for the New Yorker, for example – that was what was really heady. And, I suppose, I got invited to do that sort of thing partly because of the success of the show,” he says, making it sound like the act of enjoying applause is at least a little facetious.
Unsolicited invitations kept coming and Sir Jonathan returned to Britain to present the heavyweight arts programme Monitor, his first show introducing Britain to Susan Sontag.
Another unsolicited invitation is behind the reason for our meeting. On February 8, a new version of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son opens in Halifax, directed by Miller.
He last worked in Yorkshire when he directed Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at Sheffield Crucible in 2007 and he is coming at the invitation of Barrie Rutter, artistic director of Northern Broadsides.
“I worked with Barrie at the RSC and he asked me to read this play, with which I was unacquainted and I was struck by its brilliance,” says the man who has directed major operas at the Royal Opera House, in Vienna, in New York.
“The play is intensely funny – the nature of comedy lies in repeating aspects of human activity that we had forgotten and being reminded of them,” he says. And I’m lost again.
At the heart of Miller lies a dichotomy. He is wonderful at whatever he tries to do, but everything he does is a mere distraction from what he feels he ought to do.
“The panorama of things that I have done, I understand mean that modesty would be futile, but I am nearly 80 and I wonder how much better the things I might have achieved would be if I had pursued the thing in which I had an interest early in my life.”
It seems cruel, but I suppose we can simply be happy that Sir Jonathan’s dissatisfaction has provided the rest of us with so much to celebrate.
Rutherford and Son opens at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, February 8 to 16. 01422 255266. It is also at Hull Truck Theatre, March 5 to 9, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, April 3 to 13 and Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, April 23 to 27. Full details at www.northern-broadsides.co.uk.