This week we lost two of our most beloved public intellectuals – Jonathan Miller and Clive James.
Both made major contributions to the cultural life of our nation, both were passionate advocates for the arts.
A true Renaissance man Miller qualified as a doctor before finding success as a member of the 1961 satirical show Beyond the Fringe alongside Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. The group’s unbridled swipes at the establishment shook up British comedy and took Miller off down a different path.
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Although he initially juggled stage appearances with hospital rounds, he soon become a much sought after theatre director – highlights include his time at Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in the early 1970s and and an acclaimed stint as artistic director of the Old Vic in the late 1980s.
He also directed a number of lauded operas, wrote and presented TV documentaries on his twin passions – medicine and the arts.
One of his most recent theatre projects was working with Halifax-based Northern Broadsides when he directed Barrie Rutter as King Lear in the company’s 2015 production of the great Shakespearean tragedy.
The Guardian’s (five star) review described it as “revelatory” while the Stage praised Miller’s “creative clarity”. It was another triumph in a long career of many.
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Miller approached all his endeavours with energy, enthusiasm – and modesty. Above all he was interested in everything. Like all the most talented creative people, he regarded life as an adventure.
James had a similarly open, playful and enquiring mind. Journalist, TV critic, broadcaster and poet, he had an unrivalled facility with words. He could make you laugh out loud with his dry turn of phrase – he once memorably described motor racing commentator Murray Walker as broadcasting “as if his trousers were on fire” – and could as easily make you cry.
The poems he wrote in the last years of his life – after being diagnosed with a terminal illness – are some of the most moving I’ve ever read. In Japanese Maple he contemplates his own mortality: ‘A final flood of colours will live on/As my mind dies,/Burned by my vision of a world that shone/So brightly at the last, and then was/gone.’
Miller and James were giants of the arts world, embracing all forms of culture, understanding and championing its value, making it accessible to everyone.
In our modern world where both philistinism and elitism appear to be the order of the day we need their intellectual curiosity, humour, humility and humanity more than ever. Their departure is a huge loss.