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'If he was French they'd name streets after him ....'
on 21 February 2013
Though far short of hagiography, presenting its subjects failings with an embarrassing clarity, this biography does nothing to diminish my admiration for someone who is, for me, a hugely important cultural influence.
He was part of what was a cultural heyday on tv in the sixties, with 'Screen International', 'Late Night Line-up' etc, opening up all sorts of artistic horizons. I remember as a teenager seeing him on 'Monitor', his 'Alice' and 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' on first transmission and being amazed that these extraordinarily powerful pieces stemmed from the same source as the witty brilliance of chat show appearances, and the hysterical silliness and satire of 'Beyond the Fringe'. ('Alice' and 'Whistle ...' are just as powerful today as when first shown, it seems to me.) Then seeing a matinee of 'The Three Sisters' on tour in Leeds that was so brilliant I returned for the evening performance because I knew if I didn't I would never be able to capture the experience again. Then of course, 'The Body in Question', televised opera performances and behind the scenes documentaries, superb BBC Shakespeare productions of 'The Shrew' and 'Lear', and innumerable wonderfully witty and entertaining tv appearances.
Basset seems to me to balance perfectly the role of sympathetic narrator with a determination to explore the less impressive aspects of his personality: quick to take offence when criticised; intemperate in response when angry or offended; at times impossibly egocentric and self-absorbed. That side of his personality is easy to dislike and lampoon. (And, yes, as one reviewer here points out, some of his outbursts do not fit with the easy, liberal posture we generally recognise. Frankly, I'm almost relieved that one so gifted and generous with those gifts is not anyone's patron saint!) In fact, I think Basset shows that part of Miller's personality reflects the surprising fact that the brilliance is often a more difficult birth than many of us suspect.
Clearly much of the book seems based on interviews with the subject and those who have worked closely with him, including those with whom he has fallen out. Particularly interesting is the thread the title suggests, that of a personality drawn to worlds often seen as in opposition, the liberal arts and sciences: but this theme also resonates in the emotional/rational aspects so obvious in Miller as well as the supremely confident, almost arrogant persona, and the character racked with anxieties and feelings of self-doubt and unfulfilled expectation. His Jewish background and a rather emotionally arid upbringing are also important themes.
I'm sure John Fortune is right that it is only the British who could be so suspicious of someone so gifted, and that any other culture, not so earnestly anti-intellectual as ours, would name streets after him. How about Jonathan Miller Circus: I think Miller would quite like the sense of the absurd, irreverent and extrovert in that!