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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
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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!

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on 14 January 2013
This absorbing biography of the brilliant Jonathan Miller has the intimacy of an honest autobiography. Kate Bassett achieves this by structuring the narrative as if it is a continuous personal interview; This gives the book an attractive energy.
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on 6 September 2013
I first saw JM in Beyond the Fringe. We loved all the cast of that show. It has been interesting to see what they have made of their lives since 1961. To read a biography is a good way to find out. Kate Bassett has written a very fair summary of his life: the good and the bad. If you still love Jonathan after reading this book, and I do, then it has been a good book. I recommend it to you.
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Should you wish to read a life of Jonathan Miller - but why would you? - this hefty tome hovers just this side of idolatry. I doubt that the good Doctor would waste his time reading anything so frivolous, bless his expensive socks (yes, I once sat at the feet of the great man and, yes, I like him enormously)
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on 5 January 2013
To write a biog of someone who has done so much in so many worlds of arts and sciences is a huge challenge. Kate Bassett pulls it off by creating a readable and insightful picture of this extraordinary figure who has as many fans as detractors. You learn not only of his work but something of how a mind works that jumps seamlessly from medical science to directing Mozart Operas.
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on 3 June 2015
A long book about a brilliant man of many and varied achievements. It must have been a huge amount of work for the author. She conveys the two sides of his nature very well. I have very happy memories of working with Jonathan at the Old Vic. A mountain of material is very well organized by the author, though the narrative is more or less chronological. Highly recommended.
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on 13 January 2013
I chose it because I grew old with Jonathan Miller, because he is a great opera director and because Bassett is a good critic whose work I enjoy.
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on 9 September 2013
I read this last year in hardback, and really enjoyed. A relative newbie to the world of Miller, I found this book to be very well written biography and a chance to get to know a thoroughly fascinating man. Was quite thrilled to, soon after reading this book, meet the man himself, and he did not disappoint. I especially loved some of the anecdotes in the book, and have to say, what a sneaky man Alan Bennett is! LOVED the tale of how he likes to wind up Miller, it amused me mightily (you'll have to read it for yourself).
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on 16 October 2013
Ms Bassett has written a book that places itself well inside the biography's Goldilocks Zone. That is to say that all those weightings that can skew a biography out of shape are here all nicely balanced. There's not too much on childhood or his ancestors. There's a good balance between personal and public lives - Ms Barrett hasn't devoted too much of the MS to Miller's fellow Fringers, with the subject being the least celebrated of the four, it was pleasing to see her resist the temptation to mention the other three more, especially Peter Cook. There is a good balance between the positive and negative aspects of Miller's self, this is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. I was a little worried that with the author being a theatre critic by night there would be an overwhelming amount about Miller's opera/theatre directing, but that too was covered with only due proportion.
As the title implies, Ms Bassett doesn't shy from seeing Miller's life as one that is, to an extent greater than most people's, overshadowed by opportunity cost. The author puts forward (backed up with comments Miller has made, she's not imposing this theory on the subject) the counterfactual notion that Miller's success with Beyond the Fringe and later as a theatrical director has come at the expense of an equally brilliant career in neuroscience. I think she is right to make this the central tragedy of his life. But I would go further and lament the fact that he did not write more but dissipated his brilliance in the inherently awful medium of television. We could have had another Bertrand Russell, with Miller making his name in neuroscience as Russell did in philosophy and then going on to produce a wealth of intelligent, readable and humane Montaigne-esque essays. We know he has the facility for this, for this is what he did so well on so many chat shows. In In Two Minds Ms Bassett tells us how Miller was invited on to the Johnny Carson show an unprecedented 5 nights running, with the host declaring that, along with Noel Coward and Peter Ustinov, Miller's conversation is capable of being published unaltered. There are some instances of Miller's wonderful way with words given in In Two Minds, for example, he describes Thatcher's 'odious suburban gentility' and also calls her as a 'perfumed fart' (both pp261), the first of these a brilliantly concise description of that dreadful woman. He describes Peter Hall as looking like 'a ball of rancid pig's fat rolled around the floor of a barber's shop' (pp199). But he doesn't just use his eloquence scurrilously; he describes conkers as looking like the eggs from which Sheraton sideboards are hatched (I had to dredge that one up from memory as there is no entry for conkers in the index, a glaring omission in an otherwise perfect book).
I hope Jonathan Miller doesn't suffer from thoughts of what might have been too greatly, for, on the whole, he is a good man, his few faults are well down the Richter Scale of human failings and are easily outweighed by his good qualities, and he has more than most lived a eudaimonic life.
This biography is a great book about a great man.
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on 13 January 2014
An excellent read about an extremely talented ,complicated and fascinating person. Often grumpy,often very funny and never dull. I really enjoyed it.
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