The Miller’s Tale…

I was sad to hear, earlier today, about the death of Dr Jonathan Miller — considerably sadder than I was (if I may speak in such terms) to hear about the deaths of Gary Rhodes (about whose life and work I know literally nothing) and Clive James (my contempt for whom increased the more I learned about him).

For the fact is that, from the very earliest stages of my intellectual awareness, Jonathan Miller was someone I was always delighted to chance upon on TV and radio: whatever the subject (or subjects!) he was talking about, it was just about guaranteed that I would be fascinated by what he had to say. He knew a lot about a lot of things, and was a terrifically clear as well as engaging presenter of thoughts and ideas. He could also — at least in his earlier years — be a useful stage performer within a mould-breaking comedy team … as this tiny clip from the very birth of the 1960s will show…

Yes, there is something horrifically curmudgeonly coming … but before I get to it, I want to take another moment to publicly remember that delightful occasion, some 35 years ago, when my then girlfriend (who lived in London) rang me from a payphone in the Barbican to say, with undisguised breathlessness, “Guess what! I’m looking directly at Jonathan Miller…!

So what is the moan?

Well, the first thing I want to say is that I wouldn’t be bothering you with it were it simply about me: as you know, I’m not a critic, and don’t want to be. I bring it up only because it fits with so many of the other things I have tried to convey in this blog since its inception — things about our society and its institutional world and everything that is so painfully and destructively wrong with all of it.

And my point is this. While I will energetically — even aggressively — defend Jonathan Miller as a great communicator; a valuable ‘public intellectual’; and even a leading moral conscience (he supported boycotts of the murderous Israeli ethno-state), the sad fact is that, deep down, I consider that, as far as artistic creativity is concerned — and here I’m thinking of the years of work he did as a director of theatre, TV and opera — he was pretty well non-existent.

It gives me no pleasure at all to say this; and I am quite aware that talking in these terms will simply confirm many people’s suspicions that I am, in fact, a complete idiot. But it’s what I really think, so it’s what I’m saying: while, for the next few days, the arts-journalistic world will echo to the sound of Famous Persons declaring that Jonathan Miller was ‘a creative genius’, and pointing to all the ‘amazingly original work’ he did as a director, let my still, small voice simply say that every Miller production I ever came across struck me as of astoundingly little interest. Yes, even … or do I mean ‘especially’? … his operatic ‘updatings’ — like the famous, still-revived transplantation of Verdi’s 1851 Rigoletto from a 16th-century ducal palace to the New York of the 1950s Mafia… Yawn…

No, I’m not going to go into self-loving detail about why or how I am bored beyond endurance by Miller the would-be re-creative creator — director for television of an Alice in Wonderland that I couldn’t bear to watch again, and an M R James adaptation that I didn’t even get through the first time. I’m simply going to say that, as far as this side of his work was concerned, he was as savagely limited artistically as he was lavishly over-indulged institutionally: he is, in other words, what happens in our cosily carved-up culture when a very clever man with little or no art in him finds that, for inartistic reasons, he can’t leave art alone — and is sufficiently famous and well-connected that he doesn’t have to.

He is, if you like, another proof of Doran’s Third Law — which, as you may remember, states with admirable concision that ‘Insider Takes All’. If you are an outsider, it doesn’t matter how good you are: in our anti-meritocratic society, what you want to do is already being done by an insider — someone whose automatic accreditation means he or she doesn’t even need to be able to do it in order to be doing it. (“What’s that? St Paul’s School, like your mother? St John’s, Cambridge, like your father? And a ‘Cambridge Apostle’, too? Then why not have this … and do that … and then take some more… And then run this … And then, perhaps, another series…”)

But that’s enough of that. For when Jonathan Miller was doing what he was actually good at doing — which was writing and presenting TV programmes about scientific, medical or philosophical subjects — he was as good, in his very particular way, as anyone we’ve ever had. And, as proof of this, I here present the three outstanding programmes on the history of atheism that he made for the BBC in 2004.

In the years that followed, Miller would complain bitterly (in public and in print) that he wasn’t being allowed to make more TV programmes — that he simply couldn’t get organisations like the BBC to commission them. And that, of course, is the point in time where his loss and ours shade over into the tragedy that is our entire society: the executives who shut him out, the institutions that ended his programme-making, didn’t do so because ‘he wasn’t good enough’, but because he wasn’t stupid enough




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