28 Nov Jonathan Miller
A personal appreciation from Andrew Hilton
Like so many of my generation working in the theatre, I was deeply saddened to hear yesterday of the death of Sir Jonathan Miller. Jonathan directed a very much admired HAMLET for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in 2008, in a single stroke widening the company’s reach and reputation. That production was a mere breath in an extraordinarily wide-ranging and distinguished career in comedy, medicine, theatre, documentary and opera – few have packed so much into a single life – but it may also be thought that it was a fortunate but rather random moment in stf’s own career.
The truth is that is that it was Jonathan who inspired, and enabled me to become a Shakespeare actor and director. Had I not been fortunate to be cast by him in student productions of Hamlet and Julius Caesar when he was seeking to establish his own credentials in classical theatre in the early 1970s, or then to be promoted by him in the professional theatre as both actor and director, it is all but certain that I would never have taken the path I did, and certainly never conceived the idea of a Shakespeare company in an old Tobacco Factory. At one remove Jonathan Miller was stf’s chief begetter.
I last met him three years ago when his wonderful wife Rachel invited me to have lunch with them in their Camden Town home. It was immediately obvious that his memory was affected – for a disconcerting moment he looked blankly at me on the doorstep – perhaps I had come to read the meter, or urge him to repent – but with the materials of memory nudged back into place, he was himself again; charming, witty, irreverent and at times caustic, his enviable command of language seemingly undimmed. I left that day, so thankful to Rachel for the opportunity to be reacquainted with them both, but rightly fearing that I would not see Jonathan again.
I was surprised to hear a reference on the radio this morning to his occasional cruelty to those he worked with. Sadly, there are many directors who find whipping boys on whom to unload their frustrations and insecurities, but in the five productions of his that I performed in, I never witnessed anything of the kind, nor have I ever heard it said of him before. His command of language could run away with him, and he could never resist the witty but outrageous comment when interviewed by Michael Parkinson. The world of opera was a particular target; I remember him musing that he could never understand a director wishing to put ‘such an inert mass’ at the centre of his production, or talking of the ‘dinosaur’ sopranos who normally held the stage. The ‘inert mass’ in question was Luciano Pavarotti, and the ‘dinosaurs’ almost comparably distinguished. This failure to self-censor made for entertaining television, but probably hurt him professionally and made enemies of those that would never encounter him in the rehearsal room. But there, face to face, he was unfailingly courteous, warm and generous; and anyone and everyone was a fit partner – if often a largely silent one – in an urgent and untiring debate about art, science and politics. We were charmed, stimulated and entertained.
I have no idea whether or not he approved of it himself, but Kate Bassett’s 2012 biography – In Two Minds – is an engrossing account of Jonathan’s astonishing achievement. When I picked it up (I had contributed a few small details to it myself) I felt I would recognise every event, every programme, every production. But I discovered I had known only a fraction of the whole.
He was a very remarkable man indeed, and I owe him more than I can express.