Wednesday, February 11, 2009


at the Civic

As we celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday, the distinctive figure of Jonathan Miller ambles onto the Civic stage. His trade-mark corduroy trousers fold themselves into a stylish chair, and he's off on two hours of reminiscence and reflection.

He should have been at the Coliseum, where his Boheme was playing its third performance. One of 65 operas he's directed over the last 40 years, [he's on his fifth Traviata, in upstate NY] and one which he is “rather proud of”. Not all the critics were as enthusiastic, “imprinted” with cliché and tradition, it seems, as in the fable of the geese and the waste-paper basket.

He should have been a doctor, like his father before him. And indeed, did qualify, and was set for a career as a neurologist, when an “unforeseen accident” [Beyond the Fringe] and a series of unsolicited invitations lured him into the theatre, and sapped his moral fibre. Roger Norrington was conducting for his first opera.

As you get older, you get better, Miller maintains. His aim as an opera director is to eliminate cliché, and achieve reality on stage. He wants people to say, as T H Huxley did on reading The Origin of Species, “How stupid not to have thought of that !”. His mother was a novelist and biographer, and from her, as well as his father, he learnt to perceive and value the negligible details of human life, the overlooked and the disregarded. Like Chekhov, he seeks to make the forgettable memorable. At least, with medical training, you get the death scenes right – most deaths are very un-dramatic. Mimi dies, in his production at least, unnoticed except by Puccini's score.

A fascinating and free-ranging dialogue with the audience takes us from My Fair Lady to Mendel, from the Matthew Passion to Marks and Spencer.

His trenchant views on religion go largely unchallenged, as he traces the history of disbelief from Democritus through d'Holbach to Dennett. Intelligence is a relatively recent development, so it makes little sense to posit an intelligent designer. Religious belief is “fatuous” [with “inconceivable” a favourite epithet]. Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable a much better book than The God Delusion. Belief never figured in his mental development. Even the term Atheist seems unnecessary; he would never think of describing himself “ahexist” because he didn't believe in witches.

He remembers with warm gratitude a science teacher at his school, Oliver Sacks and sea urchins amongst his memories.

He is entertainingly disparaging about bankers' bonuses, sensationalist television, “ghastly musicals and frightful comedies”. But he has good things to say about Jack Dee, Chekhov and grumpy old Michael Hordern. He is asked about reality on television. He likes Outnumbered, and recalls the unadorned pieces to camera perfected by AJP Taylor. What modern authors does he like ? Iain McEwen, Philip Roth. Why does he hate musicals ? Not all of them – Lady in the Dark is singled out for praise, Les Mis for opprobrium. And there are operas he can't stand; Trovatore, for one, is better listened too than seen on stage.

He loves originality and modernism [not post-modernism, that's drivel]; the developments of 1905-1915 [except in Britain] make the Renaissance look trivial.

He doesn't really miss medicine, because he never really left it, but he does sometime regret not doing National Service, with its opportunities for gossipy memoirs ...

And what does he do in his spare time ? Stares out of the window, wondering what he should be doing next.

What he is doing next is an exhibition about the photographic antecedents of Futurism.

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