Is there a doctor in the house?

Yes. Jonathan Miller muses on life at the Everyman in Cork, says Alan O’Riordan

Medicine at Cambridge, comedy, television, theatre and opera, Miller could be a dinner party all by himself

A CONVERSATION with Jonathan Miller mixes philosophy, theatre, science and showbiz. Given a career that has encompassed medicine at Cambridge, comedy, television, theatre and opera, Miller could be an erudite dinner party all by himself. He is good company, and will be again at an audience at the Everyman Theatre in Cork, his mother’s home town, on Friday night.

Miller does not slavishly prepare for the ‘audience with’ shows: each night’s subject matter depends on what’s on his mind, on what he is reading. “A good way to work out what you think,” he says, “is often while you are trying to express it.”

The evening is a lecture, followed by a question-and-answer session. That, says Miller, is more predictable, “There are usually questions about show business. People want to know about Peter Cook or Dudley Moore.”

It was with those two, and the writer Alan Bennett, that Miller first tasted the limelight. The quartet were plucked from the Oxbridge performing arts scenes to form a comedy super-group for Beyond the Fringe, their influential revue. It can be seen on YouTube. Its influence on Monty Python is obvious. The show’s DNA can be traced in a more recent strain of literate English sketch comedy, such as A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Armstrong and Miller.

Even after Beyond the Fringe, Miller kept a foot in the scientific camp. He held a research fellowship in the history of medicine, before again being lured by the arts, in 1974, when he began directing and producing operas. Next stop on his polymath’s journey was the BBC, where he made the groundbreaking documentary series, The Body in Question. He directed several Shakespeare plays for television, before returning to science, researching neuropsychology.

Miller seems torn between two mutually exclusive worlds, but he says not. “A lot of what I learned in my training as a doctor transferred to the theatre. As a doctor and as a director, you are observing people, trying to find the details that will lead to a diagnosis.”

Miller, at 78, is still directing. His latest production, a revival of Githa Sowerby’s Ibsenite Edwardian family drama, Rutherford & Sons, is at the Halifax Viaduct. ‘Neuropsychological’ and ‘sociobiological’ are words that pepper his conversation about the theatre. “People pretending raises all sorts of interesting philosophical questions,” he says. “About what it is to have a mind, about the extent to which mental states are determined by neurological states.”

From an audience’s point of view, what interests Miller, as well as getting the right reactions, is what is happening at a deeper level, what he calls a “double vision” at play. “People are observing an actor whose name they know, but they also know that as soon as he crosses onto the stage, he is not just a person called Olivier, he’s pretended to be a person called Othello, but that is a person who’s never existed.” From here, the discussion, well, lecture, takes in what we mean when we call something an action, and what differentiates certain actions, morally or otherwise, from other physical events, which we don’t consider actions, such as breathing or the heartbeat.

Miller is interested in fundamental philosophical questions in the tradition of two great Cambridge alumni, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. For him, philosophy should define what can be discussed intelligibly, and then analyse that to achieve the greatest clarity of meaning. It is an analytical philosophy at odds with the Left Bank posing that represents philosophy in the popular imagination. Dramatically at odds, it seems. Miller decries the oversimplification of argument in the media, but baulks at the suggestion that things are better in France, where philosophers get column inches, “but that’s a load of bollocks,” he says. “They say things in an abstruse language that people think important because it’s difficult, but it’s not. Whereas, the Anglo-American philosophers use plain English to discuss what it is we can know and say about action and about meaning.”

Miller applies Wittgenstein’s most famous dictum, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, to his views on religion. Despite the fact that he made a TV series on the history of unbelief, he does not rank himself among the combative “new atheists”.

“I’m not like that Dawkins,” he says. “I’ve never had a religious feeling in my life. It’s something I rarely think about. What interests me is the sociobiological side of it, why people persist in believing things which are, to me, absurd. Yet it is something which dominates so much of human social life.”

Miller seems far more likely to get hot under the collar on the subject of television. He worked mainly during what many consider to have been a golden age — at the high-minded, pre-multi-channel BBC, an organisation that was backing such ambitious projects as Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, or Miller’s own The Body In Question. He doubts such programmes would get made now.

“TV has been dumbed down,” he says. “They want sensationalism; and if it’s science, they’d want celebrity scientists or something like that. They don’t want to deal with the subjects I deal with.” All the more reason to see the man in person, then. The stage, whether for his plays, his operas or for himself, is seemingly the only platform left for Jonathan Miller.

*An Audience With Jonathan Miller is at the Everyman Theatre, Cork on Friday.


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