In Two Minds, a biography of Jonathan Miller
Published: Oberon Books Ltd
Also available online.
ISBN: 978 1 84943 451 5
Review: Carole Woddis
Never at peace, but many revelations.
It’s said that Jonathan Miller has probably done more than any other arts practitioner in modern times to span the worlds of the arts and sciences. His contribution also to opera and
its staging has also been nothing short of revolutionary.
Yet Miller, who shot to fame in 1960 along with his fellow Beyond the Fringe conspirators – Peter Cooke, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett – has never been a man entirely at peace in his own dichotomies. He has made many enemies, fallen out with the great and the Good, never minced his words and has berated himself frequently for not sticking with the discipline for which he was schooled by virtue of his upbringing and his parentage: that of being a medical doctor.
All this and much more, very much more, the Independent on Sunday’s longtime theatre critic, Kate Bassett, has recorded with scrupulous detail and admirable even handed fairness.
In Two Minds, a biography of Jonathan Miller, is the most comprehensive, worthy legacy and account of a tumultuously creative but extraordinarily touchy subject. It is also a terrifically good read, an account of the arts and sciences down through the past half century and an exemplar of good practise in terms of its research. The acknowledgements alone of the libraries, museums and archives to which Bassett addressed herself run to five pages, the footnotes to nearly 90 pages. There is also an extensive Bibliography and selective chronology.
How, you may ask, can such scrupulous scholasticism also account for a `good read’.
Well, I can only tell you it’s a rattling good yarn. It’s the way she tells it, from Miller’s first entry into the world in 1934, the son of Jewish intellectuals with a family tree that could spread tentacles from Russia in the east to Cork in Ireland in the west and Stockholm in the north. His father, Emanuel, a well known psychiatrist went on to pioneer child psychiatry in this country; his mother, Betty was a foremost novelist and biographer on nodding terms with the Bloomsbury set.
Drawing on extensive interviews with his family, close friends, work colleagues and Miller himself who seems to have made himself admirably and wholly available to Bassett, she charts his rise to fame – he had already made his broadcasting debut on the BBC at 18 and two Footlight revues in the West End before Beyond the Fringe ever surfaced – and his subsequent dive into theatre working alongside Sir Laurence Olivier at the early National
Theatre, his spectacular falling out with Peter Hall and his chequered career with productions on Broadway. On the way he has diverted into opera, which increasingly became one of his mainstays, taking him all over the continent at the same time as producing and presenting ground-breaking tv series such as The Body in Question, A Brief History of Disbelief, and tv films such as his Alice in Wonderland, now regarded as tv classics from the golden age of BBC Television.
Wherever Miller has gone, he has stirred and re-thought old conventions. Blessed or cursed with a prodigious intellectual curiosity, he has refused to conform and constantly felt himself `the outsider’, unloved and unvalued in his own country. His tetchiness and thin skinned vulnerability to criticism have become as notorious as his prolific work capacity. And always, as Bassett reports, there has been the nagging, self torturing doubt, that `he abandoned serious medical research for the “frivolous” lure of theatre.’
Reading the book in its entirety, I can honestly say I was loath to put it down. So comprehensive and in a sense so joyously gossipy, is Bassett’s narrative style and Jonathan Miller’s personal trajectory, it was like reading a history of my own cultural life and times.
For those who have lived through these years, it tells us much we may have forgotten; for those who didn’t, there can be no better or more stimulating account than this of some of the social, cultural and intellectual highlights of British cultural life in the second half of the twentieth century. It is a very great book and impossible to recommend highly enough.