Jonathan Miller's 'Body in Question' Contains a Man of Many Talented Parts

Be careful,” Jonathan Miller warns visitors trying to negotiate a hallway in his mid-Victorian home in London. “The tiles are slippery.” So they are; some of them are also loose. The carpet on the stairs is worn down to bare wood. There is an ambience of ordered clutter and age throughout.

“A porous household,” says Miller in explaining how things have a way of collecting within these premises. A human spinal column and a walrus skull compete for space with driftwood collages, a Braque lithograph and a set of Hogarth etchings. Then there are the books, 6,000 or so of them, a personal library of encyclopedic range from Plato’s Dialogues to The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud to Jane Austen novels (but no contemporary fiction, because, he says, “I don’t get around to it”).

The cerebral display within this household accurately reflects the broad-gauged intellect and manifold talents of its extraordinary owner. At 44, Jonathan Miller has evolved primarily into a theatrical director. But over two decades of gainful—if sometimes spasmodic—employment, he has been a medical doctor (pathology), actor, author, editor, critic and one of the funniest eggheads in the English-speaking world.

Broadway theatergoers first discovered his imported brand of high-IQ humor in 1962 in a satirical revue called Beyond the Fringe, of which he was coauthor and co-star. In deadpanned jest Miller & Co. (three other young Oxford or Cambridge grads) made irreverent merriment at the expense of God, Queen and country, pompous clergymen, concert soloists and nuclear weapons. In a devastating parody of Shakespeare’s fondness for lingering death scenes, Miller played an Elizabethan character victimized by a sword thrust who ditheringly refuses to expire until he has completed his immortal lines(“Now is steel ‘twixt gut and bladder interposed”).

Jonathan Miller is back these days, and while his words are again anatomical, his vehicle is more serious. It is a combination television series and book, both titled The Body in Question, and designed to do for the history of medicine what Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation did for Western art.

Ideally, book and program should appear simultaneously, as they did in Britain last year. The handsomely illustrated book, however, reached American shores first; its official publication date is next week. Because of delays in final arrangements, PBS will not air the 13-part TV series until at least next fall.

First reviews of Body—both print and screen—have been uniformly admiring. Still, its unsynchronized U.S. debut is in some ways a pity. Longtime Jonathan Miller watchers agree he is at his best when seen and heard rather than read (as does he: “I’m mainly a verbal person, not a writer”), in the flesh he is gangling (6’3″) and tirelessly energetic. He paces, flails his arms, twists his hair, fiddles with his wrist-watch. An instant essay on dozens of topics is ever at his lips, and listeners are visibly overwhelmed by the volume and velocity of his words. “Just being able to listen to Miller talk,” a theater reviewer wrote, “somehow makes you feel smarter.” Another somewhat less enthralled observer once called Miller “the most interesting man on earth—for 20 minutes.”

As often happens with those who are outwardly persuasive, Jonathan Miller is wracked by hidden anxieties. His speaking style is not simply a matter of mouth maintaining breathless pace with mind. Like his father, Jonathan stammered as a child—”a menace which always dogs me,” he admits. Long ago he discovered that rushing his words and gesturing help him “ski-jump over the problem.”

Miller’s intellect was shaped by his accomplished parents. His father, Emanuel, was a psychiatrist and criminologist. Mother Betty was an author whose works included a now standard biography of Robert Browning. Jonathan and a younger sister, Sarah (now a BBC secretary), were born in London.

No standout on the playing fields, his “passionate interest” in boyhood was to perch on fences by railroad tracks and record the serial numbers of passing trains. He also collected stamps and conkers (horse chestnuts; only English schoolboys understand why these should be hoarded). Otherwise, he says, “I was a nuisance and rather unhappy. I was painfully in a fog at school and remember not being able to get it all together until I was 16.” About that time “I just found I had a sort of comic talent”—a gift for mimicry and takeoffs on popular radio shows.

From that point on he was an excellent student. His family always assumed Jonathan would make his career in medicine. Enrolled at St. Paul’s School in London, he found romance with schoolmate Rachel Collet. As it happened he had just won a coveted scholarship to Cambridge and, Rachel recalls, “he was flaunting it. I instantly disapproved of his unnecessary ostentation.” But within six months Jonathan and Rachel were engaged, and he was convincing her to become a doctor instead of an anthropologist. “That was his way of flattering,” Rachel smiles knowingly, “the implied notion being that if I was intelligent I would of course become a doctor.”

With Miller it was a measure of his vitality that he breezed through his Cambridge studies and could also star in the university’s Footlights Revue. His rubber-jointed cavorting was such a sensation that when the show was taken to London he was hailed as “varsity’s Danny Kaye.” Jonathan and Rachel were married in 1956, shortly after his graduation. He earned his license to practice in 1959, she two years later.

His fling at medicine was brief. Outwardly he complained of bad hours, low pay and the rigidity of the British medical hierarchy. But at the crux of the matter was a philosophical clash. His father’s roots in late-Victorian medicine, Miller says, “pushed me into a world of science that is now out of date: the Darwin classifications, H.G. Wells, Thomas Huxley and old physicians sitting by bedsides watching patients die of strokes. I was interested in things having to do with physical science. It was almost as if nature , was like a great museum, a cabinet of marvels where you could take them out, study and classify them.”

Furthermore, the need to specialize seemed too restricting in Miller’s wide-angle view. “I lacked a certain patience,” he now concedes, “and began to see what a flibbertigibbet I was.” By his reckoning, a reasonable time to spend on any one project is about five weeks. “I don’t think anything interesting or important happens by calculation,” he says. “Things are always best when there has been a careless abandon about them.” He gave up doctoring altogether in 1962.

Fringe was the first solid indication that medicine’s loss was going to be the theater’s gain. Begun as a holiday lark among the four young chums, the revue was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival and in London before traveling to Broadway. In New York Miller was every inch the young intellectual lion, hobnobbing with Susan Sontag, writing for The New Yorker and Partisan Review.

In Britain he became something of a household name, nattering about cultural affairs on the telly and directing plays, operas and TV specials. He wrote a book mercilessly skewering the global-village jargon of Marshall McLuhan. He even filmed a commercial for Johnny Walker Scotch, though he himself imbibes sparingly (“I don’t like the taste”).

Being directed by him, says actress Janet Suzman of his award-winning 1976 production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, “is like working with champagne—short, sharp, acid, bubbling, best to be opened and drunk immediately and not to be left lying around. He doesn’t spoon-feed his actors, he trusts them. There’s never a harsh or hurtful word; he doesn’t make a meal of agony. If something isn’t working, he moves on to something else.”

London drama critics sometimes ply him with equally effusive praise—and sometimes not. Miller’s most controversial effort was a star-studded (John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Peter Sellers, Malcolm Muggeridge, among others) production of Alice in Wonderland for BBC-TV in 1966. The director humanized all of Lewis Carroll’s animal characters, and Alice emerged as the unsmiling centerpiece of a psychological fantasy about the perils of growing up. The BBC put on the show with a warning that it was unsuitable for children.

No such red flag is needed for The Body in Question, on which Miller un-typically lavished three years of sustained effort. In these anatomy lessons, his broad education and flair for metaphor get full play—the workings of body cells, for example, are illustrated through a deployment of airplanes. “I may be overenthusiastic about pointing out similarities in things and ideas, and it leads me to false analogies,” he admits. “But I believe there is tremendous value in cross-pollination, in trying to see these associations.”

As producer Patrick Uden notes, “Jonathan meanders across the subject, working toward a concept. Ideas are always looping back on themselves, just to make sure you’ve got the point.” Miller believes knowledge unshared is worthless. He measures success as having “entertained by making things clearer, to allow people to say, ‘Oh, is that what it’s about? I’d never understood it before.’ The entertainment factor is very important. Often the most creative way of making things intelligible is through a joke.”

Ironically, Miller’s professional interest in the body is not matched by care of his own. He is a haphazard eater and puffs up to 30 cigarettes a day. His chief form of exercise is walking. “I don’t jog or do anything to preserve myself,” he shrugs. “I’d rather not die, but I just don’t think about it.”

The steadying influence at home is the other Dr. Miller, Rachel, now 43, who has maintained her practice as a family physician. Jonathan is an earnest father to their three children, Tom, 16, William, 15, and Kate, 12, and is proud that they can sing the score of several operas he has directed.

Rachel gently diagnoses her husband as “perhaps too self-critical—he’s always afraid other people will see him as badly as he sees himself. He’s aware of the dangers of being talented and covering a wide area, realizing that in each area there are those who know more than he does. Yet he never stops trying to know everything.”

He frets unceasingly. “I’m like a grasshopper,” he explains. “I spend my entire life hopping from one project to the next, with brief periods of euphoria. Then I’m paralyzed by a choice of activities and constantly have to fight off periods of lassitude, inertia and boredom. It gets worse as I get older.

“I worry about the day I am discovered to be a total charlatan,” he moans. “I will just continue blundering from one thing to another.” If so, then Jonathan Miller’s blunders are one of the wonders of the world.

Related Articles