Pity the polymath

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller - review.

Jonathan Miller in 1965
Jonathan Miller in 1965. Photograph: Getty Images

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller
Kate Bassett
Oberon Books, 488pp, £20

Jonathan Miller has had an astonishing career, from Footlights and Beyond the Fringe to writing about Freud and Darwin. He wrote for the first issue of the New York Review of Books, edited the BBC arts programme Monitor and presented acclaimed television series about psychology and the history of medicine. One of the most distinguished theatre and opera directors of the past half-century, he has directed Gielgud and Olivier, John Cleese and Plácido Domingo, Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon. Peter Sellers, Alan Bennett and Michael Redgrave appeared in his 1966 TV production of Alice in Wonderland. Miller has won international acclaim, honorary fellowships and a knighthood.

He also has his critics. ITV’s Spitting Image made fun of his range of talents. In one sketch, he performed a liver transplant while simultaneously making calls to the “national opera” and managing a minicab service on the side.

What is most striking about Miller’s career is not just the achievement but the tensions between success and failure. The most fluent of conversationalists and performers, he has struggled with a stammer since his schooldays and with writer’s block through much of his adulthood. His career is full of books never completed, lectures never given, research never completed. Miller had a three-year fellowship at UCL to write a book about mesmerism, the spiritualist movement and the development of neuropsychological theories. It was never completed. “It seems,” said his lifelong friend Oliver Sacks, “that major ambivalences were involved.”

There is something manic about Miller’s creative energy. In the first seven months of 1991, he worked on six new international opera productions. At the same time, he presented two BBC series and managed to fit in a lecture tour of American colleges. And yet he has always been haunted by his father’s deep sense of underachievement. A distinguished analyst and psychiatrist, Emanuel Miller reared up on his deathbed and pronounced his last words: “I’m a flop!” Despite all the achievements in so many fields, his son has the same enduring sense of failure.

This is linked to a third tension: between Miller’s passion for medicine and science and his career in the arts. When he was interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs on Face to Face, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. Miller answered: for one worthwhile scientific article. However much he has achieved in the arts, he feels that he never made it as a great scientist. That was his true vocation, the path not taken.

All of this is documented in Kate Bassett’s new biography. She has done her research: interviewing numerous people who knew and worked with Miller, from school and university friends such as Sacks and Frederic Raphael to neighbours including Bennett and Claire Tomalin. She has read widely and, as a theatre critic, she is at home with his dramatic work. At times – and this is true of whole chapters – the book reads like a scissors-and-paste job, going from one production to another, with just the occasional anecdote to bring the cuttings to life. There are too many typos and errors and several omissions (at least three programmes I produced with Miller are missing from the chronology). The prose can be clunky and gushing.

Yet the biography’s strengths are considerable. Bassett is good on context (whether 1950s Cambridge science or Gloucester Crescent in the 1960s); she brings to life Miller’s schoolboy passion for science; she dutifully chronicles friendships and feuds and has dug up some real gems – in particular, a story by his mother’s friend, Stevie Smith – with fascinating insights into the young Miller. Bassett is thoughtful about the darker side of Miller’s life, from stammering to depression and the workaholic’s chronic fear of holidays. She is also unusually sensitive to questions about his Jewishness and his sense of being an outsider, someone immersed in Englishness but constantly drawn elsewhere.

In Two Minds is a fascinating account, bringing to life both the highs and lows of Miller’s career. Together with David Thompson’s outstanding Arena broadcast earlier this year, it reminds us of the scale of Miller’s talents. He has been one of the great figures of British culture over the past 50 years.