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Jonathan Miller’s life of happy accidents

"I sometimes think of myself as a weak character who simply yielded to invitations."

Sir Jonathan Miller ushers me into the living room of the handsome four-storey house in Camden Town he’s lived in for more than 50 years. My eye is caught by a copy of the New York Review of Books on the coffee table. Miller and I discuss one of the articles in it and he recalls his association with the journal in its formative years in the early 1960s.

Miller had gone to New York with Beyond the Fringe, the wildly successful satirical revue he wrote and performed with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Soon, he found himself inducted into the coterie of mostly Jewish intellectuals gathered around the NYRB.

“I associated myself with that crowd,” he tells me. “And also with those left-wing Jewish magazines – Dissent, Commentary, Partisan Review. It was actually the first time I felt Jewish. I never felt Jewish here.”

In February 1963, Miller wrote a piece for the first ever issue of the New York Review– a rather disobliging notice of John Updike’s novel The Centaur – and found himself in fairly stellar company on the masthead: Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag and Robert Lowell were among the other contributors.

He remembers Lowell worrying that he wasn’t Jewish. “He said to me, ‘Jonathan, I want you to understand that I am in fact one-eighth Jewish myself.’” He and Sontag were close for a while – Miller made a film about her for the BBC arts programme Monitor – but they fell out. “I offended her by saying that I thought she was one of the brightest women I’d ever met,” he says. “She said, ‘What do you mean, women?’”

Back in London, after he left Beyond the Fringe in 1964, Miller was besieged with offers – to make television programmes and direct plays, things he’d never done before. “Everything I did was an unsolicited invitation,” he remembers.

I tell him he makes it sound as if his career has just been a string of accidents. “It really was,” he insists. “They’re not accidents that I regret in any way. Though at some level, I wonder [whether], if I’d had a little bit more strength of personality, I’d have gone on doing what I’d intended to do when I qualified as a doctor. I sometimes think of myself as a weak character who simply yielded to invitations.”

He’s just as self-deprecating about what directing involves. “I had this wonderful encounter with a man when I was working in Frankfurt 30 years ago, doing Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. The ‘dramaturg’, as the Germans call them, said: ‘Vot iz your conzept?’ I said: ‘Well, I’ve got some ideas but I don’t have a concept.’ He glared at me through his milk-bottle spectacles and said: ‘Vizout a conzept, you vill haf great problematics viz your praxis.’”

Miller says he doesn’t get invited to direct operas these days. “At the ENO, you’ve got to be young. I can’t get into the ENO, although they go on doing my productions. My Mikado is in its 27th year; so is my Barber of Seville. The Rigoletto is in its 30th year. But they don’t give me new ones to do.”

He still works in the theatre, however. His latest venture is a revival of Githa Sowerby’s play Rutherford and Son, first performed in 1912, about a squabbling family of northern industrialists.

“We had a reading here at the house,” he tells me. “The actors read it and I realised there was actually very little for me to do.”

“Rutherford and Son” opens at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, on 8 February and will tour the UK until 1 June

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.