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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 executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

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