Jonathan Miller

Sir Jonathan Wolfe Miller CBE (21 July 1934 – 27 November 2019) was an English theatre and opera director, actor, author, television presenter, humourist and medical doctor. After training in medicine and specialising in neurology in the late 1950s, he came to prominence in the early 1960s in the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett.

Jonathan Miller

Appearing on TV discussion After Dark in 1988
Jonathan Wolfe Miller

(1934-07-21)21 July 1934
St John's Wood, London, England
Died27 November 2019(2019-11-27) (aged 85)
Alma materSt John's College, Cambridge (MB BChir, 1959)
OccupationHumorist, medical doctor, theatre and opera director, actor, television presenter, author
Spouse(s)Rachel Collet (m. 1956-2019; his death)
Parent(s)Betty Miller (née Spiro)
Emanuel Miller

Miller began directing operas in the 1970s. His 1982 production of a "Mafia"-styled Rigoletto was set in 1950s Little Italy, Manhattan. In its early days, he was an associate director at the National Theatre. He later ran the Old Vic Theatre. As a writer and presenter of more than a dozen BBC documentaries, Miller became a television personality and public intellectual in Britain and the United States.

Life and career

Early life

Miller grew up in St John's Wood, London, in a well-connected Jewish family of Lithuanian descent. His father Emanuel (1892–1970), who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis, was a military psychiatrist and subsequently a paediatric psychiatrist at Harley House. His mother, Betty Miller (née Spiro), was a novelist and biographer who was originally from County Cork, Ireland. Miller's older sister Sarah (died 2006) worked in television for many years and retained an involvement with Judaism that Miller, as an atheist, always eschewed.

Miller was educated at Taunton School[1] and St Paul's School, London[2] where he developed an early (and ultimately lifelong) interest in the biological sciences. While at St Paul's School at the age of 12, Miller met and became close friends with Oliver Sacks and Oliver's best friend Eric Korn, friendships which remained crucial throughout the rest of their lives. Miller studied natural sciences and medicine at St John's College, Cambridge (MB BChir, 1959), where he was a member of the Cambridge Apostles before going on to train at University College Hospital in London.

While studying medicine, Miller was involved in the Cambridge Footlights, appearing in the revues Out of the Blue (1954) and Between the Lines (1955). Good reviews for these shows, and for Miller's performances in particular, led to him performing on a number of radio and television shows while continuing his studies; these included appearances on Saturday Night on the Light, Tonight and Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He qualified as a medical doctor in 1959 and then worked as a hospital house officer for two years, including at the Central Middlesex Hospital as house physician for gastroenterologist Francis Avery Jones.

1960s: Beyond the Fringe

Miller helped to write and produce the musical revue Beyond the Fringe, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1960. This launched, in addition to his own, the careers of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Miller quit the show shortly after its move from London to Broadway in 1962, and took over as editor and presenter of the BBC's arts programme Monitor in 1965. The Monitor appointment arose because Miller had approached Huw Wheldon about taking up a place on the BBC's director training course. Wheldon assured him that he would "pick it up as he went along".

Miller's first experience of directing a stage-play was for John Osborne, whose Under Plain Cover he directed in 1962.[3] In 1964, he directed the play The Old Glory by the American poet Robert Lowell in New York City. It was the first play produced at the American Place Theatre and starred Frank Langella, Roscoe Lee Brown, and Lester Rawlins. The play won five Obie Awards in 1965 including an award for "Best American Play" as well as awards for Langella, Brown and Rawlins.[4][5][6][7]

He wrote, produced, and directed an adaptation for television of Alice in Wonderland (1966) for the BBC. He followed this with Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) starring Michael Hordern, a television adaptation of M. R. James's 1904 ghost story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad". He produced a National Theatre Company production of The Merchant of Venice starring Sir Laurence Olivier. He later resigned as associate director.

1970s: Medical history and opera

Miller held a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London from 1970 to 1973. In 1974, he also started directing and producing operas for Kent Opera and Glyndebourne, followed by a new production of The Marriage of Figaro for English National Opera in 1978. Miller's other turns as an opera director included productions of Rigoletto (in 1975 and 1982) and the operetta The Mikado (in 1987).

Miller drew upon his own experiences as a physician as writer and presenter of the BBC television series The Body in Question (1978),[8] which caused some controversy for showing the dissection of a cadaver. For a time, he was a vice-president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.[9]

1980s: Shakespeare and neuropsychology

In 1980, Miller was persuaded to join the troubled BBC Television Shakespeare project (1978–85). He became producer (1980–82) and directed six of the plays himself, beginning with a well received Taming of the Shrew starring John Cleese. In the early 1980s, Miller was a popular and frequent guest on PBS' Dick Cavett Show.

Miller wrote and presented the BBC television series, and accompanying book, States of Mind in 1983 and the same year directed Roger Daltrey as Macheath, the outlaw hero of the BBC's production of John Gay's 1728 ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera. He also became chair of Edinburgh Festival Fringe board of directors. In 1984, he studied neuropsychology with Dr. Sandra Witelson at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, before becoming a neuropsychology research fellow at the University of Sussex the following year.


In 1990, Miller wrote and presented a joint BBC/Canadian production entitled, Born Talking: A Personal Inquiry into Language. The four-part series looked into the acquisition of language, and complexities surrounding language production, with special focus on sign language used by deaf people. This interest was contemporaneous with his friend Oliver Sacks' immersion in, and writing/publishing a book about Deaf Culture and deaf people entitled Seeing Voices. Miller then wrote and presented the television series Madness (1991) and Jonathan Miller on Reflection (1998). The five-part Madness series ran on PBS in 1991. It featured a brief history of madness and interviews with psychiatric researchers, clinical psychiatrists, and patients in therapy sessions. In 1992, Opera Omaha staged the United States premiere of the Gioachino Rossini's 1819 opera Ermione, directed by Miller.

2000s: Atheism and return to directing

In 2004, Miller wrote and presented a television series on atheism entitled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief (more commonly referred to as Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief) for BBC Four, exploring the roots of his own atheism and investigating the history of atheism in the world. Individual conversations, debates and discussions for the series that could not be included due to time constraints were aired in a six-part series entitled The Atheism Tapes. He also appeared on a BBC Two programme in February 2004, called What the World Thinks of God appearing from New York. The original three-part series aired on public television in the United States in 2007.[10]

In 2007, Miller directed The Cherry Orchard at The Crucible, Sheffield, his first work on the British stage for 10 years. He also directed Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in Manchester and Bristol, and Der Rosenkavalier in Tokyo and gave talks throughout Britain during 2007 called An Audience with Jonathan Miller in which he spoke about his life for an hour and then fielded questions from the audience. He also curated an exhibition on camouflage at the Imperial War Museum. He appeared at the Royal Society of the Arts in London discussing humour (4 July 2007) and at the British Library on religion (3 September 2007).

In January 2009, after a break of 12 years, Miller returned to the English National Opera to direct his own production of La Bohème, notable for its 1930s setting. This same production ran at the Cincinnati Opera in July 2010, also directed by Miller.


On 15 September 2010 Miller, along with 54 other public figures, signed an open letter published in The Guardian, stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to the UK.[11] In April and May 2011, Miller directed Verdi's La Traviata in Vancouver, Canada,[12] and in February and March 2012, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in Washington, DC.[13]

On 25 November 2015 the University of London awarded Miller an honorary degree in Literature.[14]

Personal life

Miller married Rachel Collet in 1956. They had two sons and a daughter.[15] From 1961 to his death he lived on Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town, north London.[16] In November 2019 Miller died at the age of 85 following a long battle with Alzheimer's.[17][18]

Parodies and representations

  • Stevie Smith included a thinly-disguised and uncomplimentary version of Miller, aged nine, in her short story 'Beside the Seaside: A Holiday with Children' (1949).
  • Private Eye (which had a falling-out with Miller[19]) occasionally lampooned him under the name "Dr Jonathan", depicting him as a Dr Johnson-like self-important man of learning[20].
  • In the film for television Not Only But Always about the careers of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Jonathan Aris played Jonathan Miller as a young man; Aris reprised the role in the BBC Radio 4 play Good Evening (2008) by Roy Smiles.
  • Along with the other members of Beyond the Fringe, he is portrayed in the play Pete and Dud: Come Again by Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde.
  • In the BBC Radio Four series The Burkiss Way edition 35, broadcast on 2 April 1979, he was impersonated by Nigel Rees in a fairly lengthy parody "The Blood Gushing All over the Screen in Question", in which the history of nasty diseases was traced and the style of Miller's presentation was sent up. It was written by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick
  • In the 1980s a puppet of Miller appeared frequently in Spitting Image sketches, most notably "Bernard Levin and Jonathan Miller Talk Bollocks".

Honours and awards



  • Miller, Jonathan (1971). McLuhan. Fontana Modern Masters.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1971). Censorship and the Limits of Personal Freedom. Oxford University Press.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1972). Freud: The Man, His World and His Influence. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1974). The Uses of Pain (Conway memorial lecture). South Place Ethical Society.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1978). The Body in Question. Jonathan Cape.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1982). Darwin for Beginners. Writers and Readers Comic Book/2003 Pantheon Books (USA). ISBN 0-375-71458-8.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1983). The Human Body. Viking Press. (1994 Jonathan Cape [pop-up book])
  • Miller, Jonathan (1983). States of Mind. Conversations with Psychological Investigators. BBC /Random House.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1984). The Facts of Life. Jonathan Cape. (pop-up book intended for children)
  • Miller, Jonathan (1986). Subsequent Performances. Faber.
  • Miller, Jonathan & John Durrant (1989). Laughing Matters: A Serious Look at Humour. Longman.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1990). Acting in Opera. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. (The Applause Acting Series)
  • Miller, Jonathan (1992). The Afterlife of Plays. San Diego State Univ Press. (University Research Lecture Series No. 5)
  • Miller, Jonathan (1998). Dimensional Man. Jonathan Cape.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1998). On Reflection. National Gallery Publications/Yale University Press (USA). ISBN 0-300-07713-0.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1999). Nowhere in Particular. Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 1-84000-150-X. [collection of his photographs]


  • Miller, Jonathan (1968). Harvey and the Circulation of Blood: A Collection of Contemporary Documents. Jackdaw Publications.
  • Miller, Jonathan (1990). The Don Giovanni Book: Myths of Seduction and Betrayal. Faber.


Introductions and forewords

  • Lowell, Robert (1966). Old Glory, The: Endecott and the Red Cross; My Kinsman, Major Molineux; and Benito Cereno. (directors note)
  • Rothenstein, Julian (2000). The Paradox Box: Optical Illusions, Puzzling Pictures, Verbal Diversions. Redstons Press / Shambhala Publications (USA).
  • Scotson, Linda (2000). Doran: Child of Courage. Macmillan.



  • "Bridge on the River Wye" (1962 Parlophone LP; as American Announcer, American G.I., American Lieutenant, British Sergeant)






  • In 1988 Miller made an extended appearance on the discussion programme After Dark, described here.
  • BBC. Great Composers of the World. Miller appears on the Puccini and Bach DVDs of this BBC series. In the Bach episode, he discusses his affection for the famous "Erbarme Dich" aria of the St Matthew Passion.
  • PBS. Vermeer: Master of Light. Miller appears in this one-hour program on the painter.

Selected stage productions

Musical revue


  • St. Matthew Passion (Director; St. George's Theatre, London, February 1994) with Paul Goodwin. A dramatised production of J.S. Bach's masterpiece, recorded for BBC Television.This production was also revived at London's National Theatre in September/October 2011 with Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Paul Goodwin.



Over four decades, Miller has directed more than 50 operas in cities including London, New York, Florence, Milan, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Valencia and Tokyo.

  • Miller curated an exhibition on "Reflexion" (1998) at the National Gallery and one on "Motion in Art and Photography" at the Estorick Gallery in Islington.
  • Miller had three exhibitions of his own art work at Flowers East, the Boundary Gallery and at the Katz Gallery in Bond Street, London.

See also

  • Las Meninas - considered by Miller in his On Reflection

Notes and references

  1. Bassett, Kate (2012). In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller. Oberon Books. p. 336.
  2. "BBC NEWS – Entertainment – Miller: Master of all trades". BBC.
  3. Heilpern, John, John Osborne: A Patriot for Us, 2007, Random House, pp.287.
  4. "Robert Lowell's Benito Cereno Begins Off-Broadway at the Flea Sept. 22". Playbill.
  5. Macmillan. "The Old Glory". Macmillan.
  6. "New York News, Food, Culture and Events". The Village Voice.
  7. "History in Brief // The American Place Theatre".
  8. Closing Credits
  9. Allan Horsfall and Ray Gosling (14 March 2006). "History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality". Gay Monitor. Archived from the original on 7 December 2008. Retrieved 2 September 2008.
  11. "Letters: Harsh judgments on the pope and religion". The Guardian. London. 15 September 2010. Retrieved 16 September 2010.
  12. "Jonathan Miller's version of La Traviata is Verdi without the vulgarity". Vancouver, Canada. 28 April 2011. Retrieved 30 April 2011.
  13. Sudip Bose (25 February 2012). "Opera Review: "Così fan tutte" at the Kennedy Center". Washingtonian:. Retrieved 27 November 2019.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  14. "University of London conferred highest honours to exceptional individuals". University of London. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  15. PROFILE : JONATHAN MILLER : What's eating the doc? Published by The Independent on 29 January 1995, retrieved on 20 April 2019
  16. "Jonathan Miller's life of happy accidents". New Statesman.
  17. "Theatre director Sir Jonathan Miller dies aged 85". 27 November 2019. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  18. Jonathan Miller, director and humorist, dies at 85 Published by the BBC on November 27, 2019 and retrieved on the same day
  19. "Private Eye tweet 27/11/2019". Private Eye. Retrieved 15 December 2019.
  20. "Private Eye tweet 27/11/2019". Private Eye. Retrieved 15 December 2019.
  21. "Honorary Associates". Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  22. Editors (5 September 2006). "Viva el Presidente". New Humanist Newsletter (#72). Archived from the original on 7 December 2008. Retrieved 2 September 2008.
  23. Additionally, Miller was considered for the movie roles of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim (1957) and Fagin in Oliver! (1968).
  24. Produced 12 plays, directed 6.
  25. Title changed to Beyond The Fringe 1964 on 8 January 1964 (a "new edition" of the show). By then Miller had long since left the production.

Further reading

  • Bassett, Kate (2012). In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller. ISBN 978-1-84943-451-5.
  • Bergan, Ronald (1990). Beyond the Fringe...and Beyond: A Critical Biography of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore. Virgin Books. ISBN 1-85227-175-2.
  • Carpenter, Humphrey (2000). That Was Satire, That Was: Beyond the Fringe, the Establishment Club, "Private Eye" and "That Was the Week That Was". Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-575-06588-5.
  • Hewison, Robert (1983). Footlights! – A Hundred Years of Cambridge Comedy. Methuen. ISBN 0-413-51150-2.
  • Miller, William (2018). Gloucester Crescent: Me, My Dad and Other Grown-ups. London: Profile Books. ISBN 9781788160360. [A memoir by Miller's son.]
  • Romain, Michael, ed. (1992). A Profile of Jonathan Miller. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40953-5.
  • Wilmut, Roger (1980). From Fringe to Flying Circus – Celebrating a Unique Generation of Comedy 1960–1980. Eyre Methuen. ISBN 0-413-46950-6.
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