Thursday 18th September 2003
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2003.

Metal construction I

Sculptor and Wood Construction V

At home: Sir Jonathan with Metal Construction I, one of his sculptures made from junk

Fringe player: Miller in the groundbreaking 1960s satire Beyond the Fringe
Scrapheap challenge of Dr. Jonathan
Director, satirist and television presenter Sir Jonathan Miller can now add artist to what must be one of the world’s longest CVs. Jane Wright meets the all-round controversialist who is happy to dismiss Pavarotti as ‘a vast, overwrought voice on top of a tub of lard’

AT the age of 69, Sir Jonathan Miller is making it harder than ever to determine, come posterity, what exactly he will be remembered for.
Alongside the medical doctor, the ground-breaking 1960s satirist from Beyond the Fringe, the presenter of TV arts series Monitor and history of medicine The Body in Question, director of theatre and opera, and, since last year, knight, there now steps forward Jonathan Miller, artist.
His second exhibition of sculpture and collage opens at the Boundary Gallery in South Hampstead at the end of the month.

In the flesh, at his home of 40 years in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, Sir Jonathan also defies expectations.

The “Jew who’s too clever by half and stirs up the snobby anti-Semitism of the British country house set” (his own words) is neither intimidating nor exhausting, but a relaxed conversationalist with a warm, slow smile.
He’s also disarmingly honest. “I don’t think of it as taking up art; it’s messing around,” he says of his latest works, which feature rubbish skip finds, including crushed or rusted metal, old newspapers and discarded bits of wood.

“It starts as neglected junk at the end of its useful life, then I reassemble it. I make different juxtapositions and begin to get intrigued,” he says.

“Human beings have always been energetically meddlesome,” he explains. “People can’t avoid shaping tools, not for efficiency, but to make them look good.”

In fact, he started years ago taking photographs of objects cast aside, overlapping each other or leaning against walls. After these were published as a book he moved on to collage.

Then, when he was directing an opera in New Mexico last year, kicking his heels on afternoons off a long way from children and grandchildren, a handyman taught him how to weld and he made his first sculptures in metal.

“I’ve got quite handy at it,” he says, adding: “And, though I hope you like it, I do it to please myself. I hope it’s not intellectual.”
His attitude is reflected in a refusal to give his creations names other than, for example, Metal Construction VII. “I hate titles,” he says. “That’s the great discovery of abstract art. It doesn’t have to be about anything.”

So does his work get shown, and sell for up to £2,000, because he’s Jonathan Miller?

He insists he had to fight to get his first exhibition in East London two years ago, at which he sold 40 pieces, because gallery owner Angela Flowers was nervous of his celebrity status until he convinced her with the quality of the work.

And, as his metal sculptures go on show for the first time in this exhibition, he admits he’ll be gutted if the critics dismiss his junk as rubbish.

His house reflects the ideas in his head: lofty and overflowing with interests. His own artwork crowds every bit of floor space in the hall and up the stairs, while the walls not covered by bookshelves are crammed with architectural studies of Corinthian capitals, sections through the brain and a fashionable oil painting of his mother done in 1933, the year before her son was born, when she had already written two novels.
He bounds up and down stairs, correcting my pronunciation, fetching books to show me, and pointing out an exquisite red chalk sketch and a bronze bust – both by his father, also a doctor – of two World War I soldiers traumatised by shellshock whom Miller senior treated before becoming a psychiatrist.

But when Sir Jonathan remarks: “I have plenty of time for art now,” his mood changes.

He appears downbeat and genuinely baffled, not to mention hurt, that despite the roaring success of his Giorgio Armani-clad 1995 production of Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte at the Royal Opera House, they haven’t rung him to come back and do anything else until now. He is scheduled to direct Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at Covent Garden towards the end of next year. And although he is off to New York this winter to direct Christopher Plummer as King Lear, the man who directed Sir Laurence Olivier in a landmark Merchant of Venice hasn’t been asked for years to take charge of a play in Britain.

Perhaps this explains his affinity in his art for giving a new lease of life to what others have already thrown away.

He says: “I’m too old and I’ve got too much of a track record to tout for work. I don’t go to opening nights or network, so the youngsters get in.”
He speaks with real distaste of the “hideously morbid” culture of celebrity. “I hate it. I’ve never appeared in Hello! And I don’t think of myself as a ‘celebrity’,” he says.

I ask if his well-publicised row at the New York Metropolitan Opera House five years ago may have contributed to his directorial skills falling out of favour.

He admits: “If I think something’s wrong or unjust, I don’t button my lip, and if I cease to work because I don’t keep my opinions to myself, I don’t give a damn.”

He continues, disapprovingly, of spoilt young opera stars – “People who rise too rapidly from the depths get nitrogen bubbles in the soul” – and freely confesses he has refused to work with Luciano Pavarotti because dramatic integrity is paramount, and he sees the legendary tenor as “a vast, overwrought voice on top of a tub of lard”.

Yet, he insists: “People might think I’m too quarrelsome to handle, but I’m not. Talk to anyone who’s ever worked with me. I’m not a diva and I never shout.”

But, even if he doesn’t promote himself, surely he goes to see plays anyway? “No, I never go. I like doing theatre not watching it. I’m much more interested in other things, which I bring into the theatre through my directing,” he says.

He seems to save true passion for medicine, describing the teenage Jonathan Miller as “a swot in the dissecting room, reeking of rancid human fat”.

He then explains how his doctoring informed his direction of the death scene in Verdi’s La Traviata, when he confined the consumptive heroine to bed, instead of “letting the silly bitch do a lap of honour”. It also influenced his art through endless observation of biological patterns such as a set of dividing cells on a fertilised egg.

I wonder if he regrets giving up a career as a neurologist after Beyond the Fringe, which catapulted him to unexpected fame in 1961 alongside Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, a Gloucester Crescent neighbour who still comes in for coffee two or three times-a-week.
“I regret very much every day that I didn’t pursue a medical career,” he says. “In science, you can be proved right, but when upwardly condescending critics like Michael Billington tell me it’s a bad production, I say: ‘That’s what you think’.”

But, after his many careers, he admits that sticking to one thing may be just a fantasy: “Perhaps I’m not cut out for long commitments,” he muses.

Of his knighthood, he says: “I was pleased enough to accept it. I’ve worked very hard for 40 years and had lots of brickbats thrown at me. And very few directors get it, so it’s nice for my profession to be honoured.”

Then he adds: “But a knighthood seems vulgar. I never use it to get upgraded on a plane. And I never let anyone put it in a programme.”
His talk flows on. About the Palestine question: actress Maureen Lipman thinks he’s a traitor not to feel more Jewish. But he describes Judaism, like Christianity, as an idiotic religion. “I hate Israel for behaving very, very badly. They think the land is theirs by divine right, but everything must be by negotiation,” he says. “As soon as you think you’ve got God on your side, you’re lethal.”

About the ‘traditional, shabby charm’ of Camden Town: “It’s become violent, dirty and dangerous. Camden Council has been seduced by the idea of Camden Lock, where the majority of shops are owned by gangsters, there’s a huge amount of drug dealing and all destructive Attila the Tourist does is look.”

Sir Jonathan believes that if the Town Hall put just half the money it sank into signs and smart black bins for Inverness Street Market towards basics like street cleaning and whitewashing a few rooms to make a teenagers’ club it would start to address a few real problems.
So, what is he really interested in right now? He waves a weary arm at floor to ceiling bookshelves. “All of that.”

n Jonathan Miller is at the Boundary Gallery, Boundary Road, South Hampstead, from September 26 to November 1. 020 7624 1126.