Sir Jonathan Miller – University Culture Lecture

“Errors of taste are very often the outward sign of a deep fault of sensibility.” — Jonathan Miller
Review by Stuart Ian Burns (re-published from feeling listless blog)

I’ve always wondered what the polymath Jonathan Miller was doing before he joined Beyond The Fringe and introduced Peter Cook to Dudley Moore. Not enough that I’d read a biography of the man or even look for it online though because there isn’t a substitute for hearing about someone’s life from the person who’s lived it and I’ve always suspected that at some point I’d finally get to see Miller give one of his lectures and learn the truth live. This is exactly what happened tonight at Liverpool University as part of a series connected to our culture year. The title of the lecture was ‘Under The Influence’ and structured some quite complex science around a listing all of the different people who’d influenced him across his life at university and beyond.

It turns out that up until his friend John Barrett wondered into A&E one night to be treated by Miller and suggest that he might be interesting the Edinburgh Festival with a show for a few weeks, the director/writer was going to be a neurosurgeon. From an early age his father had fostered an interested in biology and he was intensely interested in how the brain worked and how we reacted to stimulus. The book which got him on the path was actually by the same Charles Scott Sherrington who gave his name to building we were all sitting in. As he explained, how brilliant is biological development that it would put all of the things which we need to react to oncoming trouble such as noses, ears, eyes and mouth at the front of our bodies?

What’s perhaps most fascinating is that in changing his career from science to performance, Miller was still able to apply pretty much everything he’d learned about the human brain to theatre direction, something he says he picked up as he went along. He talked about the influence of John Searle’s book Speech Acts in which the Professor of Philosophy explains that human communication revolves not only around what we say but what we actually mean when we say those things. In other words, when an estate agent walking about a property and saying ‘This room needs painting’ what they’re actually saying is ‘I want you to imagine what this room will look like when you’ve bought it and it has been painted’.

In theatre direction, what you’re doing is trying to bring the actors to a point in which they’re not simply saying the words but understanding and trying to communicate what the character is really thinking through those words. I suppose in film and television some of these things can be cheated through editing and music and lighting and mise en scene but in theatre with the audience watching every word and action, insincerity is magnified. This presumably becomes even harder with material such as Shakespeare which is way out of its contemporary setting and which isn’t being derived between the writers and performers.

In the Q&A afterwards, Miller (I’m paraphrasing) said that it was a curious quirk of the past hundred years that we’ve become obsessed with the writing of dead people, work that’s in its ‘after life’ at the expense of contemporary work, exactly what this material was back when it was originally written. He said that we shouldn’t be precious about contemporising material either, especially if it wasn’t specifically of its period when it was originally written (making the distinction with ‘updating’ work – rewriting Shakespeare in modern English perhaps). I asked him about working on the BBC Shakepeare productions during the early 80s (he seemed pleased that I remembered them) and said that he simply couldn’t be too experimental there because over half the money came from US investors who were expecting ‘traditional’ settings all doublets and hoes.


Miller (looking disconcertingly in real life like Animal Magic’s Johnny Morris) has presumably told his story a few times before but he managed to keep it fresh and there were plenty of anecdotes about his proto-career in science and how he ended up switching over to the other side. There were injections of poetry by Robert Frost and sections of the writings of Searle and Sherrington, the latter touchingly from the very volume that very volume his Dad had passed down to Miller after using it himself at university, both of their name inscriptions from 1913 and 1955 still visible inside. At the close, when asked if he had an infinite budget what his next project would be, he poignantly suggested that since he would be able to support his family that he would like to take up an unpaid position and complete the training and research which he’d left behind all those years ago.

The lecture is already available to watch online so you can hear his answer to my question in full.