Sir Jonathan Wolfe Miller CBE (born 21 July 1934) is a British theatre and opera director, author, physician, television presenter, humorist and sculptor. Trained as a physician in the late 1950s, he first came to prominence in the 1960s with his role in the comedy review Beyond the Fringe with fellow writers and performers Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Despite having seen few operas and not knowing how to read music, he began stage-directing them in the 1970s and has since become one of the world’s leading opera directors with several classic productions to his credit. His best-known production is probably his 1982 “Mafia”-styled Rigoletto set in 1950s Little Italy, Manhattan. He has also become a well-known television personality and familiar public intellectual in Britain and the United States of America.
Miller grew up in St John’s Wood, London, in a well-connected Jewish family. His father Emanuel, (1892–1970), who suffered from severe Rheumatoid arthritis, was a paediatric psychiatrist in Harley House. His mother Betty Miller (née Spiro- a famous Jewish family; 1910–1965) was a novelist and biographer. Miller’s sister Sarah (died 2006) worked in television for many years and retained an involvement with Judaism that he, an atheist, has always eschewed.
Miller married Helen Rachel Collet in 1956. They have two sons and a daughter.
Miller studied natural sciences and medicine at St John’s College, Cambridge (MB BCh, 1959), where he was a member of the Cambridge Apostles, before going on to University College London. (Secondary School not listed).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 TV 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 the Central Middlesex Hospital as HP for Gastroenterologist Dr.(later Sir) Frances Avery Jones.
1960s: Beyond the Fringe
In 1960, he helped to write and produce a musical revue, Beyond the Fringe, at the Edinburgh Festival. 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 to Broadway in 1962 and took over as editor and presenter of the BBC’s flagship arts programme Monitor in 1965. All these appointments were unsolicited invitations, the Monitor appointment arose because Miller had approached Huw Wheldon about taking up a place on the BBC’s director training course, in which Miller was assured that he would “pick it up as he went along”. In 1966, he wrote, produced, and directed a film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for the BBC. In 1968 he directed Whistle and I’ll Come to You starring Michael Hordern, a television adaptation of M. R. James’s ghost story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. By 1970, his reputation in British theatre was such that he mounted a West End production of The Merchant of Venice starring Laurence Olivier.
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. Despite only having seen a few operas and not knowing how to read music, Miller has become one of the world’s leading opera directors with classic productions being Rigoletto and the operetta The Mikado.
Miller drew upon his own experiences as a physician as writer and presenter of the BBC television series The Body in Question (1978), 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.
1980s: Shakespeare and neuropsychology
Miller was persuaded to join the troubled BBC Television Shakespeare project (1978–85) in 1980. 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 States of Mind in 1983. In 1984, he studied neuropsychology with Dr. Sandra Witelson at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada before becoming a neuropsychology research fellow at Sussex University 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 and complexities surrounding language production. 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.
2000s: Atheism and return to directing
In 2004, Miller wrote and presented a TV 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 was slated to air on Public Television in the United States, starting 4 May 2007, cosponsored by the American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, the HKH Foundation, and the Institute for Humanist Studies.
In 2007, Miller directed The Cherry Orchard at The Crucible, Sheffield, his first work on the British stage for ten 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 has 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 twelve 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.
Miller lives in Camden, North London.
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.
In April/May 2011, Miller directed Verdi’s La Traviata in Vancouver, Canada
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