Jonathan Miller is a British cultural icon, his speciality is in traversing borders-between the arts and sciences, between high culture and mass culture, between the UK, the US and continental Europe. It is often said that he is despised or ignored in his own country. As an archetypal, almost caricature intellectual, he has attracted his share of sneers. The specialists whose disciplines he invades like to point out that Miller the generalist cannot read a musical score, perform brain surgery, and so on. What he can do is talk, better than almost anyone in the UK. For all his operatic and dramatic successes, it is for his talk that most of us will remember him. When he poured his enthusiasm into the camera in BBC television series such as The Body in Question, he represented a modernised Reithian concept of enlightening television. His caustic comments here to Mark Irving about current television culture and his difficulty in selling programme ideas are thus depressing to read. The familiar long-limbed figure, now in his 60s and a grandfather, remains witheringly dismissive about many things: the enthusiam for the new multimedia and the glibness of New Labour come in for special treatment. He can be extraordinarily unrealistic, too-witness his accusation that for all its new interest in science, television never broadcasts the “wonderful abstract beauty of the notion of the genetic code.” But Miller does seem to be making his peace with the UK. He favourably contrasts British common-sense with intellectual modishness across the Channel and reaches the bold conclusion that the French have not produced a decent philosopher since Descartes. Above all he seems to be working regularly again in London, where he was born in 1934 and lives now with his wife, a GP. He is directing Handel’s Rodelinda at Blackheath Concert Halls in February, Verdi’s La Traviata at the English National Opera in September and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Almeida Theatre in Islington in December.
Q You are often described as the “Renaissance man” of British culture. Why does it irritate you so much?
A I find this notion so vulgar, so cheaply journalistic. It sets my teeth on edge for all sorts of reasons. For one thing it shows ignorance of what the Renaissance was. But what it really means is “Jack of all trades and master of none.” It seems self-evident to me that if you…