Mark Irving talks to Jonathan Millerby Mark Irving / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 are human and awake for 12 hours a day, you cannot fail to see the connection between the way things are, the physical arrangement of matter, consciousness, mind and human imagination. How could one fail to see that there was something interesting in the different ways in which the Virgin moves her hands in Renaissance pictures of the Annunciation, and the movements of the hand in conversation, as an expression of the way in which the brain puts muscles and mind together? It is only university faculties and school curricula which ask: are you an arts man or a science man? I see the world as being interestingly connected. When people say “Aren’t you spreading yourself too thin?” I can’t see how I could possibly spread myself in any other way. I just wish I was a better mathematician, that’s all. Q All right, how about the description of you as a “flamboyant intellectual performer making wild connections”? A In England it sounds rather boastful to claim that one is flamboyant. Similarly, describing oneself as an intellectual is not seen as a neutral statement: it is regarded as making a claim for oneself on some sort of scale. This is an interesting aspect of the English temperament: claiming to be an intellectual sounds as if you are saying that you are cleverer than other people. Whereas in Europe, if someone identifies himself as a member of the intelligentsia, he is simply saying this is the social group I belong to, a group which takes pleasure in ideas; for whom careful, accurate and imaginative thought is part of the main activity of their lives. It is what you do, not some quality you have. Q It is true, isn’t it, that to operate as an intellectual in television, you’ve also got to be a performer. A You become a performer by default, not because you are interested in performing but because that’s the way you make your money. I do try, when speaking in public or on television, to maintain the level of discussion which I hope would meet with the approval of a phantom tribunal consisting of the most critical peers that I could imagine. Q Who are they? A Academics of whom I am fearful. People in the field who are what I would call the contenders. I hope that what I do on television does not grate on the ears of those whose opinion I value. But at the same time I hope that I communicate these ideas to people who are not familiar with them. It is quite hard to reconcile these two rather different demands. Q What makes good television? A It is hard to say. When I get fired up by an exciting idea I constantly come up against my producers, who shake their heads sadly and say “the punters won’t go for that, dear.” I think that in many cases television producers underestimate the capacity of an audience to absorb abstract ideas. In these days of mass commercial competition in television, there is a great pressure to satisfy an audience that is much larger than it perhaps ought to be for such ideas. In the heyday of BBC radio’s Third Programme, appealing to a large audience was not a part of the brief, or “the remit,” as we now so horribly say. Q Do you think “narrowcasting” with programmes designed for specific audiences represents an ideal future for television? A No, I think it is a disaster. The automatic knee-jerk disparagement of what is still called “elitist broadcasting” fails to understand the extent to which there is a trickle de haut en bas. It offered to a large number of people, to the Jude the Obscures, the possibility of being self-taught. One of the great advantages of the paternalistic broadcasting of the Reith kind-the Bronowski programmes, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, the early Monitor programmes, the Third Programme in the late 1940s and early 1950s-is that they were not targetted towards an audience whose tastes were identified in advance. They were broadcast to the nation at large and were picked up, catch-as-catch-can. What has been underestimated is the extent to which this kind of broadcasting caught people who, if addressed specifically on the subject, would never have thought of themselves as listening to such things. “Narrowcasting” rules them out. Q Do you despair about how television is now run? A Yes, I do. I feel very pessimistic about its managerial, bureaucratic lingo. This awful talk it has: “remit” is just the tip of a vast linguistic iceberg of terrible managerial jargon, “throughputs,” and so on. You find it in the health service and in broadcasting. The old Grub Street gent hacks who used broadcasting as a sort of niche in which to make a living, while in fact pursuing their own interests, have disappeared. Q But is British television still the best in the world? A It probably is, largely because it is so abysmal elsewhere. No one who can find the way off a bus without advice watches American television. In Italy, no one who reads without moving his lips watches television. But there are still many programmes which you would be foolish to miss in the UK. It is the remnants of that much disparaged elitist tradition that continues to make British television as good as it is. Q What about the opportunities for interpretation and explanation offered by multimedia? Will its interactive potential hasten the age of information democracy? A I don’t think it is much better than the direct face-to-face “classical television” of talking heads and visited places. These multimedia CD-ROM things are curiously distant. They have a peculiar sort of interactivity which has a lower level of imaginative engagement than the interactivity of simply having a relationship with someone talking comfortably to you. When a new technology comes in, we always overestimate the extent of its cognitive power. Obviously there are all sorts of ways in which computers can be used to play around with things, but people get so fascinated with keyboards and VDUs that they find themselves in a nerd’s paradise which does not genuinely engage the intelligence. It may be that, as with so many aspects of democracy, it is democratic in that it is accessible to a large number of people, but that what is made accessible is of little worth. Multimedia underestimates the power of the individual teacher. Almost everyone who has been switched on to the world of ideas and imagination has invariably been introduced to the life of the mind by a great imaginative teacher who needn’t necessarily be very learned, but whose enthusiasm and determination to engage his or her pupils produces converts. Being tuned on to the life of the mind is a sort of religious conversion. It is hard for people to become devoted merely to a democratic machine. There is nothing better than another person as a teacher. We underestimate and criminally underpay them. Q You have described yourself as an “intellectual courier.” What have you discovered on your trips, and has it sharpened your appreciation of the perspective held by the British? A Yes, it has. I have just come back from five weeks in France. Staying in Paris made me realise again that as part of our suspicion of the intellectual, we preserve a certain wonderful commonsense bullshit-detection-which is a reproof to the French. They have an almost absurd admiration for intellectuals who are susceptible to the most ridiculous forms of intellectual modishness-who are concerned with style over content and with all sorts of fraudulent philosophy. I am thinking of a large range of intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, whom I think is very overrated. So many of these figures-such as Jacques Derrida-are just catwalk artists. Q But there has been a vigorous debate about the French intellectual climate during the last 20-30 years which has had no match in Britain. A Yes, that is commendable in a way. But when you actually get into it and see what counts as an intellectual debate in France, you realise our rather glum suspicion of smart-arses makes us interestingly immune to the wilder reaches of modish, jus d’orange-type, philosophical idiocy. There is something from the 18th century called the “common sense school of philosophy” of which the French haven’t heard-and of which they would have done well to take heed. I would like to stick my neck out and say there has not been a serious French philosopher since Descartes. I don’t rate Sartre very highly, for example. But I do think there are very important French mathematicians, physicists, and extremely interesting philosophically-minded French biologists such as Jacques Monod, anthropologists and linguists such as Dan Sperber, who don’t get talked about in the pages of Le Figaro. These are really clever folks, who are completely at ease with their Anglo-American counterparts: they are not thought of as idiotic pseuds. They aren’t seen much on the intellectual catwalks. Q In the UK, we may not have the self-consciously intellectual tradition of France but we have a literary and newspaper tradition which remains lively. A But such a large part of literary and intellectual journalism in the UK focuses on the world of literary London rather than thoughtful London-or England. You would be very hard put, if you looked in the pages of English cultural journals or Sunday literary papers, to see anything which registered the great changes that have taken place in philosophy or science. Their pages are filled with reviews of novels, 19th century literary biographies, or Bloomsbury. There is practically nothing about the sciences: the idea that science journalism might be part of the intellectual life of the mind is not acknowledged. Q But there has been a stream of popular science writing over the past few years which has achieved remarkable commercial success and literary acclaim. John Carey has just produced an anthology of fine science writing for Faber. A True, but science writing has to win its place in the popular imagination through the fact that it is literary. It turns out that scientists were better writers than we thought. But all the same, the reason why Darwin deserves our interest is because of the massive and monumental quality of his abstract ideas, not for his prose. It is not for William Harvey’s translation from Latin into English that we cherish his prose; rather it is for the absolutely astonishing, abstract originality of his ability to see the quantitive relationships between cardiac output and the requirements of blood circulation. High quality science has to be explained clearly in whatever language it happens to be expressed. These occasional anthologies don’t celebrate the quality of the abstract thought, but the fact that it is communicated in surprisingly fine English. “Popular science,” with its mind-boggling enlargements of “Man’s grasp of Nature” has taken over in a way which underestimates the beauty of thought. If popular science gets on to the box, into the paper, it is because of break-throughs. We are now going around Jupiter: imagine Galileo’s surprise! We are now within a breath of conquering cancer! We understand the genetic code! What is never broadcast is the wonderful abstract beauty of the notion of the genetic code. The control it gives us over genetic engineering is undoubtedly interesting and has important and perhaps frightening consequences, but what is more interesting-and is never taken account of-is the extraordinary paradigm shift that took place when we substituted a pictorial view of the notion of inheritance for an entirely informational one. We went from the idea that what determined the embryo and its shape was a pre-existing miniature picture which blew up and enlarged, to the fact that what is in the sperm looks nothing like the person that it is going to make. That it is simply a string of codes, with no picture in it at all, is a catastrophically mind-changing notion. The thing that makes your heart beat faster, if you are really an intellectual in the true sense, is a deep commitment to abstract notions and changes in the whole logical structure of thought. I wish that journalists could grasp that, but they always talk about breakthroughs. Q You stand at a meeting point of the arts and sciences but you are most interested in what is happening in psychology. A There is a great complex of notions which are expanding at dizzying rates in the areas of evolutionary theory, molecular biology and genetics, and in the overlap of these with neurology, brain sciences, philosophy and mathematics. I try to keep in touch. If I have a spare three months I try to spend a term at a university. I may get in through a chair in the humanities, but I spend as much time as possible in the psychology department. It is one of the privileges of a certain sort of fame. I may not be a contender but at least they know I am a well informed commentator. I think they quite like me being there. Q Do you wish you had spent more time in medicine? What do you feel about what is happening to the NHS? A I never wanted to be a practitioner. I went into medicine in order to get as close as I could to the brain. I wasn’t cut out to be a laboratory neuro-physiologist. I was interested in observational neuro-psychology. As for the NHS, I deeply deplore-not as a doctor, but simply as a member of the community-the dismantling of what was a fine initiative for social welfare and justice. Q As someone interested in the workings of the mind, have you found much evidence for the connection between madness and creativity? A I don’t think they have got anything to do with one another. There is a romantic notion which we have inherited from the 19th century that genius and madness are closely related and that madness is some sort of liberation closely akin to creativity, whereas I think it is invariably an obstruction of creativity. There are certain artists unfortunate enough to have been threatened by lunacy, and it hasn’t done anything but upset their lives. The best form of life is to be sane. If you are energetic, imaginative and your life is reasonably whole and you happen to be talented, you are well placed to make interesting, even important, art. I don’t think the people who we cherish as great artists have ever been characterised as distinctively mad or even interestingly neurotic. Rembrandt wasn’t mad, nor was Bellini or Proust. Van Gogh happened to be a fine artist who also went mad: but it is not traceable in his pictures, whatever Hollywood says. Q You have said that you became a director of plays and operas rather by accident, but haven’t you had to plan your career in order to realise your ambitions? A If you are ambitious, it is best to have an agenda. In the one area in which I was ambitious, I failed: I did not become the thing I wanted to be, which was a successful, productive neuro-psychologist. In the area in which I didn’t give a damn, I drifted from one thing to another without intending to do any of them. It has not been accidental altogether, obviously. I have put myself on the market now as an opera producer. But I don’t network or compete: I am fortunate enough for people to come to me and ask me to do these things which are enough to make a living. But I wish I wasn’t doing it. A career has got itself retrospectively piled up out of things that came my way. Q What would you say distinguishes your manner of working in the opera and theatre? A I don’t really know. If I am doing, for example, La Bohème, I like to eliminate certain things which I think of as kitsch, foolish, clichéd, vulgar, sentimental tosh, so I can scrape off all that shit and get back to what I think is interesting and valuable. If there is anything distinctive about my work, it is that I think I am a rather skilful picture cleaner. I take old varnish off and find something clean, simple and vigorous underneath. It is interesting that the radical re-interpretation of a work is always thought of as being the philistine and dangerous one. No one ever thinks of the damage which is done to a work by allowing it to accumulate the varnish of cliché. People always talk about the evenings that you wreck for an audience by introducing some smart-arsed modern notion. But the imperceptible wreckage which is inflicted upon a work by allowing it to continue in the way that it has always been done is never taken into account. As a re-interpreter, your task is made twice as difficult today: whereas 25 years ago you were fighting against the idiocies of traditional theatrical interpretation, now you are fighting against a rather weakened traditionalism and an enormously vigorous, but equally cliché-ridden, modernism. Q You once said that pain inflicted by someone who takes pleasure in inflicting it is much more to be feared than pain arising from something inanimate. Surely someone who started his performing career in a satirical show such as Beyond the Fringe has no fear of critics? A There are critics for whom part of the pleasure of writing in that way is the knowledge that it causes considerable pain to the person at whom it is directed. There are, I believe, some genuine, frivolous sadists among the critics. I am not thin-skinned: I live in a family which is extremely satirical about me, and I have self-parody forced upon me by an energetically mocking wife and children. Q Do you think the argument that the British are not a visually literate society is correct? A We have not made a major contribution to the visual arts. When you think of what the French and Italians have done, we have no equivalent. Constable is a first class provincial painter, but not much more. We have Francis Bacon and, I suppose, Turner. As the revolutionary upheavals in Europe occurred at the start of the 20th century, the table silver shook slightly in England, just as it did on the morning of the Somme offensive. In response to the great movements of Surrealism, we got stockbroker Dada. Q What about our artisitic “centres of excellence.” A It is absolute balderdash. We don’t get “centres of excellence.” This is one of these pieces of bureaucratic jargon which I would have expected John Birt to come up with. Instead, it came from Peter Hall, and what we get is a large National Theatre which makes no real contribution towards the art of theatre. There was an unsavoury collusion between British socialism and business in the 1960s, and it produced this idea of great performing art centres, rather than just theatres. Q Do you think the artistic and intellectual climate of Britain will be improved under a Labour government? What do you feel about Tony Blair? A It can’t be worse than it is now. But I think it could probably continue in much the same form, just slightly pinkened. It is not that I long for a more radical form of socialism: I am not quite certain what a fair and just society in the late 20th century would look like. But it can’t go on being like it is now. I have very few warm feelings about Tony Blair: I look at and listen to this man and don’t feel encouraged. It’s all rather dauntingly convincing in its glib, Pepsident way: there is a sort of orthodontic gleam to the man. But I hate the present government and I am glumly reconciled to the fact that this man will take over. I became depressed about Labour when that corporate rose logo appeared on the podium. It looks as if it was done by the same advertising agency as the one which did the Prudential ad. As soon as I saw it, I thought there was something wrong with those of us who thought ourselves socialists if we have lent ourselves to that sort of representation. It is exactly what I deplore about television-in order to compete with commerce, it has got to become indistinguishable from commerce. Labour ought to have retained a certain hand-crafted simplicity-not of an old-fashioned, Clause Four-type union rhetoric, but rather a plain speaking, sober abstention from this commercial bullshit. Q Would you like to have a voice in politics. Does becoming a Labour peer attract you? A It’s inconceivable. For one thing I don’t think there should be such a thing as the House of Lords. But politically I don’t think I have got enough to say. I am so confused about how things ought to be at this stage in the late 20th century. I would find it hard to attach myself to a programme without seeing the disadvantages of it. I know that this government is a squalid lot and the sooner we are shot of them the better. I just wish I could be more optimistic about their successors. They don’t inspire me, they don’t make me feel as I think my father felt in 1945.