Regent Centre, Christchurch - 18th August, 2014
Sir Jonathan Miller is a man of many parts. Doctor, scientist, satirist, writer, sculptor and director of theatre, opera and film. An intellectual giant with a reputation for burning on a short fuse and blasting opponents with a stellar selection of withering put-downs.
For a moment I wondered if we might get short-changed on the petulance front when he wandered on stage at the Regent Centre all smiles and wearing a comfy jumper.
I needn’t have worried. He may have plonked himself into a big old armchair and looked for all then world as though he was about to start dishing out the Werther Originals but, at 80-years of age, Dr Miller is still firing on all cylinders.
His good humour was a bonus as he ran through a potted history of his extraordinary life as the only leading neuropathologist in the world who just happened to have changed the course of comedy history with a groundbreaking 60s satirical revue.
That show, Beyond The Fringe, made him a star alongside Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. It should have involved just a short break from medicine. Unfortunately, says Miller, it was so “disastrously successful” that it ran for years in Edinburgh, London and New York.
He is perhaps only half joking when he says that by the time Beyond The Fringe ended he lacked the moral fibre to turn down the tantalising opportunity to direct plays and operas. For though he clearly loves the theatre he admits to feeling a tinge of regret that he didn’t devote more time to medicine.
He’s long made up for it though and in an evening covering a wide-range of his interests, he spoke passionately about the parallels he has found between being a diagnostic medical practitioner and a theatrical director. Both, he says, are about attention to detail, understanding the way people work and how and why they react to certain things in certain ways.
The evening was a very pleasant combination of discussion, lecture, seminar and masterclass. Miller kept the showbiz elements brief, though he did tell a couple of jokes to demonstrate the use of language, lobbed in an anecdote about Larry Olivier and did a pretty fair job of backing up his theory that there is no authentic way of playing Shakespeare.
Otherwise he spoke of the wonders of brain-function, perceptions of eyesight, the natural linguistic skills of children and the structure of the nervous system. The Q&A at the end of the evening was almost totally devoted to matters medical and scientific, veering from the ethics of assisted suicide for patients in a persistent vegetative state to the remarkable but illogical patterns of movement and ability found in some Parkinson’s cases.
It may all sound rather intense for an evening at the theatre but Jonathan Miller is a compelling speaker and demonstrated his exceptional ability to communicate the most complex of subjects in an understandable and entertaining way.
I left the theatre feeling as though my education had been given a specialist top-up, that I really should have been able to pick up an honorary B.Sc at the ice cream kiosk on the way out.