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Jonathan Miller, Renaissance Man

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Click here to see a live performance of  “Song for Jonathan Miller” by the group You Aren’t My Mother, at Goodbye Blue Monday on August 12, 2007.

“Being a doctor has taught me a lot about directing. You’re doing the same thing: You’re reconstructing the manifold of behavior to the point where an audience says, yes, that’s exactly like people I know.” — Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller is England’s true Renaissance Man of the arts; a filmmaker — his version of Alice in Wonderland for the BBC is still far and away the best translation of Lewis Carroll’s work to the screen, in my view — an opera and play director, an essayist, a documentarist, as well as a full-fledged MD, Miller is one of the towering figures of the 20th century thought in the UK, and I’m happy to have known him since 1968.

Miller first came to international prominence as an original member of the satirical review Beyond The Fringe (along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett — click here for a clip from their groundbreaking Broadway show) but has moved well beyond those beginnings, though it should be noted that, building on the legendary Goon Show, BTF arguably served as the template for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

As I noted in an interview with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster in 2003, “[I] went to England in the summer of ’68, and lived at Jonathan Miller’s house; I had met him at Rutgers when he came there to do a lecture and screen his superb 35mm film of Alice in Wonderland (1967). We got into a discussion, and he told me to come and see him when I came to London; and when I arrived, he was as good as his word. I crashed on the couch in the living room for a month or so, soaking up everything I could. London was exploding with films at that point, particularly in the New Arts Lab in Drury Lane, which had three theatres running simultaneously; Jonathan turned me on to that, for which I’ll always be grateful.”

We have kept in sporadic touch over the years, and about ten years ago, I interviewed him — sadly, the text is not available on the web — for the piece “When I’m 63: An Interview with Jonathan Miller” in Popular Culture Review 10.1 (February 1999). He remains active to the present day, creating an astounding series of theatrical, television, and even graphic works — and an inspiration to younger artists, though perhaps he doesn’t know the extent of his influence, since he’s very modest about his accomplishments.

I wish there were twenty more like him working now, but that’s impossible; Jonathan is one of a kind. Long may he continue to create and flourish.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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