Beyond the whinge – a message to Sir Jonathan Miller

Now and then, about once a year, the stage of public life darkens as a leading player makes his entrance. Sir Jonathan Miller is about to make a pronouncement about the cultural state of the nation. The news is rarely good. This week he revealed that, in spite of being a director, he had not seen a West End production for 10 years, and then, for good measure, took a swipe at the Edinburgh Fringe and at the attitudes of theatregoers. Previously he has complained about the celebrity-obsession of producers, about our “mean and peevish little country”, about opera audiences and the “Jurassic Park singers” they like to see, about reviewers.

The indicator of these various declines and disappointments tends to be the same: the career of Sir Jonathan Miller. For some time, he has been bemoaning the fact that the calls to direct never come. “I do get pushed down, pushed down particularly in these years when I get asked less and less to do things,” he said in an Independent interview last year. “I find that inconsistent with my own estimation.”

Miller’s most ardent admirer, in fact, would struggle to match his own estimation. By allowing himself to be diverted from neuroscience, he had wasted “a brilliant mind”, he told Desert Island Discs. Some of the non-medical work he has subsequently done has been “as deep as you can get”. Even a gently amusing Channel Five documentary about his scrap-yard sculptures had moments of casual boastfulness.

There are reasons for his professional setbacks, according to the Miller version. Private Eye has had a vendetta against him. There is an in-built national snobbery towards anyone who is talented in different areas. His critics, journalists in particular, have failed to work on the same level of thought as he is.

Because Sir Jonathan has brought originality and often brilliance to his work, these views have generally been taken seriously. Perhaps, though, the moment has come to look at the life and opinions of Sir Jonathan Miller in a different way: as a terrible warning, a grim model of the unhappiness that can happen when a person of supreme gifts – a forensic intelligence, a wild imagination, wit and presence – becomes inward-looking, defensive and self-pitying. The truly creative are rarely content – someone once said that the best writing is done in a mood of low-grade depression – but there is nothing low-grade about Sir Jonathan’s gloom, at least as expressed in his public persona.

Past achievements, notably the superbly funny sketches of the Beyond the Fringe period, are either dismissed with distaste or are held up as towering achievements that have been misunderstood or under-estimated by lesser beings.

There is something odd and melancholy about all this. Sir Jonathan’s achievements over the past 50 years are real and enduring. His jeremiads against British society and culture have been invigorating and necessary. In the past, one could always depend on him to come up with an awkward, unpredictable insight whenever he was interviewed. For years, I accepted his beleaguered view of critics. The British, after all, have an age-old distrust of flashy intellect.

I changed my mind when I had a telephone conversation with Sir Jonathan while writing a biography of Willie Donaldson, who, in his days as a producer, had brought Beyond the Fringe from the Edinburgh Festival to London. Willie, although he had not seen Jonathan Miller for years, revered his seriousness: compared to someone like himself (or Peter Cook), Miller was a grown-up.

The respect, I quickly discovered, was not reciprocated. Four and a half decades on, the mere mention of Willie’s name produced something of an eruption from Sir Jonathan. Donaldson had represented the worst of the 1960s. He had cheated them of money (a story told by Willie with wild and typically self-lacerating exaggeration). Sir Jonathan sneered at Willie’s writings, none of which he had read.

At the time, I felt that the bollocking I had received on behalf of the shade of Willie Donaldson was a touch unfair. Willie had recently died alone and in penury; his ferocious critic was a knight of the realm and was soon to be the subject of a biography written by Kate Bassett (scheduled for publication in 2007 but still, mysteriously, unpublished).

Now I wonder whether they represented two sides of the same coin. One had the lowest opinion of himself, the other the highest. One worked hard to be excluded from the good opinion of the Establishment; the other longed to be embraced by it. Sir Jonathan, comparing himself to others in the Cambridge group of intellectuals who called themselves “the Apostles”, feared that, by working in the theatre, he would be seen as a “vulgar drop-out”; the phrase is one which Willie would gleefully have bestowed upon himself.

The restless discontent of a man of achievement should not be wasted. What can be learnt from this life by a Jonathan Miller of the future, perhaps even now making people laugh at the Edinburgh Fringe while wondering whether he should be doing something more serious?

Do not be hung up on the past. Your greatest triumph, your most shattering disappointment, matters less than what is in the present and the future. The truth is that your contemporaries – for example, the great and good men of the Apostles – may be more solemn and respectable than you are but they are not necessarily leading more worthwhile lives.

Enjoy your successes. Take at least a little pleasure in what you have done or are still doing. No one engaged in creative work feels as appreciated as he should be, but who, in the end, really cares? It is the work that matters. Whingeing about the way it was received makes you, not your critics, seem small and silly.

There are other little lessons. It can get lonely up on Mount Olympus; dismissing others (even journalists) as being intellectually inferior and therefore a waste of time is simply stupid. Not all critics are morons; even the vulgar can be interesting. To be dissatisfied with a life so rich in experience and success is a sort of self-betrayal. By showing a touch of generosity to the outside world, particularly as your grow older, you might just possibly make your world a warmer, more enjoyable place.

Independent, Friday, 6 August 2010