Tributes to Sir Jonathan Miller, director, writer, broadcaster… polymath
Neighbours David Gentleman and AN Wilson celebrate warmth of old friend
28 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Sir Jonathan Miller died yesterday (Wednesday)
SIR Jonathan Miller, who yesterday (Wednesday) died aged 85, could be found striding through the back streets of Camden Town armed with a quip and a tip – the doctor, director, writer and broadcaster’s constant curiosity meant when the New Journal should be covering what he believed was a hot topic, he would come to the newspaper’s offices.
However, he would also gruffly insist reporters did not describe him as a “polymath” – but with so many different pursuits to his name, journalists invariable did.
Sir Jonathan, who studied medicine and neurology, had been a key member of Cambridge University’s Footlights drama society, was part of the Beyond The Fringe comedy team with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, directed theatre and opera, penned books, made TV programmes, painted and created sculptures.
When his son William wrote a memoir about life in Gloucester Crescent, where Sir Jonathan lived for more than 50 years, he told the New Journal his family had settled there because of its proximity to two hospitals.
“My parents came to the Crescent in 1961 for the simple reason that they had just made some money from Beyond the Fringe and Dad thought he was going back to practising medicine at UCH,” he said. “My mother was doing her residency at the Royal Free, and this was an affordable street that was equidistant between the two hospitals.”
Author AN Wilson became friends with the Millers when he moved in to a house whose gardens backed on to theirs.
He said: “We could wave over the garden wall. If you stopped for a conversation with most people in the street they would complain about the weather or dog mess, but every time Jonathan stopped to speak, you would get the most wonderful tutorial on, for example, neuroscience or the philosophy of Wittgenstein. He would go sailing straight into it and it was always fascinating. I remember saying to someone when I was late for lunch it was because of meeting him and when he started talking he always had to finish. They said they would pay to be stopped by him for a chat.”
Mr Wilson also recalled Sir Jonathan’s personal warmth. He added: “Looking at his older face, you saw a very clever schoolboy looking back at you. He had such boyish charm.”
Illustrator David Gentleman, who has lived in the Crescent for more than 50 years, said: “I will remember Jonathan sitting on the steps at his front door and engaging people in conversation as they passed by. He made me think afresh about any subject. He had a wider range of interests than anyone I know – from painting and sculpture to satire and socialism.”
Sir Jonathan was born in St John’s Wood in 1934. His father was a doctor and his mother an author. He studied natural sciences and medicine at Cambridge, and then worked for a time at Middlesex Hospital before embarking on a career that spanned a multitude of disciplines.
He was awarded a CBE in 1983 and knighted in 2002.
Sir Jonathan featured in the New Journal when thieves stole metal sculptures from his front garden – he stated modestly it was for their scrap value, rather than any eye for artistic efforts. When Camden Council spent thousands of pounds a decade ago sprucing up Inverness Street market, Sir Jonathan believed they had made a terrible mistake.
He called on the Town Hall instead to offer cheap pitches to grocers and limit the number of stalls aimed at tourists. He told the New Journal: “They seem to think by laying new paving it will suddenly become a piazza in a northern Italian Renaissance city. They have ignored the fact the weather here is rather different.
” Unconsciously, Sir Jonathan could even be credited with Gloucester Crescent’s fame. It was Sir Jonathan and his wife Rachel who tipped playwright Alan Bennett off that a house was for sale near his.
Alan bought the property – and then wrote his best selling memoir, The Lady In The Van, about a woman called Miss Shepherd who lived in his front garden.