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September 17, 2020

Sir Jonathan Miller CBE (1947-53)

Miller was born in St John’s Wood in 1934. His mother Betty (nee Spiro) had published her first novel at 23 and his father Emmanuel was an eminent paediatric psychiatrist.

He wrote of his schooldays, ‘I went to St Paul’s, initially as a classicist, but after two years I changed to biology. It was then I encountered a rather miraculous teacher called Sid Pask. He was a robust, fleshy fellow who looked like a gentleman farmer. He would stand behind his bench in the biology lab, which was my classroom, smoking a pipe and relighting it from a Bunsen burner. He just assumed that one was totally committed to biology.’ In Miller’s leavers’ report Pask wrote, ‘brilliant and versatile…His state and open scholarships at Cambridge speak adequately for his academic attainment… He has shown himself able to deliver a very good lecture.’ Mr Strawson was rather less enthusiastic, ‘a brilliant boy…He has little sense of judgment, and has never fitted well to the discipline of school life…I like him but I am glad he is leaving.’

In an interview in the 1982 edition of The Pauline, Miller described how he met his wife, Rachel Collet, in the Walker Library at St Paul’s: ‘My wife was at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. There was a play-reading society called the Milton Society, and once a year we had a joint play-reading with the Girls’ School: we met in the Walker Library round a great big table. That was where I met her, and we kept going all the way through. That doesn’t happen very often, and I’ve been married nearly twenty-three years.’

In the same interview, he also mentioned his experience of acting at St Paul’s: ‘I never acted in any plays. I acted in the Colet Club’s revue. The Colet Club was an East End charity which St. Paul’s had an interest in, and once a year there used to be this revue put on by Mr Harbord (Master 1928-67) who was in charge of High House. He also ran the school drama, and about three times in my career I appeared on the stage doing funny sketches. But I was always working too hard and enjoying it too much for drama to become a very important part of my life then.’

After a double first at Cambridge, Miller moved to University College, London qualifying as a doctor in 1959. It was in 1960 when a house surgeon at UCH that he was asked to take part in Beyond the Fringe with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The revue was a massive success and ran for 3 years. On returning from a tour in New York, Miller was offered a job as editor of the BBC arts programme Monitor. There followed a glittering artistic career. He became artistic director of the Old Vic, directed more than 50 operas (without being able to read music), as well as films and TV plays and wrote 15 books.

But he was often drawn back to medicine. From 1970-73 he was research fellow in the history of medicine at UCL and in 1984 studied neuropsychology at McMaster University in Canada. Miller was haunted by his mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease (he was later diagnosed with it) and so helped found the Alzheimer’s society becoming its president in 1984.

Miller was featured in this spring’s Atrium. On reading Last Word, Peter Kraushar (1947-53) was moved to write in, ‘I have never met anyone with more gifts or who had done more in his life: an extraordinary man.’

Sue Lawley hosted Miller on Desert Island Discs in 2005.

His record choices again are indicative of his breadth of interests. His luxury takes us back to Sid Pask’s classroom.

Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe

Eric Coates: Calling All Workers

Anton Karas: The Third Man Theme

Dinah Shore: Yes, My Darling Daughter

Comedian Harmonists: Wochenend und Sonnenschein (Happy Days are Here Again)

Ravi Shankar: Music over closing credits ALICE IN WONDERLAND – BBC ARCHIVE.

The Beach Boys: Surfin’ USA

Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations

Luxury – canvas roll containing dissection kit

Book The Invertebrates – Libbie Henrietta Hyman


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