The Last Of The Fringe


When  your heroes start dying off, it feels like notice is being served. Jonathan Miller’s death leaves just one of the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ group remaining; Alan Bennett. All four had multiple talents, but non more so than Miller. A comedian, TV presenter, theatre and opera director, writer, broadcaster, lecturer and art historian, he seemed able to turn his quick, erudite mind to anything.

He was a man who made connections. ‘When I’ve learnt all about one thing, I look around and find something else I want to learn about. I like what Bertrand Russell said once: ‘It’s so nice to know things.” The British, ever-suspicious of intelligence, were quick to denigrate his intellectuality. He might have become a leading neurologist but was diverted into showbiz by the success of the groundbreaking satirical revue, ‘Beyond the Fringe’. The satire seems so polite and unshocking now, but to audiences used to a proscenium arch and French windows it came as a slap and started a tsunami of books, TV, plays and satirical stand-up that questioned the status quo.

Miller directed a controversial version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ reimagined as a disturbing druggy trip. It was denounced in the House of Commons as a perversion unfit for children, and added to Miller’s reputation for being trendy and pretentious. His outspokenness made enemies. He described Britain under Margaret Thatcher as ‘an ugly, racist, rancorous little place… a mean, peevish little country… with its acid rain of criticism and condescension’ and called the Royal Opera House, which commissioned several of his productions, ‘a kind of wife kennel’ for rich men.

He came to regret staying with the revue in London and New York, and later returned to medicine. He was creatively and intellectually restless, and immensely admired America’s top level of intellectual rigour. It strikes me as odd that he became more famed for his adaptations than his original creations, and I wonder what he thought of the bear-pit of US and UK politics now. With his sometime ill-considered talent for épater les bourgeois he was nevertheless taken to heart by the public, and I see no replacement for him in British society.

8 comments on “The Last Of The Fringe”

  1. Eric Brown says:

    Yes, he was a hero of mine, too. I could listen to him speak for ever. His series a while ago about atheism was stunning.

  2. Roger says:

    “Miller directed a controversial version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ reimagined as a disturbing druggy trip.”
    Rather the child Alice trying to make sense of the Victorian world, which is stranger than any mere druggy trip. It was filmed in an abandoned military psychiatric hospital – the longest building in the world – which was appropriate.

  3. Andrew Holme says:

    ‘Goodbye’ sir, or is it ‘Au revoir?’
    No, Perkins.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    He will be sadly missed. He was appalled at the “mass hysteria” of Diana’s death, and once said Margaret Thatcher had a voice like a perfumed fart.

  5. John Howard says:

    Love the quote Andrew.
    And whilst we talk about heroes, Clive James. They were both people that deserve the feeling of being sad that they are no longer in our lives.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Definitely someone who will be missed, and rightly so. He was someone who said things that needed to be said, and always said them in a manner that ensured that one wanted to hear them. The world will be a less informed place without him.
    Likewise, Clive James. Another person who needed to be listened to. It didn’t matter if he was being serious about something that annoyed him, or taking the piss out of a shonky TV show – he spoke, you listened, and your life was enriched by it.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    Clive James and Jonathan Miller, so much exciting and original thought, communicated with a wonderful use of words.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Would his contributions to neurology have been as valuable as his contributions to public discourse? Discuss. Write on one side of the paper only.

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