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.