Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 August 2015

Raconteur pessimistic but very entertaining

Published 20/10/2009

An Audience with Jonathan Miller, the man whose cranium ought, you feel, to bulge as it contains so much information and insight, was just that. Those attending clearly felt privileged to be in the presence of Dr Miller.

Why wouldn't they — this is the man who started out intending to be a scientist, then was diverted from neurology into 1960s revue (Beyond the Fringe), becoming one of the great theatre and opera directors of his generation.

The first half contained an enlightening account of his career. As a raconteur, the man who looks ridiculously young for 75 and still wears scruffy cords, tweed jacket and jumper, is liable to go off at tangents.

Answering a question on whether art can civilise humanity, he's off with the termites' eight foot high nests in Africa, which indicate that animals, unlike humans, don't have a progressive culture. As he said: “There's no such thing as a Tudor termites' nest.” But he insisted that art was evidence of our civilisation rather than something with the ability to make us civilised.

The tone was entertaining but rather pessimistic. As he revealed the fact that we've killed 220m humans between 1900 to 2000, the talk became sombre.

But he pricks pomposity like no one else.

Talking about the impossibility of an afterlife, Miller said he'd drawn a cartoon once for the New Yorker, showing Marie Antoinette heading for the guillotine, reassuring her maid Fifi with the information that one day she senses she'll be Shirley Maclaine “whoever she is”.

This is the man who put the poly into polymath.

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