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‘Dazzling genius’ Sir Jonathan Miller dies aged 85

Tributes have been paid to Sir Jonathan Miller from all over the world

Sir Jonathan Miller, the Johnian writer, theatre and opera director, has died.

Miller co-wrote and acted in the seminal stage revue Beyond the Fringe in 1960 with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. The groundbreaking satirical show was met with critical acclaim when it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival and quickly transferred to the West End and Broadway.

Miller studied Medicine at St John's from 1953-1956. He was involved in the Cambridge Footlights theatre during his time as a student and appeared in the revues Out of the Blue and Between the Lines. Whilst juggling his studies and his love of the arts, he also performed on a number of radio and television including Saturday Night on the Light, Tonight, and Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

Beyond the Fringe
Miller (far right) in Beyond the Fringe on Broadway, with (from left) Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook

After graduation he combined early stage appearances with hospital rounds. But he was soon in great demand in the theatre world in London and New York. He made his debut as a director in 1962 with a production of John Osborne’s Under Plain Cover. He directed several Shakespeare productions at the National Theatre including The Merchant of Venice, starring Sir Laurence Olivier, and The Taming of the Shrew, featuring John Cleese. He was credited with being the first director to cast African-Caribbean actors in major Shakespearean roles in the UK during his production of The Tempest in 1970. Miller served as artistic director in the Old Vic from 1987-1990, and directed a series of critically acclaimed operas for the English National Opera and The Met in New York.

In a statement his family said Miller died 'peacefully at home following a long battle with Alzheimer’s'.

Tributes have been paid to him from all over the world with Eric Idle, comedian and member of Monty Python, describing him as a 'hilarious genius', The Royal Opera said he was the 'most important figure in British theatre and opera of the past half a century'.

Broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg said: “He illuminated every conversation in which he took part. He was like a box of fireworks in the eruption of his ideas. The wonderful thing was that these ideas stretched from neurology to poetry, from Verdi to Pete and Dud, from productions with Laurence Olivier to the unforgettable relocating of opera.

“I have never met anyone else with Jonathan’s intellectual energy and curiosity – the range of it, the delight in it, and the way in which he often expressed it.”

Miller wrote and presented several BBC TV series, including Madness, Opera Works, Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief, and Self-Made Things. He was also an artist and sculptor and Who’s Who lists his only recreation as ‘deep sleep’ – perhaps much needed after penning one of his infamous letters to critics. 

In 1982, he was made an Honorary Fellow of St John’s, and in 1996 the University of Cambridge awarded him a Doctor of Letters – the highest possible level of degree. He was knighted in 2002 for services to music and the arts.

Miller is survived by his wife, Rachel, and three children Tom, William and Kate. They said in a statement: “His death is a great loss to our family and to his friends and will leave a huge hole in our lives.”

Sir Jonathan Miller died on 27 November 2019.

Published: 28/11/2019

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