Biographer Kate Bassett came to an amicable arrangement with her subject, the multi-talented comedian, scientist and theatre director Jonathan Miller.
“I told him that I was not going to write a eulogy, and he told me that he was not going to read it!
“But actually that doesn’t strike me as weird,” Kate insists. “I would not want to read a book about myself. That would be just too annoying!”
Kate, theatre critic for the Independent on Sunday, will be talking about the book, In Two Minds: A biography of Jonathan Miller, for the new Festival of Chichester in the Minerva Theatre on July 11 at 5.30pm.
Descended from immigrants who fled Tsarist anti‐Semitism to become shopkeepers in Ireland and London’s East End, Miller was born into an intellectual milieu, between Bloomsbury and Harley Street – the son of a novelist and a leading child psychiatrist. Miller trained as a doctor but then forged a career as a comedian and as a world‐renowned theatre and opera director.
“The obvious interest is that he is a polymath, though he hates that word,” Kate says. “He spans the arts and the sciences. He is incredibly intelligent and erudite and manages to be very funny as well. It’s a very fine combination.
“I interviewed him many years ago when I was a lot younger and I just thought that he was really interesting. Decades later, I wanted to write a biography. I am a theatre critic. I didn’t want someone that was just an actor or just a director, and he struck me as someone who was interesting and was also in my field of expertise.
“And he said yes. I went and had a cup of coffee. A few members of his family were there. I think I was being vetted, and then at the end he just said ‘Oh alright, then.’ What made it really interesting is that he didn’t want to read it. It is not authorised in that sense that he vetted it.
“He gave me hours and hours of interviews, and he checked some of the scientific things, which was fine by me.”
But it seems reading the book was a step he wasn’t prepared to take: “It’s complex because he is incredibly sensitive about criticism and talks about how thin-skinned he is.
“Partly, I suppose it is just personal taste, but also I said to him that I was not going to write a eulogy.”
For many, one of his great achievements will always be the late-1970s TV series, The Body In Question: “I watched it again, and it is really good. You hanker for that kind of thing now, someone being eloquent and entertaining and highly informed. It has dated a lot in its look. You couldn’t really re-run it now easily, but it was seriously good as a series.”
Kate believes both she and Jonathan enjoyed the interviews they did as the basis of the book: “You wouldn’t call it a chat. It was quite high-powered.
“It was a bit one way, me asking questions, but he was incredibly eloquent and funny. He has also got a side to him that is very wittily acerbic. He was one of the original members of Beyond The Fringe, so there is that satirical side – and he still applies it. I have blessedly not been on the end of it!
“But speaking to him, there is this really intelligent, erudite stuff with humour and wit. And there is gossip. He loves the theatre. He loves theatre people.”
Tickets for Kate’s talk in the Minerva are free, but need to be booked directly with Chichester Festival Theatre box office on 01243 781312.