Jonathan Miller and the Kinds of Genius

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Jonathan Miller, London, 1967

The usual cliché “polymath” does not do justice to the peculiar case history that is the life of Jonathan Miller. In his own telling, he begins as an unremarkable schoolboy at a semimystical progressive school dedicated to something called “leading-out,” where wet paper was insisted upon in art class. “It had to be wet paper,” he reports, “for dry paper gave hard lines and the art mistress explained that there were no hard lines in nature. ‘Moisten your papers,’ she would cry flutily, and the class would set about the ritual douche.” The resulting blurring was intended to express “the confluence of the great subconscious.” Miller sums this period up thus:

After six months of this life I had been seduced into a womby confusion of thought and action which boded ill for my academic future. When my father discovered that my knowledge of mathematics was confined to an inaccurate version of the French multiplication tables he removed me to a conventional cap-and-blazer establishment. Here, apart from an impressive showing on all questions bearing upon Manu, I shaped up as a high-grade moron incapable of understanding even schoolboy conundrums.

As they say, an inauspicious beginning, though not one without drawable lessons.

Despite this early anti-education, he ends up at Cambridge studying medicine, intending to go into neuropsychology (his father was a psychiatrist). At the university he was a member of the Apostles, the secret club reserved only for the most brilliant, and was clearly an outstanding student. A medical career beckoned. But, he says,

I was unexpectedly diverted into show-biz, having yielded to an invitation to collaborate with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in writing and performing in a late night review which was entitled Beyond the Fringe.

And here the case history makes a characteristic swerve: not only does Miller perform competently in the youthful comedy troupe, he and the others emerge as the most original and influential comic force in the postwar era. They are a huge hit. The man is funny and also a biting satirist—at least the equal of the others in his glittering band. In On Further Reflection he reproduces his pastiche of Shakespeare’s historical drama, which contains such gems as: “Take this my hand, and you fair Essex this/And with this bond we’ll cry anon/And shout Jack Cock o’London to the foe.” Or: “Is it botched up then, Master Puke?” Or: “Now is steel ’twixt gut and bladder interposed.” The studious and serious neuropsychologist has fallen accidentally into the role of star comedian, as if he just couldn’t help it—as if it just slipped out. He finds himself performing on Broadway instead of in a dingy hospital in the Midlands.

Soon he is writing for The New Yorker, a trenchant piece on television and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.