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Sir Jonathan Miller, comic, doctor and director, dies at 85

Acclaimed: Sir
Jonathan was
knighted for
services to music
and the arts in
2002 PICTURE: GRAHAM BURKE

SIR Jonathan Miller, the acclaimed theatre and opera director, doctor, writer and one quarter of groundbreaking satirical quartet Beyond the Fringe, has died aged 85.

His family announced that he had passed away ‘peacefully at home’ following a long battle with Alzheimer’s and his death would ‘leave a huge hole in our lives’.

Born in London in 1934, he first found fame in 1960 when he teamed up with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett to create Beyond the Fringe, which began at the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to the West End and Broadway.

Fringe benefits: Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook PICTURE: BBC

It spearheaded the satire boom of the 1960s. But rather than staying with comedy, Sir Jonathan began directing theatre and TV plays including John Osborne’s Under Plain Cover, six Shakespeare plays for the BBC and The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre, with Sir Laurence Olivier as Shylock.

He started directing opera in the 1970s, when he worked for Kent Opera, Glyndebourne and English National Opera, with whom he had a four-decade relationship.

His Royal Opera production of Cosi fan tutte was a staple of the repertory for nearly 20 years.

In 1986 he directed a celebrated production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, though he later said he ‘never had anything but contempt’ for the pair adding ‘it’s simply Ukip set to music’.

He was also an artistic director of the Old Vic and was knighted in 2002 for services to music and the arts.

Despite his successes, he clearly regretted not pursuing a medical career after reading medicine at St John’s College, Cambridge.

In 1978, he presented The Body In Question, a television series on the history of anatomy and medicine. In 2005, speaking on Desert Island Discs, he said that when he told his friends he was leaving medicine ‘the look of icy disapproval that swept across their face corresponded to the same sense of icy disapproval which swept across the inside of my mind when I found I had done so’. He briefly returned to medicine, studying neuropsychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, before becoming a research fellow at the University of Sussex in 1985.

While he could be charming, he was also famously cantankerous. He once claimed the audience of Covent Garden opera house ‘looks as if the Harrods food hall has yielded up its dead’ and called it ‘a kind of wife kennel’ for rich men.

In 1986, he said Britain seemed ‘an ugly, racist, rancorous little place’ adding in 1991 that it was a ‘mean and peevish little country’ with its ‘acid rain of criticism and condescension’. In his defence, he said: ‘The people I’ve called vulgar fools are objectively vulgar fools.’

Backstage: Sir Jonathan directs The Merchant of Venice, starring Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1973 PICTURE: REX

A prominent atheist, he was also vice-president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality for a time.

Tony Hall, director-general of the BBC, said: ‘Jonathan Miller was a creative genius whose imagination knew no bounds. He brought arts and culture to millions on the BBC.’

Oliver Mears, director of opera at the Royal Opera House, said: ‘His intolerance of inauthenticity and laziness on stage was matched by the urgency and rigour of his search for the composer’s vision, historical accuracy and psychological truth.’

Miller is survived by his wife Rachel, children Tom, William and Kate and several grandchildren.