Jonathan Miller (1934-2019)

The multi-talented Miller died yesterday at the age of 85. His obituary describes the wide range of activities that he was involved with in his life, including being a doctor, writer, and theatre and opera director.

I first came across him as one of the four people (along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett) that made up the sketch comedy team whose performance of Beyond the Fringe broke with traditional British comedy and set the stage for later acts like Monty Python.

Miller was an atheist and in 2004 he wrote and narrated a three-part BBC documentary titled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief that broke with the generally pro-religion bias of the BBC. I used the series as a basis for a five-part series of posts on the history of western atheism. The three-hour BBC series is available online and I can recommend it strongly, if you have the time.

This appreciation of his life describes the many things he turned his hand to and succeeded, and discusses his comedic take on his own identity.

Although he had professionally abandoned comedy, it remained a key part of his personality. Asked, early on, to define his identity, he replied “Jew-ish”, a characteristic Miller joke with serious meaning that has subsequently been adopted by numerous others who, though not religiously believing or observant, found it abhorrent to deny, especially after the Holocaust, the historical, intellectual and artistic inheritance from Judaism. He was, though, an atheist and active in the Humanist movement.

A second famous Miller joke in relation to his birth faith came when, in 1978, US TV released a drama mini-series called Holocaust, charting the fate of a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. Uneasy at the subject’s populist treatment, Miller said: “I suppose there’s a certain poetic justice in us turning the Nazis into soap.”

By coincidence, on the day Miller died, I was talking with some people about how some people manage to get around their stutters and I mentioned that Miller was one of them. I recalled an interview in which he was asked why he did not act in films and plays and he said that it was because of his stutter. The interviewer was surprised because it is not at all noticeable when he speaks. He said that this was because he had learned how to navigate around the sounds that caused him difficulty but he could not do that with words written by someone else.


  1. flex says

    I ran across Dr. Miller in a BBC series in the 1970’s called, “The Body in Question”. It was insightful, humorous, and very graphic in discussing pain, displaying organs, surgeries, and other aspects anatomy.

    While I’m certain that many parts of it are now outdated, I was surprised that I never could find it on DVD, anywhere. I’ve realized since that it’s probably due to the changes in patient privacy laws since the series was made, and trying to get updated releases from the families of the patients who have undoubtedly passed away was probably too much trouble for any potential distributor to take.

    Several years ago I did find it on a torrent, and acquired a copy. I do not recommend anyone break the law to get a copy, but I do think it was probably one of the best, if not the best, documentary series I ever watched.

    I sincerely regret his passing.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    As a stutterer myself, I’m usually able to recognize others where “normal” people can’t, by detecting the techniques many of us use, like avoidance of certain words, pauses, subtle stresses, or various little tics. But I had no idea Miller was a stutterer, even though I’ve heard him speak many times.

    I wonder whether Beyond the Fringe was an ordeal for him.

  3. robert79 says

    “He said that this was because he had learned how to navigate around the sounds that caused him difficulty but he could not do that with words written by someone else.”

    This reminds me of a student I once had, for a history of maths course, where one of the requirements was giving a presentation on a subject of your choice. She asked if she could give the presentation privately because she had a stuttering problem.

    My first thought: “Huh?!? How did I never notice that?” as my impression of her was she was a fairly talkative (certainly compared to most maths students!) and sociable student.

    During the presentation her stuttering became quite obvious… especially for bits she clearly had prepared and for which she felt she needed a more formal tone/style suitable for maths, so basically: not her own words/voice. During Q&A the stutter was unnoticeable again, and she was able to answer everything clearly without issue. I basically advised her to, when presenting, not to prepare specific text but to know the subject matter well enough she could talk naturally. I’d like to think the advice worked, she certainly did well enough when presenting/defending her thesis two years later. (Although, reading Rob Grigjanis’ comment above, I suspect this may not have been her ‘natural’ voice, but just the better trained version.)

  4. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#2,

    Since Beyond the Fringe was written by the performers themselves, he could write what he wanted to say and even extemporize if needed, so it may not have been too difficult. After all, he could speak publicly without any sign of a stutter.

    James Earl Jones was the opposite. He would stutter in conversation but when acting, it disappeared. I also had a college friend who had a terrible stutter but could sing beautifully on stage with not a trace of difficulty. In these two cases, it seems like the act of performing was the key to overcoming the stutter.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    robert79 @3: I can only speak for myself, but yeah, for me reading from a prepared text was always a nightmare. When giving presentations (in academic or corporate settings), I learned, as you wisely suggested to your student, to prepare a mental outline, and speak extemporaneously. I still stuttered, but nowhere near as much.

    Reading from a text, one only sees the words as obstacles to be overcome. But speaking with a mental picture of the major points allows one to concentrate on the ideas to be communicated rather than the sounds to be made. Very liberating.

    As for social settings, there is huge variation. I can begin a conversation fluently, and then descend into major disfluency, or vice versa. Or maintain the same level of fluency throughout. And I’ve discerned no simple explanation for the variability in 60+ years. One thing is clear; most people’s ideas about what causes or exacerbates stuttering (nervousness, tiredness, thinking too fast, etc) are largely nonsense.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano @4: Most stutterers can sing fluently. I suspect that’s more to do with employing a different part of the brain than performing. I certainly couldn’t act in a play unless I could make up my own lines as I go!

  7. says

    This is sad news, but also brings back many good memories. My “parents” were ex-pats from England, so I grew up hearing British comedy, including the Fringe, Goons and others. As a kid growing in the 1970s and curious about science, Miller’s series were welcome TV. And as someone who had a horrible stammer as a child, I looked up to him as an example of how I *could* speak if I tried.

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