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.