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The 'Wizard of Oz' effect: Work for the BBC


Leaving medicine for theatre
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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John Bassett put together this lunch, the purpose of which was to see whether we sort of liked one another, and I don’t think we either liked or disliked. I think there was a sort of mutual suspicion, and it was perfectly clear that in many ways the leading figure of the quartet was Peter Cook.  And I have never changed my view that he was really the most ingeniously and originally funny person that I'd ever come across.

So we knew it was going to be something interesting, and we just thought it was… I thought it was ten days out, or two weeks out.  We went up to Edinburgh and  banged together this rather improvised late night review which was going to last 45 minutes after… I think, the Old Vic had brought a production of the Seagull and we came on at night.  And it was so clamourously approved, and lots of critics wrote about it, that people began to invite us to come to London with it.

And I remember spending a very restless night walking in Edinburgh with my wife who was trying to discourage me from doing it because she felt it would distract me, and I thought, well, let’s try it, it could be fun and also we'll make a little bit more money to cover the very poorly paid next two or three years… junior doctors were very badly paid in those days. And we… I took time out because I had another job to do, so I was… I had to do another job, anyway, so I went to Central Middlesex where I had my first house physician job, and they used to come and sit with me on my small narrow bed in the residence at Central Middlesex, and we wrote stuff with a view to having a full-length review.  And I think we were then… there was a man, a rather ridiculous, foppish creature called Willy Donaldson, who took us on, who, it turns out, cheated us, and he made a lot of money out of it and gave us very little.

And then he formed a liaison with, oh, what was he called, the man who used to own those theatres in, oh… anyway, I mean, and they took us to Brighton.  We did a tour of Brighton and Cambridge… much disliked in Brighton.  But it began to look as if we would go into London, and then it turned out to be a big success when we went to the Fortune Theatre.  And Donaldson and this rather ghastly one-legged man who owned so many theatres like the New Theatre and the Aubrey… he was called Donald Aubrey… really cheated us very badly.  But we… it went on for a year and then we were asked to come to New York.

Well, I suppose that I yielded for reasons which I still can’t quite understand, perhaps because I thought it would make some money. I certainly didn’t think that I would leave medicine.  But when I went to New York it became increasingly likely that I would, for… not for any good reason. I didn’t feel that I was going to… I was destined to continue in the theatre, certainly I was not intending to be a director.

Though I had been asked just before I went away to New York… who was it now, George Devine, at the Royal Court, asked me to come and direct a play that no one else wanted to do of John Osborne's, a double bill, one called the Blood of the Bambergs which John Dexter directed, and another one called Under Plain Cover. And I explained to Devine that I'd never directed a play in my life and for some reason he wasn’t particularly put off by that and he thought that I would do it because I was a funny guy.

And I found, to my surprise, and mild delight, that I could do it, and that it was actually sort of common sense.  And so I… I mean… it wasn’t a great hit but it was certainly quite well received. But… and then I went off to New York with the rest of the fringe and performed there, but without an intention of coming back and directing. In fact, I used to still go to grand rounds at Mount Sinai, and keep up with my neurology. But I also began writing for the New Yorker, by, again… everything that happened to me was the result of yielding to unsolicited invitations. I never went looking for anything at all.  Because I never intended… I didn’t intend to be a journalist, I didn’t intend to be a director, but invitations kept coming my way and I rather weak-mindedly yielded to them and found I quite enjoyed it. I liked my, you know, two or three months working at the New Yorker.  It was good fun being there and going down to the Algonquin for drinks and… but I had already had my first child then and we were living in New York with my eldest son and shortly afterwards our second son was born. But I was… I suppose by that time I was cheating myself into thinking that I would go back into medicine, but not cheating myself in the sense that what I really wanted to do was to be in the theatre or to be a journalist. I didn’t… I didn’t want to do any of those things in particular, I wasn’t interested in them.        

But we came back to England in, what was it, 1964, and I wasn’t quite certain what I was going to do when I came back.

Jonathan Miller (1934-2019) was a British theatre and opera director. Initially studying medicine at Cambridge, Sir Jonathan Miller came to prominence with the production of the British comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe. Following on from this success he embarked on a career in the theatre, directing a 1970 West End production of The Merchant of Venice starring Laurence Olivier. He also started directing opera, famously producing a modern, Mafia-themed version of Rigoletto.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh, Middlesex, Brighton, Cambridge, Fortune Theatre, London, The Blood of the Bambergs, Under Plain Covers, New Yorker, 1964, England, New York, John Bassett, Peter Cook, William Donaldson, Donald Albery, George Devine, John Osborne

Duration: 6 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008