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Mean critics

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The 'Wizard of Oz' effect: Work for the BBC
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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The only occasion in which I went out and looked for something which wasn’t medicine was I did go to the BBC because I thought it might be quite interesting to learn how to make film.  And the BBC had a sort of film course, and I, for some reason, was interviewed on the subject by Huw Wheldon. I suppose because I was, by that time, rather well known, I got to talk to him rather than to someone who was running the course, and he listened to me with sort of mild interest, and then out of the blue he said, would you like to edit and present Monitor?

And once again I said, well, I’ve never done anything of that sort, and he said, well, that doesn’t matter, I didn’t know what to do when I started.  And it was in those great days when just simply being educated was probably thought to be the best qualification, which I still think probably is, now it doesn’t seem to figure too much… and so I… this was the first moment when I experienced anything other than approval.  Up to that time I'd been lauded for these performances and lauded, to some extent for this production that I'd directed at the Royal Court, not extravagantly, but then I did Monitor. And I started it by doing this lengthy hour-long interview with Susan Sontag, and the shit hit the fan then. And they… I instantly acquired this reputation of being a, sort of, trendy pseud. And all the critics were, almost without exception, appalled and disgusted that someone with no qualifications to do it, though whatever the qualifications would’ve been… I don’t think Huw Wheldon had many qualifications for doing what he did when he edited and presented Monitor in his day… but in any case people were outraged to see this, first of all, an American, a girl, and a Jewess appearing and given an hour to talk about herself, although she didn’t talk about herself, she talked about something which, again, the British critical community had never heard of.  She talked about kitsch and camp, and no one had ever discussed those issues, and from then on I think practically everything I did on Monitor was disapproved of.

But I fought on and did them and I think I did bring to Monitor something which the old rather mandarin type of Monitor, where you just had the big names like, you know, Henry Moore and so forth were interviewed. I did a lot of American stuff which people like JB Priestly disapproved of and he, sort of said, dull Jonathan Miller settled down on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street.  And there was that, sort of, distaste which the English artistic establishment had for anything American, they always referred to America as the US of A.  As soon as you hear that phrase you know you’re in the presence of, sort of, you know, English… English Nationalistic Philistines.

I had… by that time I'd become acquainted with a lot of people who would’ve been deeply disapproved of by the English establishment and that was the people surrounding the community that were built around The New York Review of Books, people like Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein and Jason Epstein.  And I suppose in some sort of subdued way it was regarded by the English art establishment as being, oh, yes, rather Jewish, sort of Hebrew in some way.

Though it was never said overtly, it was implied always in Private Eye. But then Private Eye consisted of this sort of Thameside Moley and Ratty and Badger sort of community, and behind it all did lie this sort of anti-Semitism. But I had a bad year, and I’ve never really recovered from it.  Ever since then anything I’ve done which has been original or interesting has always been regarded as ‘typical’ in some way of this jack of all trades.

[Q] I was going to say how much did you mind all of this but I suppose you just said you minded …

Well, yes, you do mind, if you get attacked in the public.  You see, it’s what I call the Wizard of Oz effect.  You remember at the end of the Wizard of Oz they make this journey and they finally arrive at this great place and this great booming criticism is levelled at them and the little dog runs across and pulls aside the curtain and the voice says, ‘Ignore the man behind the curtain’. Well, as I’m acquainted with all the men behind the curtains I know that I am talked about and by people who have the advantage of the boom which their voice is given by the organ for which they write.  So that if you get reviewed by Brown Sewage [Brian Sewell] or by Michael Billington or the hundreds of people who have criticised me you become rather annoyed by the fact that your public reputation is created not by what you do but they what these little Wizards of Oz do behind the curtain. I get written about in that sort of tone of voice almost all the time.  Every now and then something I do breaks through and they have to admit that it is rather good, but behind it all there is this sort of idea of too clever by half.

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: BBC, BBC Monitor, USA, New York, Wizard of Oz, Huw Wheldon, Susan Sontag, JB Priestley, Robert Silvers, Jason Epstein, Barbara Epstein, Michael Billington

Duration: 5 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008