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I'm not a Renaissance man
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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Many years later people write to me and say this is probably one of great classic productions. Well, that’s not what I got at the time, I got at the time, oh, it’s Freudian, you know, again, from ignoramuses who know nothing about Freud and couldn’t see anyway there was nothing Freudian in it at all.  What it was was Victorian. I was simply interested in a Victorian childhood, which was what I based it on.

[Q] Would you like to talk about Alice in Wonderland...

Yes, I enjoyed doing it, I knew exactly...

[Q] Tell me how it came about...

I... Lillian Hellman had spoken to me when I was in New York, at a party in New York, and said why don’t you do a film of Alice in Wonderland, no one's ever got it right, it’s always been jokey.  And I... it lodged somewhere in my imagination, and several years later I thought, yes, it would be rather interesting to do it.  And then I suddenly realised that it had always been turned into this jokey thing with animal heads, and Disney had vulgarised it with, ‘I'm late, I’m late, for a very important date, no time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late’.  And they would always get famous people and then completely disguise them by giving them masks and artificial heads, and in any case that’s not what it’s about.  It’s quite clear to anyone who'd been brought up like I was, by a mother who was a great expert on mid-19th century literature, and on the importance of childhood to the Victorians, that that was what it was about.  It was about a Victorian childhood.  It’s about Oxford, and they’re all Oxfords dons.  And so I got hold of all these artists, who all agreed to do it for nothing.

I mean, I got John Gielgud and I got, you know, Malcolm Muggeridge and Michael Redgrave and Leo McKern and Alan Bennett, and lots of people just to do it as if it was a long, hot summer dream in Oxford.  And it seemed to me to be perfectly obvious.  But, of course, the only... it was always assumed by these idiot invertebrates that of course it had to be Freudian because I was medical and was modern, and therefore that it would be bound to be Freudian. Most of them were unacquainted with Freud, and, I mean, it astounded me that they couldn’t see there was nothing Freudian in it at all.  Unless they thought that the fall down the rabbit hole was, you know, Doctor Miller saw it as a vagina. Doctor Miller saw nothing of the sort, it’s just what a child would’ve dreamt about, getting lost down a rabbit hole.    

But it was attacked, and now, you see, afterwards you get this wonderful... long, long, long, years afterwards you get people talking about it as if it’s a great classic.  No one thought about it like that at that time at all, I was just attacked for being a trend... a trendy pseud. You see, I’ve always been a victim of a strange double-sided thing, that on the one hand I am constantly referred to by cheap journalists as a Renaissance man or as a polymath, and then the other side, which is actually what they’re really saying, is that I’m a jack of all trades and master of none. Now, first of all, the people who level this term polymath and Renaissance man are completely unaware of what, you know, Renaissance people were like.  And certainly when I consider what my father was like, they would’ve called him a Renaissance man because he could do sculpture, he painted, he drew, he was acquainted with philosophy, he could write books and he was a very good doctor.  But he would’ve been appalled to have been called a Renaissance man.

It’s a vulgar journalistic slogan used by people who just don’t know what being a cultivated person was, and that was what my father was and I was brought up by two parents who were just simply cultivated intellectuals. I mean, I hesitate to use the word intellectual, but that’s what they were.  They were, you know, almost indistinguishable from the people who were part of the Bloomsbury Group.

But I've been suffering that all my life.  You see, I find it almost as offensive to be called a Renaissance man because it’s vulgar and inaccurate and cheap and also has no either understanding of the Renaissance to which it refers, because they don’t know what the Renaissance was like or what the people did or who are examples of it, and on the other hand it was another way of saying that one's a jack of all trades... by... called that by people who are scarcely jacks of one.  That’s why I find it so offensive. But it gets into the media and it is in the media that most people's opinions are shaped.  So that in the end your image and your... the way you are represented to the public at large is based on how you’re talked about in the papers.

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: Alice in Wonderland, New York, Oxford, Sigmund Freud, Victorian, Lillian Hellman, Walt Disney, John Gielgud, Malcolm Muggeridge, Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern, Alan Bennett

Duration: 5 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008