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Desert Island Discs twice, please!

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'If you can light a cigarette...'
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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After I had seen what my photographs looked like I would, you know, linger over the old albums and then I would say, well, it might be quite nice to sort of make some of these things rather than merely photographing these rather interesting remnants and bits and pieces.  So I, as I say, I would go out with a Stanley knife and rip bits and pieces of old decaying posters off Italian walls and pack them away in my suitcase and bring them back and cut them up and reassemble them in collage.  And I think I was influenced by the greatest of all the collagists, which is... oh, what’s he called, I'll remember his name in a minute... anyway, it’s a German, and I used to...

[Q] Herzfeld?

No, not Herzfeld, no, I'll remember it... and so I used to make these assemblages and then I would start getting bits and pieces of wood so that I started making three dimensional objects, which, again, were totally abstract.

Schwitters was, the man I was interested... was Kurt Schwitters, who took bus tickets and bits and pieces of old decaying, you know, cigarette cartons and bits and pieces of wood and fragments of paint and there wasn’t in any sense copying him but I was in his style. I mean, if you look at any particular period in art you'll find that there are lots of people doing the same sort of thing. Now, this is a slight anomaly in that here was someone who was not a member of that community and who was born long after it had finished, but I found myself to be part of that community vicariously because I liked doing that sort of stuff, and I still do.

And then I began collecting bits and pieces of wood which I would saw up and reassemble and make, sort of, wood assemblages, sometimes by adding paint and sometimes just simply daubing them with bits and pieces of cement.  And then when I was away in Santé Fe when I was doing opera, the man who owned the house had an estate manager who saw me doing this and he asked me if I'd ever done anything with welding, and I said, ‘No, no I don’t know how to weld’.  And he asked... he said, ‘Well, if you can’, he said to me, ‘If you can light a cigarette without burning your fucking nose you can weld’.  And he took me into the garage of this house where there was a nice, safe stone floor, and we went out with his Ford pickup truck and raided these metal dumps and took stuff back and made it, and I learned how to weld. I can’t do it here because I haven’t got a safe studio space in which I can do it. But I like doing that and I'd like to do much more of it.

So, I mean, over the last ten or 15 years I’ve assembled an enormous amount of stuff and actually exhibited them. I’ve had two shows… and I’ve sold stuff.

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: Santa Fe, Kurt Schwitters

Duration: 3 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 16 August 2011