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I'm Jewish only for anti-Semites


My witty mother
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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My mother's background, as I said, she was called Spiro, but her mother was called Bergson, and she was related to Henri Bergson, the philosopher, and she had begun writing.  She didn’t go to university but she began writing when she was only about 18 or 19, and I think published her first novel when she was 21, I think, called The Mere Living, which was a title taken from Robert Browning, who she later wrote a biography of, much later, but she published I think about seven or eight novels before she switched to biography.

The switch took place when she began writing literary articles, she wrote for Cyril Connolly for Horizon and for other literary magazines. She wrote about Samuel Butler and then she became rather preoccupied with the Brownings and she wrote this portrait of Robert Browning in the late 40s, early 50s, and she was embarking on a biography of Kipling when she suffered early Alzheimer’s and died when she was only 53.

But she was a witty, rather interesting woman who… with an interest, which I think I’ve adopted, whether I adopted it under her direct influence I find it quite hard to say, but she was always interest in negligible details.  She thought that it was just the meticulous examination and noticing of things which were right in front of your nose which actually made for good fiction. I remember asking her once whether I could go abroad when I was about 14 to have a summer holidays in France and she said, ‘Well, of course you can if you want to, but you must remember that travel narrows the mind’.  And I think that she had always had a belief that if you couldn’t see what was there, where you lived, it was unlikely that you'd learn anything from going somewhere else.

And I think under her influence I became very much committed to the idea of observing negligible details or… as it turned out later on, I didn’t know that at the time, but once I became a theatre director I think whatever success I’ve had as a theatre director has been largely due to the fact that without any special training in the subject I came to the subject with my mother's interest in just noticing what people really do.

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: The Mere Living, Horizon, Robert Browning: A portrait, France, Henri Bergson, Betty Miller, Robert Browning, Cyril Connolly, Samuel Butler, Rudyard Kipling

Duration: 2 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008