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Not so ordinary outside interests

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Not the brightest child at school
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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I think perhaps in some ways I was slightly backward in many ways, educationally, partly because I was going from one school to another and couldn’t settle down and I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on at school.  Certainly in all the schools I went to I never felt that I was one of the bright ones admired by my teachers. The last school I went to just before the end of the war, I went to a Rudolf Steiner school in… north of Watford, a place called Kings Langley, when I was taught by, amongst others, by two of Ivy Compton-Burnett's sisters and taught the sort of loony stuff that you get taught at Rudolf Steiner schools. I mean, I never learned anything at all and by the time I went to a real prep school just before we returned to London in 1945 I was really quite seriously educationally disabled by learning not much more than how Manu led his peoples out of Atlantis, which was one of the things that I was taught, and eurhythmics and so forth.

But I couldn’t understand maths and I couldn’t understand other languages and I couldn’t write an essay, and I think I was in many respects a difficult, backward child. It wasn’t until I came to a London prep school in ’45…‘46, that I began to recover some of my capabilities, though never outstanding at all. I don’t think I was regarded as a precocious child.  And I got what was called my Common Entrance and scraped into St Paul's under the Common Entrance and went and did classics and found that within the first year that I wasn’t particularly interested in doing that… that I had begun to develop a sort of interest in biology, partly because my father, I think, had given me an old brass microscope and I got interested in that.  And I got interested in chemistry when I was about 14.  So that I began to develop capabilities at that time, though relatively modest ones, and I don’t think I was regarded in, when I finally moved to the science side, I don’t think I was regarded as a particularly good student.

[Q] By others?

Or by my teachers.

[Q] Or by your teachers.  But did… I find it a little hard to believe that you weren’t aware quite early on that you were rather unusual?

No, I had no feeling at all, I just, I felt I was unusual in the sense that I was ill at ease and backward and irritated my teachers because I couldn’t understand how to write an essay, or let alone do a précis, as it was called, I didn’t know what was involved. And I didn’t learn languages properly, I mean, I could just about learn how to decline and conjugate and do all the things that were required of someone doing classics, but that was just dull, automatic rote stuff. But I couldn’t compile pieces of Latin verse, which were expected of someone doing classics, and I felt rather sort of ill at ease. I was just simply a school boy, that’s all, and in no sense a bright school boy.

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: Rudolf Steiner Kings Langley School, Watford, 1945, 1946, London

Duration: 3 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008