~ Posted by Robert Butler, April 2nd 2012
Amazingly, the 90-minute "Arena" about Jonathan Miller, screened on BBC2, is the first-ever documentary about one of Britain's most prolific figures in the arts. He has directed more than 60 operas, and that's not even what he's best known for: that would probably be his TV series on the human body, during which he dissected one. "Arena" showed how his early interest in biology took off thanks to an exceptional teacher at St Paul's. This passion was combined with a gift for mimicry, which we saw in his own documentary about London Zoo in the winter, when Miller—like a man possessed—imitated the fairly dangerous animals standing immediately behind him.
In Britain, of course, people aren't meant to be too clever and Miller was famously "too clever by three-quarters". His career in medicine was sidelined by the success of "Beyond the Fringe" at the Edinburgh Festival, and a West End run in London was followed by one on Broadway. It was here that Miller met public intellectuals unembarrassed to be clever: the editors of the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker (he wrote for both), Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag.
When Miller returned to London he edited and presented the BBC arts series "Monitor" and his programme about Sontag was considered so pretentious that although the original interview has disappeared, "Arena" viewers were treated to a parody of it, performed by John Bird and Eleanor Bron, that does still exist. In New York he also met American comedians, like Mort Sahl and Woody Allen, and two of Miller's biggest successes in opera—out of the 60 he's done— have been inspired by classic American comedies.
In 1982 Miller switched "Rigoletto" from 16th century Mantua to New York's Little Italy and the mafia scene in the 1950s. He got this idea from an exchange in "Some Like It Hot" where the gangster's alibi to the policeman is that he was at "Rigoletto" that night and his henchman agrees that they were at Rigolettos, thinking it's an Italian restaurant. In 1986 Miller discarded the Japanese elements of "The Mikado" and set the comic opera in the foyer of a grand 1920s hotel in Freedonia. That's the small country that's gone bankrupt in the Marx Brothers movie "Duck Soup". One of the pleasures of this carefully-researched documentary was seeing how Ko-Ko's big entrance in "The Mikado" is a complete steal from Groucho's one in "Duck Soup".
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life