Angela Tilby: the grace of Jonathan Miller’s sister

06 December 2019


Jonathan Miller pictured in 1967 with the cast of ‘Benito Cereno’ at the Mermaid Theatre, London

Jonathan Miller pictured in 1967 with the cast of ‘Benito Cereno’ at the Mermaid Theatre, London

JONATHAN MILLER, who died last week, has rightly been acclaimed as one of the most creative, intelligent, and versatile public figures of his generation. Doctor, comedian, satirist, television producer, presenter, and theatre and opera director, he was an intellectual polymath who excelled at everything that he attempted — except, perhaps, the art of contentment, which eluded him.

He had a sister, Sarah. I got to know her when I worked at the BBC. She was a secretary who was constantly being moved around from department to department. While he had acquired an imposing physical presence (I remember his expressive hands filmed in wide angle in his 1978 medical documentary series The Body in Question), she was an awkward, even uncomfortable, presence. From our conversations, it was clear that both she and Jonathan carried psychological wounds.

Their father, a distinguished child psychologist, had showed little affection for them. He prescribed therapy for Sarah, which had not helped her to overcome her shyness and awkwardness, although she was always very well informed in psychological theory. Jonathan had not gone down the analytic route, but was tormented throughout his life by self-doubt and remorse.

Jonathan’s opera productions, especially his Cosí Fan Tutti, were considered ground-breaking, even though he could not read music. But I also remember the majesty of his stark, minimalist production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, at Easter 1993.

Jonathan, as an obituarist put it, “refused to believe in God”. Sarah, on the other hand, rediscovered her parents’ Judaism and was sustained by the synagogue that she attended. Sadly, she died after a freak accident in which she was run over by her own car. In our occasional conversations, it was obvious that Sarah was aware of what she shared with her famous brother, and of the vast gulf that separated them.

She could have been bitter about his superior education, his opportunities, his successes. But she worked on herself in the privacy of her heart, and came to an understanding that was, to me, remarkable. I remember one conversation we had when she had ended up in a BBC office where she was required to be a glorified telephonist for some prestigious programme. This had annoyed her, until she came to a recognition that putting people in touch with one another was a really useful thing to do.

There was a grace in that, a spiritual freedom that was something that, perhaps, her famous brother would never have been able to understand. The Bible is full of good news for the humble and overlooked, who, in their quiet pursuit of truth, undermine the status quo.

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