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If there was ever a man to make even the best of us look at our professional output with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction, it has to be Jonathan Miller. Despite loathing the term, Miller is Britain’s best-known polymath and has shone across the board as a doctor, humourist, tv presenter, theatre and opera director, author, and sculptor.

In Two Minds presents a portrait of a man who is no stranger to dissatisfaction, and who has been torn by the conflicting pull of his many-faceted ability almost as much as he has used it to dazzle spectators. His foible, it appears, was to abandon his deep-seated desire to make a solid contribution to neuro-psychological research for the ‘footling flibbertigibbet world of theatre’, which whisked him away through the success of Beyond the Fringe, in a ‘cocaine-like snort of celebrity and approval’.

The book is a remarkably candid portrayal of Miller’s accomplishments and failings. Starting from unrecognisable beginnings as a nervous, pallid and otherwise unremarkable child, Miller’s transformation into a precocious schoolboy and high-flying Cambridge medic is narrated by way of colourful anecdotes.

The book charts his ascent to the dizzying heights of theatre – The Old Vic, Kent Opera and the ENO. Here, pioneering what has been dubbed the ‘time-shift opera’, Miller dragged opera away from traditionalists (or ‘disgusting opera queens’) to revive works in new cultural settings; always with a refreshing naturalism and acute insight into human behaviour.

It also charts the hangover: Miller’s extreme sensitivity to bad reviews, his restlessness, his frequent threats to leave the world of theatre forever, and, of course, the doctor he left behind that has forever plagued his conscience.

In Two Minds is a very pleasant ride. It trots along lightly with a diligent attention to detail, although Bassett’s own conjectures and ruminations are sometimes unconvincing. This aside, the book is successful in reaching to the heart of why we cherish Miller as a man who has spoken his mind and set his own traps; who wonderfully combines highbrow and lowbrow tastes with the panache of a true maverick.

RUTH MARINER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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