What a pity Mr. Jonathan Miller should lose his nerve
Milton Shulman vents his spleen at arts programming in general and Jonathan Miller in particular
SEVEN years ago I appeared on the second programme of a new BBC magazine feature about the arts called Monitor. My main contribution was to interview some so-called “angry young men” and discover what, if anything, they had in common.
Technically, the item consisted of a series of close-up heads answering the same question in turn. By this juxtaposition, it was clearly seen that young men like Kenneth Tynan, John Wain, Colin Wilson and Stuart Holroyd – all fixed with the same “angry” label – had completely disparate, even antipathetic, political and philosophical views.
Those were very early days in the history of Monitor, and its editor and compere, Huw Wheldon, was tentatively groping towards some kind of formula for tackling the arts on TV.
His first two programmes contained an experimental film montage about Harringay Circus, Peter Brook explaining musique concrete, Alan Brien reporting audience reactions to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and my bit on angry young men.
Whatever one may say about the way these items came off, the thinking was at least determined to give the arts a zestful, intimate and topical relevance to contemporary life.
But this attitude that the arts had something to do with ordinary living was given its first sharp, discouraging blow by an administrative decision that stemmed directly from my interviews with the “angry young men.”
Someone in the BBC hierarchy had decided that the item had been “too political” and that henceforth Monitor was to leave politics strictly alone.
Taken literally, this would have meant that, if they were discussed at all, the real motivations behind the work of Arthur Miller, Orwell, John Osborne, Shaw, O’Casey, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Guttuso, Brecht, Logue, Camus, some of Picasso – to merely scratch the surface – would not have been seriously probed or analysed.
During its seven years of existence I’m sure that Monitor occasionally bypassed or skirted round this odd bureaucratic edict.
But with such a prohibition tied to its tail, it just naturally went the only way left open to it. That was to remove art more and more from the clumsy, sweating, imperfect ambience of living and to set it apart as something to be polished, dusted, coddled, observed and isolated like some precious vase on a mantelpiece.
Monitor produced some remarkably successful programmes. It introduced some brilliant and exciting film reports of artists, painters and writers. And Huw Wheldon was always there to reassure us that it was not very difficult and communicable if we would only give it a chance.
Yet in spite of the kudos that was heaped upon it, there was a growing feeling, particularly amongst the young, that this headmasterish, semi-pedantic exhibit-in-a-museum approach was not the way art should be treated.
In the fields of writing, painting, sculpting and composing, artists were losing patience with the formalistic rules that governed their mediums and were indulging in anarchistic experiments to prove that art could be found in anything seeable, touchable, audible or imaginable.
And it was on this wave of new thinking about the arts that Jonathan Miller, fresh from Beyond The Fringe and some theatre direction in New York, decided to launch the latest series of Monitor programmes.
Determined to strip art of its pious, shellacked, mandarin look, he turned up on his first few programmes leaping about like a benzedrine-happy leprechaun, gaggling, mugging and skipping his way through the compere chores.
To prove that Monitor was not some remote image in a Louis Quinze mirror, he let us see the cameras, the mike shadows, the boom, the bad lighting, the erratic editing, the whole fallible paraphernalia of TV production.
Here, he was trying to say, is Art Irreverent, awkward, imperfect, clumsy, easy, natural and funny. Just like you and me. Give it a chance! the same message as Wheldon’s but a different sales pitch.
But Miller’s inexperience, both as a TV producer and as an authority on the arts, lured him into some very costly mistakes.
His now-notorious interview with Miss Susan Sontag, an American novelist, was almost a parody of everything fresh and vital that could be said about the arts.
Being very young, it was natural, too, that Miller should seek for his dynamic, revolutionary vision of the arts in America. They were producing artists who were inspired by the inside of a medicine cupboard, a dirty brassiere in a bathtub, the emptiness of a pad in Harlem.
Unfortunately, the Americans he chose for us to examine were almost universally dull, self-satisfied bores whose talk was neither profound, amusing nor revolutionary.
The hoots of derision that greeted these first few programmes obviously caused Jonathan Miller to lose his nerve. Orthodoxy in technique and subject-matter are now creeping back into Monitor.
There’s John Betjeman cosily interviewing conventional poets to the background of shots of lowering skies and clean horizons. There’s Jonathan Miller sitting quite still in the best Wheldon manner. And there’s Samuel Beckett, being spoken by Jack MacGowran, for an entire programme – the only visual excitement being how close the cameras could get up MacGowran’s nsotrils.
With this programme on Beckett – claustrophobic, esoteric in the narrowest sense, Third Programme – without any attempt to engage any viewer who was not already a dedicated, obsessed Beckett fanatic, Monitor had returned to the worst excesses of its most precious, divorced-from-life, minute-minority phase. I didn’t think that was what Jonathan Miller had in mind when he took the job.