Sir Jonathan Miller, one of Britain's most renowned opera and theatre directors, talks about his latest work, Githa Sowerby's 1912 drama Rutherford and Son, about a family glassworks. It featured at the Rose Theatre last week and was the first play Miller had directed in five years.

Surrey Comet: Let’s start with Rutherford and Son because that is why you’re here.

Jonathan Miller: It’s an extraordinary play. It is as good as Chekhov and it’s as good as Ibsen. It’s absolutely wonderful, and also they are brilliant performers so I was able to do it in about two-and-a-half weeks.

SC: How many times had you seen the play?

JM: I’ve seen it once or twice that’s all. I don’t go on seeing it. And I don’t come in and then give them [the performers] notes. They know more about it than I do now.

SC: So you are happy with how it has turned out?

JM: Yes, it gets better and better. Good productions get better and bad productions get worse.

SC: It is quite a common theme in plays, this domineering father or mother...

JM: [thinking the question refers to his directing style and not the play’s main character of John Rutherford]: I think ‘domineering’ is absolutely absurd. What you have to do is to... it’s playfulness, the whole business... it’s no accident that it is called ‘a play’, and in doing it you play, and in rehearsing it you play, and if you actually bully people you don’t get playing.

SC: I saw the film version of Beyond the Fringe at the BFI recently...

JM: I haven’t seen it.

SC: It’s very good.

JM: Well it’s very funny. We were all very funny in it.

SC: But you went on to choose directing plays over pure comedy. Was that a conscious decision?

JM: I just picked the plays which interested me. Many plays are comic. The most interesting plays are tragic plays which, if you’re a good director, comedy comes out of it all the time.

SC: Peter Cook was quoted as saying that at the time you were performing in Beyond the Fringe you were agonising about whether you should become a doctor.

JM: Yes I was agonising... I was regretful of giving up what I thought I was trained to do.

SC: You were talking earlier about humour and what makes people laugh. When you were doing Beyond the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival was there a thought process where you were saying to yourself ‘why are people laughing at this?’ Was that something that interested you then?

JM: It didn’t interest me then, but it gradually, increasingly interested me. What is it that makes people laugh? Why do they get amused by this, that or the other? And mostly they are amused by reminding them of what they had previously seen, but not noticed.

SC: In Beyond the Fringe you did a sketch called Words and Things with Alan Bennett...

JM: About philosophy, yes.

SC: Was it a sense of sending up...?

JM: No, it wasn’t sending up, it was that I was preoccupied with philosophy and also by being amused by the way philosophers talked.

SC: Did you ever see the Spitting Image version of yourself?

JM: No, I never did.

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