My Leftie childhood beyond the fringe

Back in the mid-Seventies, the old men who lived in the dosshouse around the corner would spend the day getting drunk on cider and peeing against doors.

Knowing my dad was a soft touch, they’d wander up to our tall house in Gloucester Crescent — in Camden, North London — and ring our doorbell, asking for money.

If I came to the door, they’d ask drunkenly: ‘Ello, young man, is Dr Jon in by any chance?’ — as if he was their best friend.

Then Dad would come down from his study to talk to them — or at them. I think most of them got pretty fed up with his long lectures and just wanted him to hand over the dosh.

Back in the mid-Seventies, the old men who lived in the dosshouse around the corner would spend the day getting drunk on cider and peeing against doors, writes William Miller (Pictured, William as a boy with his father Jonathan Miller)

Afterwards, he’d come back in and say to Mum: ‘That was Michael, and he was really interested in what I had to say about the Government.’ Or: ‘John is really quite a fan of Tolstoy, so I gave him your copy of Anna Karenina.’ Mum just rolled her eyes and told Dad the last thing they wanted was one of his lectures.

But that never stopped him. He couldn’t have been more different from Mum who, for starters, didn’t think the whole world was against her. In Dad’s world there were two kinds of people —the ones he liked, who were good, and the ones he hated, who were bad.

The good ones were the drunks who came to the door, his close friends and anyone who voted Labour. Since he found it easier to hate people than to like them, there were quite a few on his bad list, which included Idi Amin, Hitler and his generals, all theatre critics and the upper classes.

Naturally, he never stopped complaining about the Royal Family’s ‘complete irrelevance’ and their ‘responsibility for the rot in our class system’.

Yet he knew Princess Margaret quite well. She was always very nice to him, even if he did claim that she was more interested in him than he was in her. Princess Margaret, he said, was obsessed with three things: theatre people, intellectuals and Jews.

Pictured: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett

Pictured: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett

The first two she was desperate to be part of, and the third she found intriguing — though he wasn’t entirely sure why. Dad, of course, ticked all three boxes, so she always sought him out at parties and occasionally invited him to dinners or other events.

Mum was convinced Margaret had a crush on him. She was even more certain after going to a party at Windsor Castle, where the princess made Dad sit next to her while Mum was left chatting to some boring old man on another table.

After dinner, Margaret took Dad off on his own for a tour of the castle’s private rooms. She was far from his type, but flattery could go a long way with my father.

To the outside world, Gloucester Crescent was a community that seemed to operate as if it were a closed society. It became the focus of much mockery in the media. But it was my home.

My parents, Rachel and Jonathan Miller, bought our house in the 1960s for £7,000. At the time, Dad was doing a comedy show in the West End called Beyond The Fringe with Alan Bennett and two other friends called Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

The houses in the crescent and nearby soon started to fill with either Mum and Dad’s friends or people just like them — including Alan; the Labour MP Giles Radice; Royal Court artistic director Max Stafford-Clark; the novelists Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Thomas Ellis and Kingsley Amis; TV presenter Joan Bakewell; philosopher Sir A. J. Ayer; and authors Shirley Conran, Angus Wilson and V.S. Pritchett.

Over the next three decades, great friendships were forged and professional rivalries were fuelled as the celebrated occupants allowed their lives to become entwined. Relationships occasionally became strained when they either wanted to sleep together or to kill each other.

My closest friends had parents much like mine: most had been educated at the same small collection of public schools and knew each other well from either Oxford or Cambridge and then through their work. Many of the dads — like mine — seemed to live on another planet from their families.

Dad was always writing, travelling, directing plays and having to go on the telly, writes Jonathan's son William

Dad was always writing, travelling, directing plays and having to go on the telly, writes Jonathan’s son William

Pictured: Jonathan with members of the cast during rehearsals for 'Benito Cereno' at the Mermaid Theatre in London

Pictured: Jonathan with members of the cast during rehearsals for ‘Benito Cereno’ at the Mermaid Theatre in London

For the most part, the crescent parents were Left-leaning, idealistic as well as anti-Establishment, and had a strong distaste for the old-school approach to authority and power.

That’s why they decided to give their children a radically different upbringing from their own. So we were encouraged to be free spirits — which meant we were left to do whatever we wanted.

Yet despite the huge privilege of our birth, we were left feeling bewildered. And a few of us, including me, longed to escape to a way of life that was more structured and conventional.

Unless Dad’s friends came over for lunch or supper, family meals were his idea of hell. What he really wanted was a family who, if they couldn’t talk about something intelligent, sat in silence and let him do the talking so he could lecture us about Charles Darwin or what the Germans did to everyone in the war. Much of the time he was far too busy with work and his big ideas to think about family life and let Mum — who was a hard-working GP — deal with all that.

He would have been completely lost without her. If it was left to Dad, we three children would have stayed up past midnight, never got to school on time and probably starved.

Dad was always writing, travelling, directing plays and having to go on the telly. Before I was born, he’d been a doctor, but he gave that up and never stopped telling us how much he wished he hadn’t.

After years of doing plays, Dad started directing operas as well —which was somewhat surprising as he didn’t play a musical instrument and couldn’t even read music. But he still insisted his life was terrible and that he wanted to be a doctor again so people would take him seriously.

He was always saying to Mum or his friends how much he despised the theatre and opera and everything that went with it. I don’t know why he said this, because whenever I saw him rehearsing, he loved all the people he was working with, and they loved him back.

I think it was the critics that ruined everything for him. If rehearsals were going well, he came home at the end of the day and said: ‘I think this is probably the best thing I’ve ever done.’

But it only took one bad review and this dark cloud would descend over the house. Then he’d say his life was over and call his agent to cancel everything lined up for the future. It’s a good thing his agent learned to ignore him.

Dad also hated television. It drove him crazy when we watched it during supper. He thought everything on it was rubbish and that if we watched it for long enough, our brains would start to rot. But he seemed to know lots of people on it. And the funny thing is, when I saw Dad on TV, he always looked happier than he did at home.


At the end of one of my half-term holidays, Dad had a go at taking the law into his own hands. He’d dragged me along to the cinema to see an unwatchable French art film — and as we filed out, a woman across the road screamed: ‘Help! I’ve been mugged!’

When I looked back, Dad had vanished. Then I caught sight of him chasing two very dangerous-looking boys who were holding the woman’s handbag triumphantly over their heads. My only thought was: ‘Oh my God, he’s going to get killed’, so I took off after him — along with a disorderly group of intellectual cinema-goers. 

When we caught up with Dad, he’d picked up a plastic pallet from the pavement and was waving it over his head. At the same time, he was shouting abusive lines about how he was going to rip various body parts out of the muggers.

While he was bellowing words like ‘spleen’, ‘oesophagus’ and ‘thyroid’, a small man with tortoiseshell glasses managed to get shoulder-to-shoulder with him. ‘I think we met once at [American literary critic] Susan Sontag’s,’ the man yelled in his ear.

For a split second, Dad stopped screeching. ‘That’s interesting,’ he said. ‘Was it in New York or London?’ Then he carried on yelling at the thugs, one of whom had now produced a baseball bat from under his coat.

Dropping the pallet, Dad threw up his fists and yelled: ‘Come on, then, I’ll have you both!’ I knew this had gone too far, so I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him back while the boys made their escape.

From my time at Pimlico Comprehensive, I was aware of what thugs were capable of doing. For Dad, who accused me of being a coward, it was as harmless as a scene from one of his Shakespeare plays. If I hadn’t dragged him away, those boys would have cracked his head open like a coconut.


Watching the box, he claimed, stopped us reading. But he had to take some of the blame: whenever my brother, sister or I opened a book, he always told us we were reading the wrong one.

When Dad discovered I was reading The Catcher In The Rye, for instance, he said if I was interested in American literature I should read The Grapes Of Wrath. He then asked, every five minutes, if I’d read it. The thing is, I wasn’t interested in American literature, but I did have to read The Catcher In The Rye for my O-levels.

Dad did this with every book we ever read, so the three of us just stopped reading altogether.

One day, we all went to Scotland to visit Dad, who was making a film there. In a nearby village called Archiestown, Mum pointed to a big house and asked us: ‘Do you think we should get Dad to buy it for us as a holiday home?’ But when we went to collect him in our Morris Traveller, he had his angry face on. ‘Are you out of your bloody mind?’ he said as he squashed into the front seat, knees pressed against the dashboard.

He started on a long list of reasons why buying a house anywhere outside London was a terrible idea. Then he added: ‘You do know everyone’s either a Tory or an anti-Semite?’ Mum laughed. She pointed out that we needed a holiday home because it wouldn’t be long before our family was banned from every hotel in the country.

The horrid owner of the Rothes Glen Hotel, where we were staying, was already cross about us being rowdy and sliding down the banisters. And I knew Dad was worried he’d get a bill for repainting the dining room ceiling after we flooded the bathroom above it. In the end, my parents bought the house. It was so big Mum hired a housekeeper and gardener.

After that, every time we drove up there, a local newspaper announced our arrival. They always wrote the same thing: ‘Television personality Jonathan Miller and his family have arrived in Archiestown for their summer holiday.’

Dad once showed this to Mum and said: ‘Is that all they can say? What about: ‘Leading theatre director Jonathan Miller is taking a break from doing Chekhov to come and waste his time in Scotland’?’

He never really seemed to enjoy our family holidays. I think it was the idea of being stuck in a house with children, with no chance of intellectual conversation.

But he did eventually find something fun to do: he set up a microscope and some tools for dissecting animals on the kitchen table.

Then, every time we drove anywhere, he made us look out for anything dead on the road.

As soon as we saw something, Mum jammed on the brakes and Dad jumped out and peeled it off the road.

When we got home, he nailed its arms and legs to a bread board and we gathered around the table as he started to dissect it.

Mum once told us that when she first married Dad, he brought a brain home from the hospital and dissected it for her on the kitchen table in their flat. She was learning to be a doctor, and he thought it might be useful.

Like many of the children of our equally Left-leaning neighbours, I was part of an education experiment driven by my parents’ principles, rather than their care. And it failed. I was sent to Pimlico School, which one of Mum and Dad’s friends told them was the best comprehensive in London.

For years, I was threatened and beaten up by both black and white gangs and learned hardly anything. By my fifth year, it felt like the school had lost control of the more violent kids. My constant state of fear started to wear me down: everything seemed hopeless.

One morning, when I was 14, I broke down. It started with me telling Mum and Dad that I wasn’t sure how much more I could take — and Dad nervously laughing it off, saying he was sure I’d be fine.

The next thing I knew, I was curled up in the corner of the kitchen, crying uncontrollably and begging them not to send me back to school.

To begin with, they didn’t seem to know how to respond. They stood there looking at each other and then back at this sobbing mass on the floor. It was Mum who finally knelt down and tried to console me, but I could tell Dad was just as confused and upset. That day, they made a few calls, but everyone said the same thing: I was too old to change schools but could try again when I was 16. Two years away.

Yet somehow I survived and one day Mum and I had a talk. She said she’d watched me try too many times to please my father, and it broke her heart to see how much it upset me when I failed.

Whenever I wanted to impress him, he always came back with something he thought was bigger, more complex or more significant. It wasn’t because he wanted to put me down or didn’t love me; it was just his way.

Mum’s solution was very straightforward: I needed to get away from Dad. The answer, as she saw it, was to send me to Bedales — one of the poshest boarding schools in the country.

Of course, Dad said that only Tories go to private schools, so sending me there was a bitter pill for him to swallow. By 1980, though, even he could see that I was struggling at Pimlico School — and sick and tired of being beaten up.

At Bedales, I didn’t pass a single A-level, never having been properly taught how to study.

Dad went into a depression and blamed himself for everything — although, when pressed by Mum, he couldn’t explain what it was he was blaming himself for, which I felt was part of the problem.

Eventually, I went into television, producing Nigella Lawson’s cookery shows. And in 2008 my wife and I bought a house just three doors away from my parents.

Today, there’s still a close-knit community in Gloucester Crescent, but the big difference is the approach we take towards our children’s education.

Unlike the laissez-faire attitude our parents had, we go in and talk to the teachers and get involved with the schools; we go to every meeting on offer.

Until Dad became very ill, I often got together with him for afternoon tea or a meal. But I went with the knowledge that his opinions no longer affected me in the way they had before.

Philip Larkin famously wrote: ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad’, but I don’t honestly think I ever was. I never stopped loving them. And my childhood, with all its highs and lows, gave me the resolve I needed to get on and make something of my life.

I’m eternally grateful for the part my parents played in that.

Adapted from Gloucester Crescent: Me, My Dad And Other Grown-Ups by William Miller, published by Profile at £8.99. ©William Miller 2018. To order a copy for £7.20 (offer valid to 14/12 19; P&P free), visit mailshop. or call 01603 648155.