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Michael Coveney: A Miller's Tale, a Life in Style

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I've been reading Kate Bassett's biography of Jonathan Miller over Christmas, and very enjoyable it is, too. Curmudgeons everywhere will appreciate the suggestion of Miller's daughter, also called Kate, that Bassett's book should be titled "Grumpy Old Sod."

For it's a poignant feature of the book, In Two Minds, that the polymath director and former doctor harbours grudges, makes enemies and hates growing old. It's as if his huge intelligence is some kind of affliction to be gloried in and lamented at the same time.

But what a career he's had. Curiously enough, Bassett, although a theatre critic, is best on the television work and general interests such as biology, philosophy and neurology, her chapter on Miller's brilliant Alice in Wonderland (God, that Tim Burton film version is terrible) by some distance the best sustained piece of critical writing in the book.

And what a wonderfully full life he's led. The old boy's probably got a few more years left, so Bassett's book, unless it's reissued later on, will never be complete. This in itself is a strange feeling for biographers. My own books on Robert Stephens and Ken Campbell are as complete as I could make them (the first co-written with the subject in the last year of his life, as it turned out, the second after Campbell had died), but my studies of Mike Leigh, Maggie Smith and Andrew Lloyd Webber are all now irritatingly unfinished, and the impulse to update is not (for me, at least) all that strong.

It's the obituary that has to distil a life and its work into a few hundred words that can sometimes be more satisfying than the full-length tome. People often say that writing them must be a dismal, depressing business. In fact, it's exactly the opposite.

Except, of course, when the subject is someone you know well. And such, for me, was the sadness of having to write about the untimely death of Emma Style, a casting director who passed away at the absurdly early age of 50 (she suffered a heart attack) a week before Christmas.

It is very likely that Emma would have become a notable film producer. She was intelligent, alert, opinionated and very funny. And she always wore great shoes. As a casting director she worked for Franco Zeffirelli (poignantly, Tea With Mussolini, which she cast, was on television over the holiday, and very delightful it was, too), television companies and independent studios. She recently cast Runaway on Sky, Women in Love and the other series of the Borgias (not the Jeremy Irons one).

She was a regular first night companion of mine, although she had recently, and inconveniently (for me), moved to Cookham on the Thames where she was creating a cosy new home with her long-standing partner, Peter Haley, who works for a transport charity.

She always got slightly agitated (well, very annoyed) if I introduced her to people as a casting agent. A casting director works for a producer, whereas a casting agent works for his or her client, the actor. So a casting director is much closer to the overall artistic nature of the enterprise, and it was Emma's talent for placing an actor in a creative context that marked her out. And she was a great theatre companion because she had such definite taste and almost unforgivingly high standards.

I don't go to the theatre to agree with anyone, least of all my guest or my fellow critics. I go to have an argument, or a discussion, and if I'm going to agree with somebody, I'm only interested in the intensity of that agreement, not its expression. So, with Emma, the best nights were always the ones where she'd hated the play, or the opera, and then told me why over a drink or dinner. But disliking something wasn't the same as feeling you'd wasted an evening. There was always something - the design, a particular actor, even the company around us - that fired her energy and enthusiasm.

Her funeral, just before the holiday, was extraordinary. I've never seen so many people crammed into one of those small dismal crematorium chapels as the one at Putney Vale was. And, even more remarkably, most of the mourners, apart from her immediate family and closest friends, were fellow professionals. Film and television pre-production in London must have ground to an absolute standstill for several hours. The service was Jewish Reform, and brilliantly conducted by a lady rabbi in both Hebrew and English.

Her list of "first job" clients includes Christopher Eccleston (we'd made a point of seeing him together in Antigone at the National last year), Jude Law, Michelle Dockery, Joseph Fiennes, Daniel Craig and, most recently, Joanna Vanderham.

The latter she plucked straight from drama school. Emma had been primed for responding to originality and distinctiveness in performers by attending a character-moulding liberal arts and drama course at Stratford-upon-Avon College when she was just 16, before taking the stage-management course at Central School alongside, on the acting course, Natasha Richardson and Michael Grandage. Her Stratford alumni include Ben Elton, Simon Pegg, Lauren Samuel and Joseph Mawle, none of them conventionally talented, all of them strangely, almost quirkily, gifted.

And her first flat-mate in Stratford was the Rev Richard Coles, the radio broadcaster and former member of the 1980s band The Communards who is now a priest in the Church of England. Emma's friends were always a bit different, and I was proud to be one of them.


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