First broadcast in America by PBS in 1979 (in Great Britain it aired the year before) Jonathan Miller’s classic 13-part series on the history of medicine, The Body in Question, was one of the most celebrated PBS “big events” of that decade. The creator’s goal? To explain life itself to a mainstream television audience.
The Body in Question, an internationally funded production spearheaded by the BBC, did for medical science and physiology what Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos did for Western art, history and our understanding of the universe. Like these other series, Miller’s program is regarded as a landmark in long-form television documentaries, but unlike them, it has curiously never been made available for the home video market. This is beyond tragic, but The Body in Question can now be seen on YouTube.
Although Jonathan Miller is a well-known and (generally) much-beloved pillar of British society—a member of that endangered species they used to refer to as “public intellectuals”—sadly, he is less recognized as a freakishly smart cultural treasure in the former colonies. This was not always true. For a few years at least, Miller was actually somewhat of a frequent sight on American television. More than once he appeared on five daily episodes of Dick Cavett’s PBS series in a row. These marathon conversations made for some of the most fascinating television I’d ever seen and I recall taping the audio from the TV speaker so I could at least listen to them again. Although I have not heard these tapes since I was probably 15, I can still hear, in my mind’s ear, Miller explaining to Cavett about Franz Mesmer, “mesmerism” and hypnotism. (And indeed here that show is, via Dick Cavett’s New York Times blog.)
When I was a kid, Jonathan Miller seemed absolutely heroically brilliant to me (he still does, I hasten to add). I didn’t find out about him via The Body in Question or the Cavett shows, I knew of him because of the “Original Broadway Cast Recording” (the American version, in other words) of the Tony-winning satirical revue, Beyond The Fringe (which also starred Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and the great playwright Alan Bennett). A friend of mine’s father had seen the show on Broadway in the 60s and he owned the record. Because I was such a Monty Python nerd, I’d read about Beyond the Fringe. Eventually, I was pulling it out and listening to it every time I was at their house and he told me I could just have it. I still have it. I also still have my copy of the coffee table book of the series, as seen above. When The Body in Question aired, to my pre-teen mind, it was hosted by the comedian who did the Bertrand Russell imitation—not to mention the Shakespearean character who refuses to die (“Now is steel ‘twixt gut and bladder interposed!”)—in Beyond The Fringe. He was also a doctor? And he directed Gilbert and Sullivan?
Jonathan Miller seemed to be the single most erudite man alive.
But back to the series, The Body in Question is on YouTube in decent quality, and if you’ve never seen it, it’s an amazing treat. I guarantee that you will be smarter after you’ve watched it. Miller was the first person ever to perform an autopsy on a human cadaver on television, an act that would have seen him put to death just a few centuries earlier, not that they had TV back then, of course.