Gloucester Crescent, and a trip down memory lane
His father, Dr Jonathan Miller, is just one of the residents of Gloucester Crescent William Miller writes about in his memoir. He discusses growing up there with Dan Carrier
31 August, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
William and Jonathan Miller. Photo: Sarah Collis
THE Gloucester Crescent group have become an NW1 version of the Bloomsbury Set – an almost mythical bunch of artists and intellectuals who happened to pitch up in the same Camden Town street from the early 1960s onwards, and in more recent times have spawned a sub-genre of London literature that describes their lives and times.
Now William Miller, the son of Sir Jonathan Miller, has penned a memoir of what it was like to be a youngster in a place that many a cultural colossus called home.
Because the likes of Alan Bennett, Nina Stibbe and David Thomson have written books on the neighbourhood, and plenty of dirty linen has been aired, there was much that William wanted to avoid.
“I didn’t want to write about various scandals,” he says. “And living there wasn’t like being part of some dreadful aristocratic family, with headless bodies lying in beds. It was not my place to reveal things others have worked hard not to discuss. Others have, and made people angry. I wanted to write a story about a boy growing up in this environment. What was it like to be surrounded by these extraordinary people?”
The genesis for the memoir stemmed from William, a TV producer, moving to a house three doors down from his family home, where his parents still live.
“I left aged 18 – I wanted to get away from here,” he says. “Moving back wasn’t just about being close to my parents again, it was about falling in love with the house, the street again. I had been gone for 27 years and established myself.
“It meant I could live in close proximity to my dad on a completely different basis. I see my mum every day and I see my dad having a fag on the steps. You become blasé about seeing them and I like that. I am closer to them than I ever have been.”
Telling the story from a child’s perspective, Gloucester Crescent: Me, My Dad and Other Grown-Ups carries us through William’s formative years. There’s a parade of characters with walk-on parts. As well as his mother and father, Alan Bennett and other Beyond The Fringe players, Sir AJ Ayer and family, George Melly, Claire Tomalin, Shirley Conran, Alice Thomas Ellis and her husband Colin Haycroft offer a well-connected background.
A young William Miller with friends in Gloucester Crescent
“I wanted to write about what it was like to be among all these people, and be completely oblivious as to how famous they were,” he says. “The hardest thing to do was to get the voice of myself as a boy right, but it was also comforting. It was like revisiting an old friend.”
We hear of Melly’s parties, where he’d play a game called Man, Woman, Bulldog. It entailed him dropping his trousers and using his lower anatomy to do impressions.
William recalls sitting in on his father, Alan Bennett, and Peter Cook with Pythons Terry Jones and John Cleese in their sitting room as they rehearsed sketches for the Secret Policeman’s Ball gig at the Albert Hall for Amnesty International.
“They spent ages discussing each line, how they’d act it out and then dissecting the jokes and working on them until the whole thing was perfect,” he writes.
“They also did quite a bit of chatting and laughing about the old days.”
Other quirks of Miller family life are revealed. Holidays were taken in Scotland, and on the drive there car brakes would be slammed on when roadkill was spotted. The unfortunate creature was scooped up to be dissected on the kitchen table by Jonathan as part of a biology lesson.
“Mum told us when she first married dad he brought a brain home from the hospital and dissected it for her on the kitchen table of their flat,” he adds.
“I know Dad is never going to teach us things like football or swimming, but I love learning about biology and I can see he likes teaching and, best of all, it makes him happy to be with us on holiday.”
Other eccentricities of his father shine through. We learn of his failure to remember to feed a pet budgie, which then starved to death on his watch. He took it to Palmers pet store in Parkway, bought a new bird, and then had to saw the dead one’s leg off to remove a ring and fix it to the new one. The subterfuge did not work.
Away from the humour, William considers how the politics of parents affect their offspring. He went to Pimlico school – “seen as the best comprehensive in London” – and was miserable. He persuaded his parents to send him to the well-heeled, if liberal, private boarding school, Bedales, which ran contrary to his father’s beliefs.
But above all, William has written a eulogy to the street that provided the base for a man who has strode across the British cultural landscape for six decades.
“My parents came to the Crescent in 1961 for the simple reason that they had just made some money from Beyond the Fringe and Dad thought he was going back to practising medicine at UCH,” he says.
“My mother was doing her residency at the Royal Free, and this was an affordable street that was equidistant between the two hospitals.
“This was before the Clean Air Act and there was unbelievable squalor – there was soot from the railways on everything. A lot of the houses had bedsits in them, and there were also interesting, radical people coming in to live here.”
• Gloucester Crescent: Me, My Dad and Other Grown-Ups. By William Miller, Profile Books, £14.99