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Happy Days and a happy birthday treat

30 July, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Jonathan Miller

TO celebrate what would have been Jonathan Miller’s 86th birthday on July 26 – he died last November – his son William did something that has touched me.

It also touched the Reverend William Gulliford of St Mark’s Church, Primrose Hill. He asked him to send a special emailed newsletter to his parishioners, linking it with a video Jonathan would have enjoyed.

I am sure the Rev Gulliford was only too keen to oblige considering that in his preamble to William’s message he makes clear his barely disguised admiration by referring to him as a “local hero, for his championing of an end to street narrowing in Parkway”, referring to what amounted to direct action by local residents to dismantle bollards set up by Transport for London to reduce the major road to one lane at the junction with Camden High Street.

As for William’s request, it is a lovely nostalgic trip back to the 1930s with a rendering of one of his favourite pieces, Happy Days Are Here Again, by special friends of Jonathan’s from English National Opera.

‘The Gentlemen of ENO’ – Pablo Strong; David Newman; Paul Sheehan; Mike Burke; Andrew Tinkler and Simon Hayes performing a version of Happy Days Are Here Again

But not any version. But a special one dedicated to a group of singers, many of them Jewish, who died in the Nazi death camps in the 30s – a famous German cabaret act called the Comedian Harmonists. I had known of them for sometime and once bought a fridge magnet of them during a trip to Berlin – and as I talked to William over the phone it looked across at me from the fridge.

Jonathan “never saw the point of birthdays” William explains in his message to the Rev Gulliford, but he and his friends from ENO decided to celebrate it anyway with a special version of Happy Days Are Here Again.

This group sang it at Jonathan’s funeral held at St Mark’s Church in December. The service came about in a strange way because, of course, Jonathan was an avowed and well known atheist – and it was not to be expected that his funeral would be conducted in a church. But it was – and the church was packed with more than 300 mourners.

William Miller

William, who lives a few doors from his father’s home in Camden Town, told me that the family seemed faced with a service to be held at Golders Green cremator­ium but when officials said they could only provide a chapel holding 100 mourners, an invitation came from the Rev Gulliford who said he knew Jonathan was an atheist but offered a secul­ar service at his church because he was such a towering figure in the arts.

William said the family wanted to highlight in their message to parishioners something Jonathan would have been deeply upset by – “the devastating effect the Covid-19 crisis has had on so many talented singers, performers and back-of-house staff who work tirelessly in our incredible theatres and opera houses both here and around the world.

“Jonathan felt passionately about their welfare and the crucial role they play in maintaining the rich cultural fabric of our society,” William said.

Knowing this, the family went back to the ENO group and asked them “to go wild, push the boundaries of technology and come up with their lockdown version” of Happy Days.

I have been humming the haunting tune ever since I clicked on the video dedicated to the Original Harmonists. It seems a perfect tribute not only to Jonathan but also the brilliant and inven­tiveness of all musicians and performers in these challenging times.

• Watch the performance at https://youtu.be/0rNNDNUmPVE

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