Vale John Miller
I attended the funeral last Thursday of my friend, John Miller. Now, almost a week later it’s beginning to sink in that he’s actually gone.
I first met John in the 1980s whilst working on 4BC’s breakfast program with Wayne Roberts. John had arrived at the station from 2UE or one of the many Newsrooms that he starred in since the commencement of his media career in the early 70s. I was aware of John’s considerable talent from the stories that Wayne often narrated about his Number 1 rating show on 4BK in the late seventies and it didn’t take long for me to realise that John had played a considerable part in those ratings. In fact, for a while I resented his presence in a “professional jealousy” kind of way. John was, in those days, larger and happier than he was to become in later life, possessing a thick and luxurious beard and head of jet black hair. He had played a big part in writing many of the comedy sketches on Wayne’s program, including the lyrics of “Day Trip to Bribie” and had starred alongside Wayne in a couple of TV specials. He was an intellectual comic of some standing; his anecdotes were sophisticated and funny. It all finished in 1991. Wayne decided it was time for one of his many retirements, I followed suit and was offered a job at 2UW in Sydney (from where I had come) and John and I lost contact.
Fast forward to the mid 90s and I was again working at 4BC in a writing and sales capacity. John was engaged by the station to produce Wayne again on one of his comebacks and our friendship was rekindled. Wayne retired again and John moved into the role of breakfast show host, a role he relished. As producer of Wayne’s program it had often frustrated John that the show wasn’t more serious, more political, more ACA on radio. This was his chance to make it just that and he did. John Michael Miller loved nothing more than a good “stoush” with a pollie, particularly if they were a Green or Labor member. He never actually confirmed his colours on radio but John made his political leanings more obvious than Alan Jones, Stan Zemanek and Julie Bishop rolled into one.
In 2001 I was recruited to “add some light and shade” to the breakfast show in an effort to inject some humour and magazine style elements into the program. It appears that John had gone too far in the political direction. This time it was John’s turn to resent my presence! Who could blame him. He had inherited a fairly large chunk of Wayne’s salary conditions after his departure (Wayne was always an awesome negotiator!) and even though the deal was a good one in the eyes of management, John was still on more than most jocks around town. Now, he had to take a further cut so that I could share the studio. Management and I struck a deal and we headed off to lunch to Circa to “celebrate”. Chris Adams was producer at the time and so, whilst Chris and I ambled up to the restaurant, John strode out in front, some fifty paces or so. The body language was unmistakable.
In those early days, John gradually released the reins on the program a little at a time, letting me have a few words here and there to “be funny” as I gradually earned his respect and as I gradually re-educated myself in the goings on of the world. Paul Dousley, the PD at the time, likened our program to a ship at sea. In calm weather John would let me take the wheel and have some fun but as soon as dark clouds loomed on the horizon, John would figuratively say, “Give her to me, son!”. Great analogy, Paul.
September 11 happened and it was no time to be funny. Here is where I met the real John Miller. He handled the broadcast on that fateful day with the finesse, compassion, professionalism and fluency that only a true journalist could manage. His list of contacts, his knowledge of the landscape of the United States both geographically and politically were second to none. We interviewed firemen, survivors, media commentators, families of survivors, observers, police, politicians, bystanders and clergy. I went along for the ride that day.
Between 2001 and 2005 John and I delivered the station’s best breakfast program ratings since the 80s. We had great fun doing it, too. Peter Psaltis used to panel for us in the early days and on one unfortunate morning was recovering from a couple too many at the Adrenalin Sport Bar the night before. He was green and was doing an awful lot of swallowing. An aspiring talk show host was visiting us from Perth and was sitting in on the program to learn “how it was done in Brisbane”. During the 7am News I again asked “Salty” how he was doing. He reponded by wheeling his chair around and projectile vomiting into the sound proof cloth on the back wall of the studio. John was reading the paper and without missing a beat began to dry reach, joining “Salty” in a harmonious cry to the moose in the big white telephone. We had a female producer who was delivering something to the studio at the time and she, too, joined into the chorus. Three adult people, all making great haste towards the studio doorway, “Salty” with a few bits of loose carrot on his shirt and John and the producer yet to let fly but very close. The Perth man was wide eyed in amazement. I manned the fort.
Our partnership began to go off the boil. I noticed a deterioration in John’s health. His stride was getting shorter and his smoke breaks seemed to be more often than ever. John was ailing and he knew it. I would say, “Mate, you need to take better care of yourself” and he’d reply, “Nah, I’m alright, if I go, I go…my dad went early and so will I”. John became a fatalist, predicting that he was here for a good time and not a long time. We parted on air company in late 2005. Peter Dick jumped into the chair and John entered into a period in his life which he must have found unbearable. John had loved the power, the prestige, the contacts, the tickets and invitations that automatically come to an on air “personality”. He moved back into documentary territory, playing a huge part in the filming of the revitalisation of City Hall but that job wasn’t going to last forever.
I didn’t speak to John much between 2008 when I left 4BC and the present day but I can picture him at home, cigarette in one hand, scotch or phone in the other. I’m sure he used to alternate the three with never an empty hand. Pollies, media contacts, friends and John’s impressive array of “well informed sources” would have graciously accepted maybe one too many of John’s calls in those last few months of his life as he battled with his demons, his thirst for acknowledgement and his despair at his flagging career.
Then, he fell down the stairs, didn’t he. I knew he would.
In so doing, he left his beloved wife, Llyn without a husband and companion and the two other beings in his life that he ferociously defended, Lucas and Eleanor, without a father. And for that, John Michael Miller, I’m just a little annoyed at you. You’re meant to still be around at fifty nine; you’re meant to be a grandfather.
You’re meant to be the learned, witty, charming, irreverent, pompous, gregarious orator who could impart the words of wisdom to those grandkids that only a man who lived the life of twenty men could do. And now you’re gone.