A vintage performance

Sir John Mortimer is 76, blind in one eye and walks with a limp, but he's still delightfully naughty and very funny. After all, there's no need to whinge. There's still time to write a truly great play - and have another glass of champagne
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The Independent Culture
The first time I speak to Sir John Mortimer - novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, author of that magnificent TV creation, Rumpole - it's on the telephone, when I ring him at his Chilterns home to firm up arrangements.

"Helloooooo," he goes.

"Sir John? It's Deborah Ross..."

"Oh, how marvellous!" he enthuses rapturously.

"From The Independent," I add, in case he thinks I'm about to sell him a kitchen, because there's no reason why he shouldn't.

"Oh, how doubly marvellous," he says.

"'It's about next Monday. I thought, as you were travelling down to appear in the Daphne Du Maurier Literary Festival, I could meet you there, and then maybe stay in the same hotel?"


"But no hanky-panky."

"No hanky-panky? Are you married?"

"No. But I have my reputation to think of, or what's left of it, which doesn't seem to be much these days, but might be worth holding on to all the same."

"Such a shame," he sighs. "Still, we'll have lots and lots and lots of fun and champagne, won't we?"

Sir John Mortimer is 76 and still beautifully naughty. I rather adore him already.

Anyway, to the Fowey Hotel in Fowey, Cornwall, where we meet at 3.30pm. Sir John arrives with his discreet little chauffeur-cum-manservant, Peter. John is blind in one eye. Plus, he did his leg in last summer when "I fell down some steps at a garden centre, in my rush to get at some red hot pokers". He needs a stick and Peter's arm to get about, and even then he has to be led achingly slowly, like a rather marvellous old circus bear. I'm not sure hanky-panky was ever truly on the cards, frankly, which is a terrible shame because, having thought about it, I conclude I possibly have no reputation left to speak of. Still, it is going to be fun, I think.

"Ah, there you are, Debbie dear," he cries in his terrific, falsetto voice. "Do you like my new haircut?" It's smashing, I say, in its swept- over, Bobby Charlton sort of way. "Oh no!" he moans. Oh no? "Well, I'd asked for a David Beckham..."

He would go up to his room, to dump his bags, but can't because it turns out to be two floors up, and he won't use the lift. "When I was six I got locked in the lavatory at the Negresco Hotel in Nice. Since then, I have always hated small spaces with doors that lock." This includes lifts, yes, and, it would seem, most toilets, too. He is very much an "I'm just going for a pee in the rockery" sort of man. "I'm just going for a pee in the rockery," he will announce whenever the need strikes, which is quite frequent. Anyway, Peter will take his bags up - "won't you, Pete?" - and then Peter will help him climb to his room later.

Sir John is marvellously English in the way he carries on as if everything is fine when maybe it isn't. His father - whom John immortalised in his truly great play, A Voyage Round My Father - was famously like that. His father, a divorce barrister, went blind, but just pretended he wasn't. "We never mentioned it and he never mentioned it. But now, if you turn on the radio, it's all people whingeing away about their illnesses, which is really boring." He misses this stoicism, he says, as well as a lot of other things that used to be English but don't seem to be anymore. "Oh, you know, not talking about money, not noticing food..."

He is helped into a chair in the hotel lounge, overlooking the crashing sea. He is wholly solicitous. "Are you all right, Debbie? Shall we order tea? I'd like something quite pissy-coloured and Chinesey myself..." He is endearingly round-cheeked, with a plump lower lip, and a diminishing number of small teeth. He has the face of a huge, sweet baby. The jumper he is wearing is even splattered with whatever he had for lunch. This turns out to be lobster and champagne at a local restaurant with one of his step-daughters, who now lives in Land's End. He acquired four step- daughters when he married his first wife, the novelist Penelope Mortimer. They also went on to have a further two children of their own. He was a divorce barrister, initially, who started writing on the side for purely economic reasons. "I had to divorce people at a huge rate and write stories for women's mags just to keep them all in knicker linings." It was romances, mainly. "And I still remember the rules. It always had to be an accidental meeting, because the people who read these things never knew anyone they fancied. So the heroine always had to run into someone on her bicycle on the high street. Of course, if it was a doctor, that was by far the best..." And Sir John is "off".

I say "off" because he is a brilliant performer. He may even be an unstoppable performer. It's hard to know where the performance ends and the person begins. What you meet is a performance but, as the performance is John, and he's so sharp, and it's massively entertaining, who cares? John on switching, ultimately, from divorce to crime: "I found to my surprise that murderers are really very agreeable clients. People in divorce cases are terrible clients. They ring you at 2am and say: "You'll never guess what he's done now. He's gone off with the toast rack!" But murderers - because they've killed the one person who was really bugging them - have a certain peace about them. I do think murderers get a very bad press." John on defending the Sex Pistols for making a record called Never Mind the Bollocks. "Of course, during the court case, I had to send them to the other end of town. One had green teeth!" John on getting sex education from his prep school master, just before going up to Harrow. "He said that if a boy was to offer me a piece of cake, I should just say very loudly: `I am going to tell the house master.' He added that the only real drawback to our great public-school system was: `Unsolicited cake!'"

Sir John has, as far as I can see, always performed. His earliest memory? "Being made a paper kilt by the cook and being asked to dance the Highland Fling." Later, he continues, he went on to enact all the great Shakespeare plays for his parents' amusement, which was quite something as he was an only child. "I did Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and was all the parts." Did you ever do Romeo and Juliet, and have to embrace yourself with some ardour? "No. But I did duel with myself in Hamlet."

His father, Clifford, whom he adored, was mad for Shakespeare. "Every time he caught sight of me he would say: `Is execution done on Cawdor?' When you are four, that's a pretty tough question to answer." He became a performance, possibly, to please his father. Certainly, his father took him to see all the plays at Stratford, "where he was of enormous assistance to the actors, as he could say all the lines five seconds before they could get to them". John's idol was always Olivier, whom he later got to know. "He wasn't at all an intellectual, but he was a genius. He once told me a wonderful thing. When he played Oedipus, and Oedipus is blinded, he did this incredible scream. I asked him how he thought of it and he said he thought of ermines, and the way they were trapped, which was by putting salt on the ice, and these little ermines would lick the ice and their tongues would stick. He thought of the pain of having your tongue stuck to ice, and expressing that pain was how he arrived at that scream... Now isn't that marvellous?"

So, he's inherited much from his father, yes. His literary tastes. His stoicism. His initial profession. His glaucoma. And now, even, his house in the Chilterns, where John grew up and now lives with his second wife (another Penny known as Penny the Second, and with whom he had two further children). He has even inherited his father's dahlias. His father was mad for dahlias, and got very mad at the earwigs that were always eating them. "We'd have this bucket of very hot water, pick them off the dahlias, then drop them in and drown them." I say it's a good job Olivier didn't imagine an earwig being scalded for his Oedipus scream, because an earwig being scalded probably just emits a tiny: "eeee!" And that wouldn't have been especially dramatic, would it? John giggles one of his naughty falsetto giggles. He then says: "Have you seen Polly James?" No, I say. "Oh well, she is small."

Polly James is appearing with John in tonight's performance of Mortimer's Miscellany, a sort of party piece of readings, anecdotes, poems and musical interludes, all chosen by John, and which he takes round literary festivals with various actresses and musicians. At 5.30pm, after "a quick pee in the rockery", Pete drives us to the Fowey Festival Theatre for a run-through. We talk about people he has known. Kingsley Amis? "He was very grumpy as an old man. But, then, he was very grumpy as a young man." Graham Greene? "He told me that if you're writing fiction, you have to read Henry James, to find out it's worth it." We arrive at the theatre. Polly's already there. Big hugs all round. "Do you like my new haircut?" John asks her. "It's very suave," she says. "Suave?" he queries. "It's meant to be butch! Butch!"

A quick run-though, then into the dressing room, where a crew from CBS are waiting. John, apparently, is being filmed for this American television company's Sixty Minutes documentary strand. The producer is attractive and young and called Eleanor. "Ah, Eleanor. How lovely to see you," exclaims John. "How are the wedding plans going? Have you sorted out that ghastly flat?" Women adore him, I think, because he not only listens, but listens then remembers. I find I'm quite jealous. I tell him, later, that Eleanor probably has a reputation to think of, and he possibly won't get anywhere. "Absolutely!" he giggles.

He is popular in America, yes. In fact, his latest novel, The Sound of Trumpets, actually did better there than it did here, which he considered odd at first, because it's a scathing satire on New Labour. "But, then, Blair and Clinton are quite similar in many ways, aren't they?" John is a stunning champagne socialist. He sometimes, even, has his first glass at 10am. He says: "I don't see why, if you have left-wing politics, you should have to wear a bobble hat and an anorak and drink real beer. You should enjoy life, whatever your political beliefs are." Spectacular nonsense, of course. Still, what does he hate most about this Government? "The worst thing is focus groups, and asking people what they think all the time. A government should just get on with it. Don't come and ask me about the ERM or whatever. I can't be bothered to find out." He's given his five-minute call. He puts on a smart waistcoat. He puts on a vivid yellow tie.

"What do you think of it?" he asks. "It's very yellow," Polly and I chorus. "It's Gucci!" he cries.

The show is a success. Sir John is terribly funny. There is a big queue afterwards, of fans wanting signed books. We get back into the Mercedes at about 11pm. John, for the first time, seems quiet, a little worn out. I ask him if he ever gets depressed. "Oh yes. In the afternoons." What depresses you? "Being old is depressing," he concedes. "The day you hear the voice of God saying, `Thou Shalt Not Be Able to Put On Your Own Socks', that's depressing. And so little time left." So little time left to do what? "To write a truly great play." But haven't you done that? What about A Voyage Round My Father? What about your first great radio play, Dock Brief? "Oh, not enough... And while I've written good novels, I've never written a great novel." This may be a glimpse of something behind the performance. Although it doesn't last long. I ask him if the thought of death bothers him. Not especially, he says. And not as much as the thought that our souls might be immortal. "A rather boring conception. Like living for eternity in a huge Trust House Forte with nothing to do in the evenings."

Back at the hotel, we collect in the bar, with the musicians and Polly. Polly thinks she lost it tonight. "I couldn't gauge the audience. I just shouted." John is heroically reassuring. "Polly, darling, you were marvellous. Polly, you were MAGNIFICENT." We order champagne. I offer to pay. John won't let me. I say if he doesn't, I'll poke him in his good eye and kick him in his good leg. He surrenders. At 2am, with Peter having long gone to bed, Polly and I help John climb to his room. We turn back the sheets for him on the huge four-poster bed. "Thank you so much, ladies," he says. I don't know how he gets into the bed, or even if he does. But I do see him early the next morning at reception. "Oh my god, it's David Beckham!" I cry. We laugh. No hanky-panky, sadly, but a great deal of fun, yes. I adore him rather a lot.