Sir John Mortimer: Lawyer and writer who created Rumpole of the Bailey and elegised a bygone England
Saturday 17 January 2009
Elegantly rumpled in dress, slouching but spry in manner, wearing his principles lightly, John Mortimer was an old-fashioned man who lived an up-to-date life.
In a fine tally of books and plays, his mind and humour showedhow suited they were to dealing with 20th-century England's prejudices and contradictions.
Born in 1923, he grew up an only child in circumstances of modest privilege amid the moral certitudes of the Chilterns and Harrow School before the Second World War. From the interwar turbulence he learned more speedily than most of his coevals (never beating Kingsley Amis on points, but seeing off the literary likes of John Braine and John Wain) that irony and detachment were profitable weapons, provided you were equally armed with a capacity for care and involvement. Only if regarded as a comedy in middle England's temperate terms, he suspected, could the grim desolation of being English in mid-century be given perspective.
This balance became his credo, which he would never have dreamed of preaching at large, let alone boring his friends with. A private man hiding behind a public bonhomie, he loosely pretended to be just a clown while actually running on a tight rein a full-scale circus of professional activity in all forms of the written and spoken word, except verse. He made equal contributions, all good and timely, to the novel, the stage, cinema, newspapers, the sitcom, the TV serial; he was media militant in gentlemanly guise.
He was also by profession a lawyer, and by choice a lawless one: his desire to write made him rebel againstpaternal pressure. His father, Clifford, a barrister who dominated his lifeand vivified his work, had once said that much harmless fun was to be found in the Divorce Courts. He added that the law's great strength, unlike that of literature, was that it got you out of the house: "My dear boy, have some sort of consideration for your unfortunate wife". When small, John had to listen to nightly tales of his father's prowess. "Remarkable win today, old boy. Only evidence of adultery we had was a pair of footprints upside down on the dashboard of an Austin Seven parked in Hampstead Garden Suburb". (In the 1970 play A Voyage Round My Father the car was upped to the Daimler).
But however amusing adultery was in court – and in company he deployed anecdotes by the dozen – Mortimer's most reputable cases were in defence of freedom for culture, in other words prosecutions of the philistine Establishment. He helped to make the Sixties swing by rescuing Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn from obscenity and Richard Neville's Oz from obscurity and his courtly injections of good-natured wit made the bumbling of the law look an ass.
His attitude to politics was similarly deft, if not sly. He was leftish in an old English Fabian way, heart in the right place, brain refusing any rigid system. Though never on the fence, he was always on the verge of seeing his fairly beloved socialism disintegrate into his long-detested fascism, as if they were close partners, each somehow as suspect as the other. In 1988 he was prominent among the so-called champagne socialists who, chez Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser, in a climate of secrecy instantly pilloried by the press, formed the 20th June Group to further the causes of the left against the allure of Thatcher's politics. Chaps of the calibre of Anthony Howard gave papers; "evening classes", as David Hare termed these occasions. They were not Mortimer's style, perhaps on the grounds that they fatally lacked any style at all. He latterly deplored New Labour, having helped it to win. In later life much of his amiable scorn was focused on the politically correct. The seemingly proper, such as focus groups, touched off in him a proper mistrust.
Mortimer's childhood had brought him the extra "privilege" of myopia, enabling him to see the world in aglorious haze; his eyes made him an Impressionist. Reality could be edited, facts turned to fiction. When at theage of 10 a girl offered to show him her knickers, he simply whipped off his glasses. He was not always to beso abstemious. At Harrow he was soon busy rifling the library for "ideas which filled me with hilarity, gloomor almost unbearable lust". On the whole, however, he thought that any and all ideas we espoused made us look ridiculous. It was more saneto poke fun. On the question of free will he remained a lifelong agnostic: people killed their wives or wrote a goodplay because they were pointed that way from birth. He knew this to be a loose view, though not readily improved upon. Meanwhile it vaguely helped to explain the butterflying range of his talents.
It was characteristic of Mortimer's luck that when he went up in 1939 to Brasenose, he at once found himself elevated to Christ Church, the Brasenose buildings having been requisitioned for war workers. At Oxford his reading law rapidly matured into an eccentric understanding of its flaws; he was later to judge that "basic morality on which law is founded [is] crudely inferior to those moral values which everyone must work out for himself". He also claimed that the timelessness of phoney-war Oxford, where he got a "utility BA", taught him that the greatest gift was friendship. Nonetheless he had difficulty in maintaining an intimacy with his male friends, however "social" he felt. Women were another matter.
Mortimer's long career in films started as fourth assistant director with the Crown Film Unit in 1940, where he soon inherited Laurie Lee's role as scriptwriter (a rank emblazoned on his battledress), nicely rounding off that association in1998 with his script for the 13-part television version of Lee's Cider with Rosie. (His most notable adaptation was of Brideshead Revisited in 1981). His first novel, Charade (1947), was a comedy centring on the rigours and sniggers of a film unit, a good stab at what was to become vintage Mortimer in its mix of fun and pathos. This arose from his period of hanging around the Soho pubs in their post-war heyday, learning about dialogue not only from literate drunks but in the Legal Aid Centres where he earned scant fees as a fledgling barrister. The future looked bleakish, until he met Penelope Fletcher.
Overnight in 1949 he became a father, the youthful mentor to four stepdaughters when he married Penelope, five years his senior. They had two more children. (Much later, in 2004, he discovered that he had had a third, a son, by Wendy Craig, with whom he had a brief affair in the Sixties.) But a pair of writers in adjacent workrooms were apt to eat up the same material. His sensitive The Narrowing Stream (1954) was, in its lingering look at adultery, a foretaste of Penelope's literary obsessions. The couple ran the risk of sinking their quarrels into their books, of one developing at the expense of the other. Her bestseller The Pumpkin Eater (1962), filmed in 1964, only just postdated his first plays. First came The Dock Brief (1958) which had four lives in radio, theatre, TV and film. Mortimer saw their marriage as a mixture of his facile optimism and her sense of life's "undoubted awfulness". They lived for two decades in Swiss Cottage, the last of those years amid a degree of acrimony that later was to be bitterly written up. But by the time of her death in 1999 they were friends again.
His plays belonged to the 1960s. The kitchen sink never attracted him, nor as a young man was he angry. From the start his work in the theatre went against the trendy grain. He had seen himself from an early age – he used to tap-dance at home to his parents – as a performer, no show-off but a showman: he viewed his life as an entertainment, laid on for a large andever-widening audience. After it was produced on radio, it was Michael Codron who put on The Dock Briefand commissioned What Shall We Tell Caroline? to go with it 1958, whereupon the lines of Mortimer's activity began intertwining, the law, radio, theatre, film, fiction, the offcuts of each enriching the compost of others, until AVoyage Round My Father (1970) secured his fame as a dramatist. It was Shaftesbury Avenue's equivalent of a bestseller. Swift and cinematic, the action offered a daring variant onthe well-made play that drew thematinee audiences as well as the intelligentsia. Alec Guinness as John's father helped the play to a singular West End success. Meanwhile Mortimer, whose work missed by an ace the Royal Court ethos, later turned up trumps as a fund-raising chairman for that experimental theatre, leading it in 2000 to a triumphant new building on the old spot in Sloane Square. His love of theatre was as sumptuous as his delight in women.
His 1980s saw the dawn, less on the page than on screen, of Horace Rumpole, a creation intended "to keep me alive in my old age". Again the character was based on his father, his nattiness of dress, his fondness for poetic tags, his enthusiasm for Rider Haggard that led to Mrs Rumpole's enthronement as She Who Must Be Obeyed. By now Mortimer's own qualities were fused with the father's – a fine spirit of disrespect, a dislike of pretension, a relish for putting the boot in, or rather the soft shoe.
Rumpole's appeal lay in the very idea of defence: here was a drinker and dreamer defending us all against injustice, the law's absurdity and our own mistakes. The part was played by Leo McKern, whose acting, Mortimer said, "was where I hope my writing will be, about two feet above the ground, a little larger than life, but always taking off from reality". Rumpole ran, rather raggedly at times, to a lengthy series of novels, collections of stories and TV series (the last novel appeared in 2007). In an aside Clive James summarised Rumpole as a small mercy for which he thanked heaven.
After the exposure Rumpole brought him (even Australians hailed him at airports by his alter ego's name) he turned back to less obvious fiction in Paradise Postponed (1985) and Titmuss Regained (1990), which struck a chord by embodying his regrets for an England fading from sight. These books are a chatty elegy for a vanishing world – pubs losing character and charm, landscape being overrun by ill-designed sprawl, vulgarians corrupting public life – which his type of liberalism, his championship of the permissive, had helped to despatch. He was aware of a further irony: his successes, including dramatisations of these novels, were in the very medium of television that was closing the pubs, shutting down society, making us all uniform. It was yet another irony of his career that by conveying fun and pleasure in a period when most fiction seemed to be written by people who failed to enjoy life he was accused of laziness. But depth was not his forte and purely literary values, except that of narrative, were of no interest to him. He wrote as easily as he talked, and his spell on the page sprang from the personality of the prose.
Somewhere he describes his memories as "illustrations of the vanished professional, middle-class world of England between the wars; or the snapshots of an only child who had, in those slow-moving days, much time to notice things". His snaps were vivid. The two volumes of autobiography, in 1982 Clinging to the Wreckage, followed by Murderers & Other Friends in 1994, are less confessions than celebrations. He dodges in and out of strings of anecdote that between the lines reveal all he thinks you need to know of him, but nothing like the whole; their superficiality runs disingenuously deep. They are class acts.
This theatrical element of his career he ended as a one-man band, in a solo stage show at the King's Head in Islington where he offered the largesse of his store of anecdotes. As a fluent joker and scorer off modern living, he was rivalled only by David Niven and Donald Sinden in the belly-laughs he could provoke. He made regular appearances at literary festivals into his eighties. Auberon Waugh once said that "England would be a poor place without him". And so it now will feel.
Though much of his life was spent in London, he enjoyed a lifelong fidelity to one home, near Henley, the house his father built in a fold of the Chilterns. For years his favourite escape was annually to Chiantishire, a country he seemed to have invented, well celebrated in the bittersweet chapters of Summer's Lease (1988), which also turned out, with Gielgud as witty villain, sweeter on the screen than the page. His belief in family holidays, as the family grew ever larger, never faltered. He had two daughters by his second wife, Penelope Gollop, whom he married in 1972; the elder, Emily Mortimer, is a noted actress.
In later life the Gazelle d'Or in Morocco offered a luxurious retreat for a writer who had earned every right to spoil himself, while alwayscontinuing to produce. Mortimer enjoyed the trappings of a writer's life – the lunches, the travel, the chatswith stars – with as much pleasure as the work itself.
That the first of his recreations listed in Who's Who was "working"suggests the all-too-relaxed attitude to his art, sometimes even to his craft,for which he was often criticised. The other two are gardening (inherited from his father) and opera (to which he contributed in 1988 a translation of Die Fledermaus). But he arranged his real life to start early, rising at 5am in order to finish his day's work – and have his first glass of fizz – well before noon. If his daily routine began Spartan, it became sybaritic as quickly as conscience allowed. Summer of a Dormouse (2000) is a touching, self-deprecating account of old age, with a relaxed sense of himself, steering a middle course in life that fully accounts for his success as man and writer. Again he tucked the stoic neatly into the belly of the epicurean.
On the social scene, in that clacking drawl of a voice, his stories echoed and re-echoed round the Garrick, out to the Ivy and the smarter London rendezvous, and into the many societies over which he presided or committees on which he prominently served. He was Chairman of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature between 1989 and 1999, where his strong views lightly uttered tended to sound dismissive of much that was precious to literary thinking. For two decades (1968-88) he served on the board of the National Theatre, the self-serving egoism of which benefited from his leaven of sense. It is unimaginable that his views as president of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists' Trust between 1984 and 1990 were ignored.
Mortimer made good social use of his disorderly face, the sagging lower lip that articulated the jokes, the eyes fondly narrowed but magnified by mighty lenses, the gaze of beneficent or dreary sensuality. His was the voice of the silent majority, while speaking for no one but himself. He rallied the middle class, stirring its conscience without stimulating its guilt. Everything he did (or wore) was against the chic tendency of his time. In three-piece suits hung in loose folds over an ample frame, he lumbered about London and the Chilterns, acting the amateur and all-rounder whose far-from- solemn duty was adding spice and sauce to an all-too-tasteless age of professionals and specialists.
John Clifford Mortimer, writer and barrister: born London 21 April 1923; called to the Bar 1948 (Inner Temple); QC 1966; CBE 1986; Chairman, Council of the Royal Society of Literature 1989-99; Chairman, Royal Court Theatre, 1990-2000; President, Howard League for penal reform, 1991-2003; Kt 1998; Chairman, committee to advise on vacant plinth, Trafalgar Square, 1999-2001; married 1949 Penelope Fletcher (died 1999; one son, one daughter; one son with Wendy Craig; marriage dissolved 1972), 1972 Penelope Gollop (one son, two daughters); died Turville Heath, Buckinghamshire 16 January 2009.
David Hughes died 11 April 2005.
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