Rumpole creator Mortimer dies at 85

Barrister and author Sir John Mortimer has died, his publisher said today.

Tony Lacey, his editor at Viking, said: "It's hard to think he's gone.

"At least we're lucky enough to have Rumpole to remind us just how remarkable he was."

Mortimer, the self-styled good-living "champagne socialist", was a successful barrister, but an even more successful writer, and creator of the criminal defence lawyer Horace Rumpole, one of the great comic fictional characters of his generation.

Even in old age, Mortimer, although confined to a wheelchair, continued to write profusely, provocatively and amusingly, shamelessly destroying shibboleths, and even appearing on stage.

He enjoyed a cavalier but not malicious contempt for political correctness, feminism and the constant campaign for equality in everything.

On feminism, he once said: "It has become discriminatory. All these things start out by wanting to be equal and end up by wanting to be on top."

And when he was once asked whether men and women could communicate without gender getting in the way, he replied: "No, thank God for it. Vive La Difference. I think women don't want to be sex objects, but I'd love to be a sex object. My own ambition is to be loved only for my body."

Despite his commitment to socialism, Mortimer was often highly critical of Tony Blair's Labour Government, often targeting the prime minister himself with damaging barbs.

Once he said: "Blair is a not very impressive politician, playing at being a statesmen. Tell him to stop pretending to be a mini-Churchill and to calm down."

John Clifford Mortimer was born on April 21, 1923. His father was a prominent divorce lawyer. "He told me to go and divorce people, which was really quite easy."

He was educated at Harrow and Brasenose College, Oxford and called to the Bar in 1948. The following year he married Penelope Ruth Fletcher. The marriage was dissolved in 1972 and she died in 1999. He subsequently married Penelope Gollop.

Mortimer actually regretted having read law at Oxford. "Knowing the law is not much help for an advocate," he said. "In fact it is a bit of a disadvantage. Cramps your style."

After graduating he got a job at Pinewood Studios as a script writer, when it was home to Noel Coward, David Niven and Dickie Attenborough during the Second World War. "I made £11 a week and had a flat in Chelsea and I had a really good time. Some of the happiest years of my life. We used to go to parties and wait for the bombs to fall on someone else."

His famous court appearances included the Oz censorship trial, the Linda Lovelace so-called Deep Throat case and numerous others involving alleged pornography. His style of cross-examination was always to charm and not to badger.

As a lawyer he was a traditionalist. "If you are about to be sent down for life, you don't want someone in a T-shirt, jeans and trainers doing it. You want the whole works."

He was also pro-fox-hunting, in favour of the Royal family, but "against" religion. He always said he "loved" foreigners and was "all for" homosexuality.

But despite his success as a barrister, Mortimer always considered the law to be a way to support his true love - writing. He thought of the law really as nothing other than a day job, "like girls who want to be actresses".

Even so, did enjoy acclaim as a barrister, especially for his successful defences in censorship cases. He also represented many divorce clients and murderers during his barrister years. He always said he much preferred the murderers.

"I found criminal clients easy and matrimonial clients hard. Matrimonial clients hate each other so much and use their children to hurt each other in beastly ways. Murderers have usually killed the one person in the world that was bugging them and they're usually quite peaceful and agreeable."

But he said the law gave him great insights. "People will go to endless trouble to divorce one person and then marry someone who is exactly the same, except probably a bit poorer and a bit nastier. I don't think anybody learns anything."

He always regarded writing as being much harder than being a lawyer. But he did admit that writing had rather less disastrous results. "If you write a bad book, no one goes to prison which is rather a relief."

Rumpole, his most famous character, was created in the mid-1970s and was, most people think, based on his stern father. His motto was: "Never plead guilty."

These famous stories were a massive success on television. Mortimer also wrote several memoir novels, such as Summer's Lease, Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained, and Dunster, with numerous plays, film scripts and television dramas, including an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

But Rumpole was by far and away his most famous character. A bewigged barrister, but not a Queen's Counsel, with a passion for cheap wine ("Chateau Thames Embankment") and a dedication to criminal defence. He became hugely popular on television, solving droll mysteries with barely a twitch of his stiff upper lip. Rumpole's wife, Hilda, was always known as "she who must be obeyed".

The Rumpole stories dealt with all sorts of issues, like euthanasia, fox-hunting, devil worship and children in care, but not at all in a pompous or preaching kind of way. His stories were as funny as his earlier performances in court as a barrister, where once a judge gently rebuked him by telling him the courts were not supposed to be places of entertainment.

Mortimer was an early-morning writer - and drinker as well, regularly having a glass of champagne first thing in the day. He started writing at about 5am and by midday, he reverted to imbibing.

He always said writers had to be ruthless. "Your material is your life. So anybody who lives with you has the danger of being in books all the time. When I have quarrels with my wife, which doesn't happen very often," he once said, "I write down her dialogue and give it to Hilda (Rumpole's wife)."

He received a CBE in 1986 and was knighted in 1998.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little