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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there