Rumpole creator Mortimer dies at 85

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The Independent Online

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.