John Mortimer: The good fight

John Mortimer loves the Sixties: when the Left was left, the Right was right and lunch - ah, lunch - was liquid and long... These days, he tells Sholto Byrnes, he's of a mind to set Rumpole on the Home Secretary
Click to follow

'Byron," says Sir John Mortimer over a pre-prandial glass of white wine - "to help us on our way", as he puts it - "was probably the only decent Old Harrovian." He pauses, his features barely moving behind his saucer-sized glasses. "I suppose Churchill was all right. Trollope was a day boy," he continues in his small, soft voice, "and he used to have to walk through wet fields to school, so he was bullied because he was muddy."

'Byron," says Sir John Mortimer over a pre-prandial glass of white wine - "to help us on our way", as he puts it - "was probably the only decent Old Harrovian." He pauses, his features barely moving behind his saucer-sized glasses. "I suppose Churchill was all right. Trollope was a day boy," he continues in his small, soft voice, "and he used to have to walk through wet fields to school, so he was bullied because he was muddy."

It's exactly the kind of anecdote one hopes Mortimer will relate about his alma mater, where the young John formed a solitary, one-man, Communist cell. "When Hitler and Stalin were on the same side at the beginning of the war I used to get letters instructing me to slow down production on my factory floor. So I told the Classical 5th to translate Virgil very slowly. They didn't need much encouragement." Mortimer is enjoying the story. "Then when Hitler attacked Russia I was told to speed up production, and I thought they didn't know what they wanted. So I became an anarchist for a while." Trés amusant. Very Garrick Club bar. Very Mortimer.

Notwithstanding youthful flirtations with other political philosophies, Mortimer is, and has been for the last 40 years, the very epitome of the bien pensant Labour supporter, equally at home holding forth in the grandest of salons as appearing on serious, left-wing platforms. The prolific author and playwright (perhaps best known for creating the character of Rumpole of the Bailey) who was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Book Awards last week, is also the crusading barrister who fought the liberal cause in the Lady Chatterley's Lover, Oz and Gay News trials of the Sixties and early Seventies.

He helped pass the 1968 Theatres Act which removed the Lord Chamberlain's power of censorship over the stage. And he is a natural to preside over or chair such organisations as the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Royal Court Theatre, and the committee to advise on the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Neil and Glenys Kinnock are old friends who have holidayed with the Mortimers in Tuscany. Close to Turville Heath Cottage outside Henley, where Mortimer has lived on and off since he was nine, when his father built the house, are other friends. Jeremy Paxman and Melvyn Bragg are nearby. John Lord from Deep Purple and the Oldie editor Richard Ingrams pop by to have a singalong on the piano that sits opposite a Hockney, and just round the corner from a Picasso, in Mortimer's home.

But today the schoolboy whose Communism and lack of enthusiasm on the sports field marked him apart at Harrow is isolated for another, less amusing, reason. This is the first election in which he will not vote Labour. "There isn't a Labour Party any more," he tells me. "There are two Conservative Parties, trying to make it seem as though there's a real difference between them, which there isn't. The Labour Party has got no room for the things that I believe in, such as ancient civil liberties, not imprisoning people without trial, preserving the presumption of innocence, trial by jury. The idea that there's going to be a Lord Chancellor who isn't a lord or a judge, and is possibly David Blunkett, is so horrific. So all of that has made me realise that I can't vote Labour." He will tick the Liberal Democrat box instead.

What about friends such as the Kinnocks, I ask Mortimer. What do they think? "I saw Neil very lately," he says, "and we were all criticising the Labour Party, and he said: 'Yes, they're all wrong, they're all absolutely misguided. And I want them to win by a vast majority!' I haven't really met anybody - I mean people like Robert Harris and so on - who speaks up for New Labour."

I say that I suppose the Kinnocks have to be loyal. "Yes," he says. "Glenys's argument is that they do do good things in Wales." He looks unconvinced. That's not very comforting for the rest of us, I suggest. "No, heh heh heh." I tell him I'd heard his wife would be voting Tory. "She did say that," he says, as though he can't really believe it. "Her great thing is foxhunting." Were either of them Labour members? "I don't think I've ever actually signed up, but Penny has." So has she resigned? "She's resigning her membership, yes."

It is a significant break, but Mortimer can't find anything good to say about the party he supported for so long. All the New Labour Home Secretaries have been "dreadful". "Jack Straw started getting at juries, Blunkett did a worse thing - imprisoning people without trial. And the other man with the very large ears" - Charles Clarke? - "yes, Charles Clarke, he's carrying it on."

I ask him how he would describe his beliefs. "I think you can divide people into those who think that people are basically good, and I suppose I come into that category, and the real right wing view - that people are actually nasty and brutish, and unless you have very strict constraints they'll go mad and rape the traffic wardens."

His brand of quite libertarian, Sixties, liberalism has been under attack for some time, I say. "Everyone blames the Sixties now," he says. "They say schoolteachers just taught children to make boats out of lavatory rolls and didn't teach them how to spell. But I think we were trying to get people to understand other people's different lives and be tolerant of them. It was also an incredible time," he says, "when, for very little money, you could have lunch down the King's Road with lots of wine."

Ah, yes, lunch. Lunch and its attendant comforts, one suspects, have always been very important to John Mortimer. At the age of 82 (his birthday was on Thursday), Mortimer has shed some of his habitual comfortable girth and is no longer very mobile. His eyesight is poor and outside of the house he uses a wheelchair. When we adjourn from his study to the kitchen, he moves the lamp above his desk. A piece of metal drops out of the fitting, plop, into his mug of coffee. He is unbothered. The sense of occasion, the glorious promises contained within that seemingly pedestrian word, "lunch", still remain. He eats little, picking at some smoked fish and mayonnaise and ignoring the salads his young housekeeper, Binny, has laid out for us, but seems extremely cheerful and replenishes his glass.

He tells some very risqué stories about the sex lives of his friends. "Oh, John," says Binny, who clearly adores him. "You are wonderful, Binny," says John periodically, marvelling at her ability to produce cold cuts and salad with such celerity.

The previous Sunday his four stepchildren from his first marriage (to "Penelope the first", also a distinguished novelist) and Ross Bentley, the son he recently discovered he had fathered during a brief affair with the actress Wendy Craig 44 years ago, came to visit. At the British Book Awards, his prize was presented to him by his actress daughter Emily, who had flown in specially from Los Angeles. With his second wife, Emily's mother "Penelope the second", who is 25 years his junior, Mortimer is at the centre of a large extended family - more comforts of age in a life that, on the whole, has been one of agreeable pursuits, success in varying fields, and one eased by the company of women.

As an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford, Mortimer's flamboyant dressing and regular entertaining of young ladies was spotted by another student on the same staircase, Robert Runcie. What was the cause of this behaviour, enquired the future Archbishop of Canterbury. "Mr Mortimer," he was told, "has an irrepressible member."

During the war Mortimer worked for a propaganda unit that produced morale-boosting films. "I was the sort of fifth assistant director," he says, "which meant getting tea for the director and saying 'quiet please' at the beginning of every shot. No one would take the slightest notice of me. Then I lost my temper and would say 'quiet, you bastards', and they all went on strike." He soon moved to scriptwriting, however, taking over the position from Laurie Lee. "He said that if I wrote a script about Watford Junction that was all right, I could have his job. It wasn't a very inspiring subject, and it wasn't a very good script, but he wanted to leave, so I got his job."

His marriage to "Penelope the first" was not so smooth. They were both unfaithful, and she wrote a novel, The Pumpkin Eater, about their time together. But by this time - they divorced in 1972 - Mortimer had already met his second wife, was a famous barrister, had had several novels published, and his play, A Voyage Around My Father, was on at the Haymarket Theatre with Alec Guinness in the lead role.

The Rumpole novels, which became a long-running television series with Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole, began in 1977, and in the next decade Mortimer published Paradise Postponed, a heartfelt lament for the capitulation of decent, liberal Britain to the hard-faced troops of Thatcherism. (This also became a television series, with Shameless's David Threlfall playing the odious Tory MP Leslie Titmuss.)

What is he most proud of, I ask. "Getting the Theatres Act passed," he says. "Ken Tynan and I went to see the Lord Chamberlain, and he was quite pleased to be abolished. He was a perfectly nice chap who didn't really want to be bothered by it. But I wish we'd just stopped censorship altogether. We had Mrs Whitehouse in those days," he adds. "If she heard of anything shocking and revolting, she'd rush out to buy it and read it eagerly to see if she could start a prosecution. I thought she was quite a brave old thing. We did a debate at the Cambridge Union once with the Oz editors, and when she was making a speech someone lowered over her head a skull with the words 'Alas, poor Muggeridge, I knew him well'. She just carried on."

What else is he proud of? "Well, Voyage Around My Father, Rumpole, Paradise Postponed..." He lists several of his novels. He's proud of quite a lot; but why shouldn't he be? As a barrister, he took silk, which his blind father who specialised in divorce, never did. He overcame a lack of praise for his achievements from his mother (who, told he had become a judge, laughed so hard she dropped the phone). He has had a long and happy life, occupying now an avuncular position in the nation whereby he is loved as much by the right-wing papers who abhor his liberalism as by the Left, in which he would seem to be more naturally at home. Two biographies of him, by Valerie Grove and Graham Lord, are on their way.

And he, not least through his alter ego Rumpole, keeps on fighting the good fight. "I'm going to write a book about Rumpole and the terrorist menace, which is just an excuse for imposing even more unbearable authority and getting rid of our civil liberties," he says. "He's going to meet a Home Secretary who is as absurd as all the New Labour Home Secretaries have been." That "other man with the very large ears" has been warned.

The British Book Awards, 11am, tomorrow, Channel 4