Passed/Failed; John Mortimer CBE

John Mortimer CBE, 76, is the writer and former barrister. His television work includes Rumpole and adaptations of I, Claudius and Brideshead Revisited. He wrote the script of Tea With Mussolini, and the forthcoming Don Quixote. His novel The Sound of Trumpets is out now in paperback
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Sloane ranger: My father was a successful divorce lawyer with an income of about pounds 4,000 a year, which was quite a lot of money, and I went at first to Mr Gibbs's school near Sloane Square. There was rather a rich clientele and the boys would arrive in Rolls-Royces; I came by Tube from the Temple where we lived. Before we could write, our mothers used to come and write our exams for us; they would sit at our desks in their expensive coats and we would stand and dictate. The cub mistress, Miss Bellamy, would take us to Wimbledon Common and stand there with her legs apart while we scattered into the undergrowth. The first cub between her legs got a box of chocolate. These days she would be arrested.

Here be Dragon: I went to the Dragon School in Oxford when I was nine. It's an amazing school. It had girls, even in the Thirties. I was allergic to games so they sent me to see plays at the Oxford Rep. At school we had a Shakespeare play every winter and a Gilbert and Sullivan every Easter. I played Richard II, the single most important achievement of my life. I went with my father to all the plays in Stratford, where we would sit in the front stalls. He would say every line very loudly, before the actors could get to it.

Chaps of the world, unite: I didn't get much education after that. Harrow was boring. It was neither enlightened, nor was it Eton. There was only about one stimulating master, the English teacher who introduced me to Wordsworth. And we had a good art master: we would bicycle off to sketch churches and drink gin-and-lime. I was a Communist, a one-boy Communist cell. During the Hitler-Stalin pact I got instructions to slow down production on the factory floor, so I went down to the Classics Sixth and asked them to translate Virgil more slowly.

Cheque point: I got seven credits in School Certificate [O-levels] but at Harrow we didn't bother with Higher Cert [A-levels]. I read History in the sixth form. I went for interview at Oxford while the war was on. If you had a cheque to pay the fees - which my father had - they were pretty interested in seeing you. The vice-principal of Brasenose put me in the library with some Latin to translate and left me. The library was full of Latin dictionaries so I translated the passage. He came back, looked at it and said: "Come along to Brasenose."

This means war degree: I read Law because I was eventually going to be a lawyer. A big mistake. Law isn't a proper academic subject, not creative, and you should read something else. It only becomes interesting when you start doing cases. I didn't read much of it; I read my way through Proust and Dostoevsky. I did a bit of acting and drew nudes at the Slade, which had been evacuated to Oxford. You got a "war degree" which wasn't classed and I think it lasted just two years.

Dog's dinners: Then I went into the Crown Film Unit, making government documentaries about the war. I had a uniform with "scriptwriter" on it. After the war I did Bar exams. As a student you have to eat dinners at your Inn of Court. The food is disgusting, but it only takes half an hour and finishes early, so you can go somewhere afterwards and have something nice.

Interview by Jonathan Sale

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