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Wit, flirt, genius: John Mortimer dies aged 85

His prodigious talent straddled the worlds of literature, law, and politics. John Walsh reports.

Sir John Mortimer, Queen's Counsel, barrister, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, author, playwright, champagne socialist, wit, defender of free speech, wine connoisseur, devoted luncher, national treasure and lord of Chiantishire, has died at the age of 85.

He had been ill for some years and confined to a wheelchair, but it never prevented him from writing at a headlong pace (he published more than one book a year) or traversing the country to speak at festivals and public events. He died at his home in the village of Turville Heath, near Henley, Oxfordshire, where he had lived, on and off, since he was a child.

His voice was utterly distinctive: a high, hesitant, slightly camp delivery in which he would muse on the state of the legislature or confide some shocking piece of theatrical gossip. He was funny, subversive, kind, single-minded, rather vain (despite his unorthodox looks and bottle-bottom spectacles), shockingly flirtatious with women and extremely keen on having an audience. He straddled the worlds of advocacy and showbusiness with ease, but will probably be remembered most for creating a grouchy, middle-aged, ash-stained, poetry-quoting, claret-bibbing, henpecked defence lawyer called Horace Rumpole and pitching him into court battles on behalf of mainly under-class clients, whom he saved from perdition. Like Rumpole, Mortimer himself took on only defence cases. Although his legal work was overshadowed by his status as a bestseller, he was a stalwart fighter for freedom and against censorship. Often accused of being a "champagne socialist", he was a passionate liberal all his life.

He was born in Hampstead, north London, went to Harrow School and read law at Brasenose College, Oxford. His father, perhaps the most important figure in his life, was Clifford Mortimer, a divorce barrister who went blind one day when he hit his head on a tree branch. Mortimer wrote and talked obsessively about him; his best play was A Voyage Around My Father. In his one-man show, he would reminisce about his dad's puckish sense of humour – how, in crowded train carriages, he would demand that his wife, Kathleen, read out detailed news reports of current divorce trials, delighted to imagine his fellow travellers' mortification at every mention of "garments", "stains" and "bloomers". During the Second World War, he was attached to the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood Studios, writing propaganda documentaries. It was the making of him as a playwright. "I was given great and welcome opportunities," he wrote later, "to write dialogue, construct scenes and try and turn ideas into some kind of visual drama." His first novel, Charade (1947) was based on his experience with the unit.

Mortimer was called to the Bar in 1948 and married Penelope Fletcher, a divorcee with four children, a year later. They were married for 22 years but it was stormy union, anatomised in detail in Penelope's novel The Pumpkin Eater. The story of a serial child-bearer married to a philandering screenwriter, of their literary rivalry and endless bust-ups, set the template for the so-called Hampstead Novel for a generation. It also contained an ungenerous pen portrait of the second Mrs Mortimer – also called Penelope – whom he married in 1972 and with whom he had two more daughters (including the actress Emily Mortimer).

It later transpired that Mortimer fathered another child in the early 1960s from a secret relationship with Wendy Craig, the wholesome star of TV sitcoms such as Butterflies. The story of his paternity emerged in an unauthorised biography, published by Graham Lord in 2004. ("Rumpy-Pumpy at the Bailey," observed one tabloid newspaper.) The child, named Ross, was brought up by Craig and her husband, Jack Bentley, as their own. The news of Ross's existence came as a complete surprise to Mortimer, who nonetheless welcomed the addition to his growing brood.

His debut as a playwright was The Dock Brief, broadcast on BBC Radio, starring a harrumphing Michael Hordern as an ineffectual barrister. A Voyage Round My Father followed in 1963 and made Mortimer's reputation, but he was also finding fame for his powerful advocacy in court.

He appeared for the defence in the legendary Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in 1960. When Sir Cyril Black, a Tory MP, brought a private prosecution against the publisher of Hubert Selby Jnr's Last Exit To Brooklyn under the Obscene Publications Act in 1966, the case went to trial at the Old Bailey and the book was ruled obscene. In 1968, Mortimer appealed against the decision and his passionate defence saw the verdict overturned. He wrestled with obscenity laws again in 1971 when Oz magazine was accused of "conspiracy to corrupt public morals" and the ensuing trial became a cause célèbre, the longest obscenity trial in British history. On the first day, Mortimer declared: "This case stands at the crossroads of our liberty, at the boundaries of our freedom to think and write and draw what we please." He defended Gay News against Mary Whitehouse's charge of blasphemy, stood up for the makers of the Linda Lovelace porn movie Deep Throat, and in 1977 defended the Sex Pistols and Virgin Records when they were prosecuted for using the dreaded B-word on the cover of their first album, Never Mind The Bollocks.

Although a famous libertarian, he believed in traditions: monarchy, foxhunting, being well-dressed and polite in court. "If you are about to be sent down for life," he once said, "you don't want someone in a T-shirt, jeans and trainers doing it. You want the whole works." His books sometimes dealt in political issues – when Rumpole is confronted by euthanasia or child abuse, or when property developers threaten to ruin Leslie Titmuss's country home in Titmuss Regained – but he never forced home any obvious agenda. Mortimer seemed more regretful and puckishly amused by the folly of human nature than censorious about people's behaviour. "People will go to endless trouble," he once wrote, "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." Although he was knighted in 1997, he turned against Tony Blair and New Labour, taking regular shots at the prime minister, whom he saw as shamelessly curbing personal freedoms.

Rumpole Of The Bailey started life as a BBC Play For Today in 1975. It starred the saurian Australian actor Leo McKern as Rumpole (apparently modelled on the playwright's father) and was an instant hit. A television series for Thames TV swiftly followed (the BBC foolishly passed on it) and spawned another three series between 1978 and 1992, when McKern died. The shows were huge commercial successes, as were the books that followed. Mrs Thatcher's accession to power spurred Mortimer to action in a series of novels looking nostalgically at an England he saw as threatened by the Iron Lady. Paradise Postponed introduced the oleaginous figure of Leslie Titmuss, a horrible Tory MP on the make.

When I was a literary editor, it was one of the delights of the job to take Mortimer to lunch at The Ivy. No matter how punctual I was, he was always already ensconced at a table, glass of champagne to hand. He would scrutinise a menu he surely knew by heart and say, "I think we should start with the oysters" (my heart would sink as I thought of the bill), then order a main course of liver and bacon, as if to show his solidarity with the common man. He would tell hilariously satirical stories about Mrs Thatcher's Lord Chancellor, whom he always referred to, in full, as Lord Mackay of Clashfern. He loved gossip and tales of sexual intrigue. I remember telling him about a secret liaison between a well-known Irish writer and Princess Margaret, who used to visit the writer in his Clapham flat. "She'd hang around for breakfast?" said Mortimer, wide-eyed. "Imagine..." An air of naughtiness hung around him, no matter how successful, rich or distinguished he became. Publicity girls at his various publishing houses could testify to his alarming relish for innuendo. It was, frankly, no massive surprise when the journalist Molly Parkin, in going public about their affair, revealed Mortimer's fondness for being spanked with a hairbrush.

He had a long and fantastically busy life, a massive network of friends, a huge capacity for creative work and an unflagging joie de vivre. What he didn't have was much time or inclination for reflection. His authorised biographer, Valerie Grove, found hardly any letters or diaries in his possession after nearly 80 years of life. Not one of his myriad friends, she said, could show her a single letter they'd received from him since 1944. But he believed in the joys of the convivium: every summer he would decamp with his family to Tuscany, which he christened Chiantishire, and hold court at dinner every night, welcoming British friends as if to a castle en fête. It is a good picture with which to remember a quintessential Englishman.