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- Arts + Ents
Sunday 9 October 1994
Profile: The lost professional: John Mortimer, Rumpole's prolific creator still mourns the death of liberal England, says Laurence Marks
For John Mortimer that realisation occurred, gradually and less dramatically, in the late 1970s. For 10 years or so he had, as a QC, been acting successfully for defendants in censorship trials. He had defended the editors of Oz, a counter-culture magazine, who were charged, like Socrates, with corrupting the young. He had defended the Sex Pistols for making a record called Never Mind the Bollocks. He felt he was part of a broad movement to liberalise British life that had begun with Roy Jenkins's Home Secretaryship in the 1960s and which reflected his own values.
But in 1977 he lost an important case when the editors of Gay News were convicted of blasphemous libel, an archaic common law offence most senior lawyers assumed had lapsed through obsolescence. 'That was the first sign that the pendulum was swinging back,' he says. At around the same time, the New Right began advocating a harsh utilitarianism in place of the paternalistic spirit that had ruled the Conservative Party since 1945. Two years later Margaret Thatcher won the general election and swiftly changed the landscape with a vulgar celebration of money-lust and a narrow moral authoritarianism. Mortimer, a civilised product of liberal England, lost his bearings.
For his generation the social optimism of the war years and of the 1945 Attlee government had been a transforming experience. He laments its loss in Murderers and Other Friends, his second volume of memoirs (to be published by Viking on Wednesday). 'I don't think anyone who hasn't lived through those years can understand how different they were from the divided and aimless Britain of today,' he writes. 'There was an extraordinary feeling of unity, a common aim which was not only to win the war but to create a juster society. Now, no one can talk of a juster society without first being asked how much it is going to cost and then greeted with almost universal derision.'
After an idyllic description of the early welfare state and of the old custom of collaboration with the trade unions, he adds: 'I can never understand why this civilised method of government is now thought ludicrously inappropriate.'
Mortimer is not a political analyst. He is a comic novelist and television dramatist whose charm, brio and relish for idiosyncrasy have made him deservedly rich, and who has conjured into literary life two immortal English eccentrics: Rumpole, the Old Bailey hack, and the blind and undefeatable protagonist of A Voyage Round My Father. His failure to understand is part of the tragedy of the liberal middle class. They never saw the truck that hit them - and they still don't know how the accident happened.
JOHN MORTIMER was born in 1923. His blind father, a supporter of Lloyd George, was a prosperous barrister specialising in divorce and contested wills. His mother, a former art teacher, had been a New Woman of the Twenties. He grew up in an Arcadian Buckinghamshire village in a house built by his father. Mortimer and his second wife, named Penelope like his first, live in the same house today with its 56 acres of grounds. He has three daughters and a son by his two marriages, and four stepdaughters. A lonely only child, he has spent his adult years happily surrounded by children.
At the Dragon School, a moderately progressive prep school in Oxford, he read Noel Coward while fielding at deep cover and dreamed of tap-dancing down a gilded staircase in white tie and tails. (He sent off for a silver- topped cane and monocle by mail order.) His originality survived five years at Harrow, a school that existed to manufacture the chocolate soldiers of the status quo, where he read Auden and joined the Communist Party.
In wartime Oxford he read law and acted with Oxford University Dramatic Society. Then, failing his army medical, he became a scriptwriter in the Crown Film Unit, a propaganda outfit that had inherited the liberal ideals of the Thirties documentary movement. At union meetings, they called one another 'comrade'. God was in his Heaven, soon Mr Attlee was in Number 10, and all was right with the world.
It was a fitting apprenticeship in the humanities for a man of the theatre. As an education in political dynamics, it was a disaster. News of the 20th-century scientific revolution that would eventually destroy this country's heavy industrial base had not reached the classicists of Harrow. The Oxford law school, in those days not much more than a fashionable crammer, was notoriously hostile to social theory.
Nothing in his background prepared him to understand that Thatcherism did not spring fully armed from Sir Keith Joseph's think-tank. It was built on a failure of nerve by the professional middle class in the face of national industrial decline, and on the rise of a class hostile to the tradition
Mortimer cherished. That is why - centrally in his two political novels, Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained, and occasionally in his other writings - he has been reduced to demonising the Thatcherites.
'I blame the Conservative Party,' he says. 'It was moved away from the gents who, whatever their failings, at least acknowledged certain social responsibilities, to the Tebbits. The ideal of public service declined. It brought out the worst in them. Now they don't conserve anything. Certain ideals on which I founded my life have totally disappeared. One is the professional's duty to behave professionally to his or her client. The other is that you may disagree with what someone says but would fight to the death to preserve his right to say it. That has gone out of both right- and left-wing politics.'
The new memoir is a sublime compendium of English oddity. The poet Robert Graves once told Mortimer how, single-handed, he enabled the Allies to win the Battle of Anzio. Italians, Graves explained, couldn't stand the sound of a woman in labour. He had assured the army commanders that, if they played recorded sounds of this on the beach-head, the Italian troops would run away. They did so, and that was how the battle was won - a fact strangely unrecorded in the official history of the Italian campaign.
According to another story, the actor Sir Michael Redgrave, coming to the end of a fine career, found it hard to remember his lines in A Voyage Round My Father. He was given an electronic earpiece in which they were repeated, together with stage directions, from the prompt corner. One night it picked up a message from a radio cab. 'Redgrave sat down on a sofa beside the actress who was playing my mother, and said loudly, impressively and to her complete astonishment, 'I must now proceed immediately to Number Four Flask Walk'.'
Professor John Carey of Oxford notes the tenderness that informs Mortimer's comic writing. 'That mixture of affection for and criticism of his characters is very rare,' he says.
In the 1970s Mortimer was earning pounds 30,000- pounds 40,000 a year at the Bar and as much again from books and plays. He gave up the law in the 1980s after the huge success of Rumpole throughout the English-speaking world - and the attention it attracted to his other writing - made him rich.
His easy-going Hanoverian features mask a fanatical devotion to work. He rises at five every morning and writes for four hours without revision. He is tirelessly prolific, presently rehearsing or writing an adaptation of A Christmas Carol for the RSC at the Barbican; a BBC television play about Dickens; a televison version of Trollope's Orley Farm; and a new American televison dramatisation of Great Expectations.
He is contemplating another novel, writes three newspaper articles a week, tours the country (as Dickens did) giving dramatised readings from his works, and keeps a steady eye on New Penny Productions, the independent company he founded with Jacqueline Davis, producer of the Rumpole series. He possesses a writer's squirrel-like interest in (unmalicious) gossip about Fleet Street, politics and show business.
He never joined the Labour Party or CND (he had reservations), seldom turned out for demos, and is uneasy with political theory. This has not diminished his usefulness to radicals. 'In the censorship trials - which were really political trials - I thought my role was to interpret different worlds to one another,' he says. 'I was trying to say to those judges: we're not one community, we're a whole lot of different communities with different standards and ideals, and we ought to be able to live with people with whom we disagree.'
Six years ago, he was one of 20 or so affluent media celebs the Pinters invited to join the 20th June Group, which debated the future of the Left over chablis and smoked salmon at their house on Campden Hill in west London. The newspapers, smelling social arrogance, pilloried them. He walked out after a blazing row over some triviality provoked by Pinter, a man with a generous heart and a hot temper, and then characteristically returned and made up, deploying adroit flattery of his host.
He got a bad press in the autobiography by his first wife - the novelist Penelope Mortimer - which was published last year. His domestic life is his own affair. In other respects he seems to be as good-natured as he looks.
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