Obituary: Johnnie Mortimer

Philip Jones
Friday 04 September 1992 23:02

John Mortimer, writer, born Clare Suffolk 2 July 1931, died 2 September 1992.

JOHNNIE MORTIMER's name was not widely known but he was the author of many of television's best known and most fondly remembered comedies. Television critics seldom gave him the credit his talents deserved but his success was unique. With his partner and longtime friend Brian Cooke he wrote series after series which invariably made the Top 10 in the programme-rating charts.

Like many other comedy writers and comedians, Mortimer began as a cartoonist, a hard, demanding occupation where rejection was the rule rather than the exception. But it was this experience and flair as a cartoonist which taught him the lessons of brevity and pace in comedy. The joke had to be made in a single frame.

Radio comedy and partnership with Cooke followed in the early Sixties. They wrote for Round the Horne with great success, leaving them with a lasting affection and admiration for Kenneth Horne. It was in the mid-Sixties that Mortimer turned to television under contract to ABC - the company which later merged with Rediffusion to become Thames. To his eternal credit he wrote for Tommy Cooper - a considerable feat because Cooper's one-liners were so specialised and unique. My favourite sequence had Cooper describing how he had been to a junk shop that day and had been lucky enough to secure a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. 'The trouble is,' said Cooper, crashing the violin through the canvas, 'Stradivarius was a rotten painter and Rembrandt couldn't make violins.'

In sketch comedy - perhaps the hardest area of television comedy because of the number of ideas it consumes in a single programme - Mortimer and Cooke wrote two series for Bernard Cribbins. Then followed a quite extraordinary run of situation comedies. Father Dear Father, first broadcast in 1968, starring Patrick Cargill, and Man About the House (1973) with Richard O'Sullivan, Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett. The latter series produced two notable spin-offs. The landlord and landlady from Man About the House, played by Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce, were such a popular creation that they were given their own series George and Mildred (1976). And Robin Tripp, alias Richard O'Sullivan, was launched in his own series with Tessa Wyatt Robin's Nest (1977). Never the Twain (1981), created by Mortimer and starring Donald Sinden and Windsor Davies, remains one of Thames Television's longest-running series.

In addition to his own writing, for eight years Mortimer was comedy adviser to Thames, guiding and helping other writers and contributing ideas to the Light Entertainment Department.

And his success was not confined to Britain alone. Man About the House has the distinction of becoming one of the biggest situation comedy successes in the United States with a cast headed by John Ritter and under the title Three's Company. The US series ran for eight years, starting in 1976, and totalled 174 episodes. George and Mildred and Robin's Nest were also exported to the States but neither could equal the phenomenal success of Three's Company.

Throughout all his years of success as a comedy writer, Mortimer remained totally professional and organised. Deadlines and delivery dates were always met and his office at Teddington Studios featured a wall-chart showing exactly when scripts were to be available. Final drafts would be preceded by a detailed outline of 10 or a dozen pages, often including sample dialogue, and each scene would have a note of the expected duration. The final script would seldom stray from the outline.

Johnnie Mortimer was a great professional and people across the world will be laughing at his programmes for many years to come. I am grateful to have worked with him for a quarter of a century and, even more important, he was the nicest gentleman you could ever wish to meet.

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