We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Sir  John Clifford Mortimer (1923–2009), by Tai-Shan Schierenberg, 1992Sir John Clifford Mortimer (1923–2009), by Tai-Shan Schierenberg, 1992
Mortimer, Sir John Clifford (1923–2009), barrister and author, was born on 21 April 1923 at 7 The Pryors, Hampstead, London, the only child of (Herbert) Clifford Mortimer (1884–1961), a distinguished divorce and probate barrister and author of Mortimer on Probate, and his wife, Kathleen May, née Smith (1887–1970), a former art teacher. Like her, the young Mortimer was an accomplished draughtsman and painter. The eccentricities of his preparatory school, the Dragon School in Oxford (under ‘Hum’ Lynam), inspired several characters in his later plays, and his moment of glory was playing Richard II in the 1937 school production. At Harrow, a sporty and conservative school he never missed a chance to disparage, he formed in 1941 a one-man Communist cell. Having, in his housemaster's words, ‘bohemian tendencies and mildly anti-nomian views’ (Grove, 38), he should have read English; instead, under strong pressure from his father, he went up to Brasenose College, Oxford (billeted in wartime in Christ Church), to read ‘a little law’ (ibid., 37). Bored by this, he chiefly wrote poems, affected flamboyant dress, and mingled with aesthetes. In his second year he wrote florid, Oscar Wilde-like letters to a handsome Bradfield sixth-former visiting Oxford: the letters were found, the boy (later a judge) was expelled, and Mortimer was effectively sent down in 1942. This ‘small scandal’ was expunged from his memory, but resurfaced in several plays, including Bermondsey (which electrified audiences by showing the first male kiss on stage in 1970), Naked Justice (2001), and a 2007 radio play about Lord Byron, the only Harrovian he admired.

Mortimer was exempted from military service during the Second World War on grounds of poor health, but to qualify for his wartime degree he had to engage in approved war work. He was given a job (by a neighbour, Jack Beddington) in the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood, which supplied the subject of his highly praised first novel, Charade (1947). In 1948 (having been awarded a third-class degree in jurisprudence) he was called to the bar from the Inner Temple, before joining his father's Middle Temple chambers. On 27 August the following year he married Penelope Ruth Dimont, née Fletcher, the novelist , who already had four daughters. They had two further children, Sally (b. 1950) and Jeremy (b. 1955). Their chaotic, child-filled household in Swiss Cottage became the backdrop for a volatile, competitive marriage, fuelling several novels and plays. Mortimer, still dealing by day with divorce and probate cases, rose early to produce a novel a year. After 1955, ‘The Writing Mortimers’ would feature in magazines with their brood of six, but both were cannibalizing their disintegrating marriage in novels. In 1957 they published a joint book, With Love and Lizards, about a family summer in Italy. The same year—when Penelope Mortimer was signed up by The New Yorker—John Mortimer wrote his first radio play, The Dock Brief, which won the Prix Italia in 1958. His first stage play, What Shall We Tell Caroline?, followed, Mortimer sharing the bill at the Lyric Theatre with another up-and-coming playwright, Harold Pinter. Then Peter Hall directed Mortimer's first full-length West End play, The Wrong Side of the Park (Cambridge Theatre, 1960). Hall suggested he persuade a young actress, Wendy Craig (b. 1934), to play the pregnant young woman. ‘I think I persuaded her rather too successfully’, Mortimer would later say, when confronted in 2004 with Wendy Craig's son by him, Ross, by then aged forty-two (personal knowledge). He always claimed ignorance of Ross's birth; but his wife made use of the facts in her finest novel, The Pumpkin Eater (1962), later filmed, with a Pinter screenplay, and Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft playing the roles based on the real-life Mortimers.

Mortimer attributed his prodigious output to a low boredom threshold. Film-scripts (including Bunny Lake Is Missing, 1965, and John and Mary, 1969), plays for stage, radio, and television, translations of Feydeau farces for Kenneth Tynan's National Theatre, poured from his pen. In 1966 he took silk—‘took to crime’ (Grove, 188)—and resolved only to defend, regarding the judicial system as a maze from which the accused must be rescued. He rarely took cases seriously. Once, commiserating with a jury for the tedium of a VAT case, he was reprimanded by the Old Bailey judge, who told the jury: ‘It may surprise you to know that the sole purpose of the English judicial system is not to amuse Mr Mortimer’ (Grove, 287). In 1970 he met Penelope (Penny) Gollop (b. 1946), secretary, and daughter of William Alfred John Gollop, farmer; they married on 21 April 1972, after his divorce from Penelope Mortimer. They had two daughters, Emily (b. 1971) and Rosamond (Rosie, b. 1974) .

After 1969 Mortimer became the libertarian defender not only of murderers (he liked to style himself ‘the best playwright who ever defended a murderer at the Old Bailey’, personal knowledge) but of free speech. He scorned the notion that published works could ‘corrupt and deprave’, and participated in several famous obscenity trials: Last Exit to Brooklyn (the appeal, 1968), the Oz Schoolkids' issue (won on appeal, 1971), the Little Red Schoolbook (1971), Inside Linda Lovelace (1976), and the Gay News trial of 1977 when its editor Denis Lemon, publisher of James Kirkup's poem about the dead Christ, was charged with blasphemy. He also defended seedy purveyors of pornographic magazines and blue movies, supported by what Mary Whitehouse termed ‘the Mortimer circus’ (Grove, 293): expert witnesses who would testify that a work was harmless or had literary merit. The Obscene Publications Squad cases fizzled out in the 1980s; and later many works he defended would come to seem barely defensible. But they provided entertainment for the public and rich rewards for lawyers. A rumpled, rotund, and bespectacled figure, Mortimer would deploy, in his high, rather camp voice, the charm and wit that flattered jurors. He invoked Socrates when addressing the Oz jury. He would compare the triviality of the case with the great events unfolding elsewhere: ‘Since this trial began, men have landed on the moon’ (T. Palmer, The Trials of Oz, 1971). In pornography cases he applied the ‘aversive’ argument—that most people would be repelled. (He dismissed the eventual consequences of his intransigent views, excusing himself by never mastering the internet.)

In 1970 A Voyage Round My Father, an autobiographical play written originally for radio, then for television, reached the West End, with Alec Guinness and later Michael Redgrave playing Mortimer senior, entirely un-stricken by, and wilfully ignoring, his blindness. Mortimer's 1973 play Collaborators was about his first marriage. Then, in 1975, he wrote ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ as a Play for Today, Leo McKern bringing the dishevelled, eccentric but loveable and usually successful Old Bailey hack instantly to life. Mortimer correctly saw Horace Rumpole as his Sherlock Holmes, his bid for immortality ‘to keep me in my old age’ (Grove, 282). Fifty Rumpole stories (with book tie-ins) were televised over the next twenty years, making Mortimer one of the best-known and most popular authors of his generation.

Mortimer gave up the bar in 1984, and settled into his ‘national treasure’ role. Having led the Arts Council's assault on the lord chamberlain's censorship, and having already become a member of the National Theatre board (1968–88), he became chairman of the Royal Court Theatre from 1990 to 2000 (overseeing its rebuilding), president of the Howard League for Penal Reform (1991–2003), and chairman of the Royal Society of Literature (1990–2000), taking great pleasure in ‘giving away other people's money’ (Grove, 401). His last chairmanship was of the Trafalgar Square plinth committee, but he never succeeded in his aim of getting Dickens onto the fourth plinth.

In 1970 Mortimer had inherited the modest country house his father had built in Turville Heath, near Henley, in 1934. He championed local causes (conserving wildlife, defending Henley's cinema and cricket ground, and opening the village school as a holiday centre for deprived children), ignored his infirmity, and continued to produce, in longhand despite failing eyesight, a new book every year. Two or three volumes of memoir (Clinging to the Wreckage, 1982; Murderers and Other Friends, 1994; and The Summer of a Dormouse, 2000) were classics of the genre. He reviewed others' books generously, and wrote telling profiles of subjects as diverse as Lord Hailsham, Joan Collins, Graham Greene, Roy Jenkins, Arthur Scargill, and Christine Keeler for Sunday broadsheets. In prolific leader-page polemics, he adopted a sentimental patriotism about the countryside, Dickens, and (despite his atheism) Christmas and Church of England hymns. In 1981 he was garlanded with awards for the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. But (as he eventually admitted) it was in fact a readaptation using Waugh's own dialogue, although Granada retained the John Mortimer byline. However, he did write some fine television adaptations, of David Pryce-Jones's biography of Unity Mitford (1981), and John Fowles's The Ebony Tower (1984). When A Voyage Round My Father was filmed for television in his own home (in 1984), he watched Sir Laurence Olivier enacting his father's deathbed scene in the room where he had watched his father's life ebbing away.

In later decades Mortimer was happiest performing in public. Mortimer's Miscellany, a long-running stage show, combined his favourite poems and court-room anecdotes. Many stories came from his blind father, whose Shakespearian interrogatives (greeting his son with ‘Is execution done on Cawdor?’) and warnings (‘Opium has a terribly binding effect. Look at the poet Coleridge—green about the gills, and a stranger to the lavatory’) became so familiar that Mortimer himself couldn't recall whether he had remembered or invented them. Some late novels, including Paradise Postponed (1985) and Titmuss Regained (1990), designed for television serialization, charted the political developments of post-war Britain. In 1986, with his wife Penny, Harold Pinter, and Pinter's wife Lady Antonia Fraser, he formed the ‘20th June Group’ of playwrights and novelists who (amid much derision from the popular press) wanted the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher. In 1998, following the Labour election victory in 1997, he was rewarded with a knighthood (he had been made a CBE in 1986), but immediately turned on Tony Blair for illiberal onslaughts on rights to fox-hunting and to trial by jury. Wheelchair-borne, he attended countryside marches and was so incensed about the ban on smoking in public places that at eighty he took up smoking after forty years of abstinence.

Despite his popular success, Mortimer was haunted by Trigorin in Chekhov's The Seagull, knowing he would never be regarded as highly as Tolstoy. This brought melancholy. But bonhomie was restored when surrounded by friends and champagne, especially in ‘Chiantishire’ at La Rufena, the Tuscan villa he rented annually, also the setting for his novel Summer's Lease (1988), filmed for television in 1989 starring Sir John Gielgud. In his last years the oxygen of publicity was his lifeline. Once, a magazine's questionnaire got an unusually candid answer to the question, ‘What is your greatest weakness?’. Mortimer replied: ‘Wanting people to like me’ (Grove, 480). ‘Timor mortis’ had set in when he was seventy, and chanced upon Shakespeare's lines: ‘This devil here shall be my substitute/For that John Mortimer, which is now dead’ (2 Henry VI, III.i). He died of bronchopneumonia on 16 January 2009, at Turville Heath Cottage, and was survived by his second wife, three daughters, two sons, and four stepdaughters. He was cremated at Oxford crematorium on 22 January, following a service at St Mary the Virgin, Turville Heath. A memorial service was held at Southwark Cathedral on 17 November 2009.

Valerie Grove

Sources  

J. Mortimer, Clinging to the wreckage: a part of life (1982) · P. Mortimer, About time too, 1940–1978 (1993) · J. Mortimer, Murderers and other friends (1994) · J. Mortimer, The summer of a dormouse (2000) · J. Mortimer, Where there's a will (2003) · C. Lord, John Mortimer: the devil's advocate (2005) · V. Grove, A voyage round John Mortimer (2007) · The Times (17 Jan 2009); (23 Jan 2009) · Daily Telegraph (17 Jan 2009); (23 Jan 2009); (18 Nov 2009) · The Guardian (17 Jan 2009); (18 Nov 2009) · The Independent (17 Jan 2009) · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

U. Cal., Berkeley  

FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, Guardian conversations, F. Greenfield (director), 1985 · BFI NFTVA, In with Mavis, L. C. Postma (director), Channel 4, 21 Aug 1992 · BFI NFTVA, current affairs footage · BFI NFTVA, documentary footage · BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage · BFI NFTVA, performance footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, current affairs recordings · BL NSA, interview recordings · BL NSA, light entertainment recordings · BL NSA, performance recordings


Likenesses  

J. Hedgecoe, group portrait, bromide print, 1960 (with Harold Pinter and Norman Frederick Simpson), NPG · photographs, 1960–2008, Getty Images, London · M. Gerson, group portrait, bromide print, 1961 (with wife Penelope), NPG · M. Gerson, group portrait, modern bromide print, 1961 (with family), NPG · photographs, 1966–2006, Photoshot, London · G. Argent, bromide prints, 1969, NPG · photographs, 1978–2006, PA Images, London · photographs, after 1980–2008, Rex Features, London · B. Marsden, group portrait, bromide fibre print, 1989, NPG · M. Tillie, bromide fibre print, 1989, NPG · T. Schierenberg, oils, 1992, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, Mary Evans Picture Library, London · photographs, Camera Press, London

Wealth at death  

£3,521,755: probate, 4 Feb 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales