Sir John Mortimer
|Born||John Clifford Mortimer|
21 April 1923
Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
|Died||16 January 2009 (aged 85)|
Turville Heath, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom
|Occupation||Barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author|
|Alma mater||Brasenose College, Oxford|
|Notable works||A Voyage Round My Father|
Rumpole of the Bailey
|Notable awards||Queen's Counsel (1966)|
|Spouse||Penelope Fletcher (1949–1971; divorced)|
Penelope Gollop (1972–2009; his death)
|Children||Sally Silverman, Jeremy Mortimer (with Fletcher)|
Emily Mortimer, Rosie Mortimer (with Gollop)
Ross Bentley (with actress Wendy Craig)
Mortimer was born in Hampstead, London, the only child of Kathleen May (née Smith) and (Herbert) Clifford Mortimer (1884–1961), a divorce and probate barrister who became blind in 1936 when he hit his head on the door frame of a London taxi but still pursued his career. Clifford's loss of sight was not acknowledged openly by the family.
John Mortimer was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford and Harrow School, where he joined the Communist Party, forming a one-member cell. Originally Mortimer intended to be an actor (his lead role in the Dragon's 1937 production of Richard II gained glowing reviews in The Draconian) and then a writer, but his father persuaded him against it, advising: "My dear boy, have some consideration for your unfortunate wife... [the law] gets you out of the house."
At seventeen, he went up to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he read law, though he was actually based at Christ Church because the Brasenose buildings had been requisitioned for the war effort. In July 1942, at the end of his second year, he was asked to leave Oxford by the Dean of Christ Church after romantic letters to a Bradfield College sixth-former, Quentin Edwards, later a QC, were discovered by the young man's housemaster. He graduated from Oxford with a Bachelor of Arts degree in October 1943.
Early writing career
With weak eyes and doubtful lungs, Mortimer was classified as medically unfit for military service in World War II. He worked for the Crown Film Unit under Laurie Lee, writing scripts for propaganda documentaries.
I lived in London and went on journeys in blacked-out trains to factories and coal-mines and military and air force installations. For the first and, in fact, the only time in my life I was, thanks to Laurie Lee, earning my living entirely as a writer. If I have knocked the documentary ideal, I would not wish to sound ungrateful to the Crown Film Unit. I was given great and welcome opportunities to write dialogue, construct scenes and try and turn ideas into some kind of visual drama.
He based his first novel, Charade, on his experiences with the Crown Film Unit.
Mortimer made his radio debut as a dramatist in 1955 with his adaptation of his own novel Like Men Betrayed for the BBC Light Programme. But he made his debut as an original playwright with The Dock Brief starring Michael Hordern as a hapless barrister, first broadcast in 1957 on BBC Radio's Third Programme, later televised with the same cast and subsequently presented in a double bill with What Shall We Tell Caroline? at the Lyric Hammersmith in April 1958 before transferring to the Garrick Theatre. It was revived by Christopher Morahan in 2007 as part of a touring double bill, Legal Fictions.
His play A Voyage Round My Father, given its first radio broadcast in 1963, is autobiographical, recounting his experiences as a young barrister and his relationship with his blind father. It was memorably televised by BBC Television in 1969 with Mark Dignam in the title role. In a slightly longer version the play later became a stage success (first at Greenwich Theatre in 1979 with Dignam, then a year later at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, now starring Alec Guinness). In 1981 it was remade by Thames Television with Laurence Olivier as the father and Alan Bates as young Mortimer. In 1965, he and his wife wrote the screenplay for the Otto Preminger film Bunny Lake is Missing, which also starred Olivier.
Mortimer was called to the Bar (Inner Temple) in 1948, at the age of 25. His early career consisted of testamentary and divorce work, but on taking silk in 1966, he began to undertake work in criminal law. His highest profile, though, came from cases relating to claims of obscenity, which, according to Mortimer, were "alleged to be testing the frontiers of tolerance."
He has sometimes been cited as a member in the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial defence team, though this is inaccurate. Mortimer did however successfully represent publishers John Calder and Marion Boyars in their 1968 appeal against their conviction for publishing Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn. He assumed a similar role three years later, this time unsuccessfully, for Richard Handyside, the English publisher of The Little Red Schoolbook.
Mortimer was also defence counsel at the Oz conspiracy trial later in 1971. In 1976, he defended Gay News editor Denis Lemon (Whitehouse v. Lemon) for the publication of James Kirkup's "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name" against charges of blasphemous libel; Lemon was convicted with a suspended prison sentence, later overturned on appeal. His defence of Virgin Records in the 1977 obscenity hearing for their use of the word bollocks in the title of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, and the manager of the Nottingham branch of the Virgin record shop chain for the record's display in a window and its sale, led to the defendants' being found not guilty. Mortimer retired from the bar in 1984.
Later writing career
Mortimer is best remembered for creating a barrister named Horace Rumpole, inspired by his father Clifford, whose speciality is defending those accused of crime in London's Old Bailey. Mortimer created Rumpole for a BBC Play For Today in 1975. Although not Mortimer's first choice of actor (in an interview on the DVD set, he said he wanted Alistair Sim "but he turned out to be dead so he couldn't take it on"), Australian born Leo McKern played the character with gusto and proved popular; accordingly, the idea was developed into a series, Rumpole of the Bailey, for Thames Television in which McKern again took the lead role. Mortimer also wrote a series of Rumpole books. In September–October 2003, BBC Radio 4 broadcast four new 45-minute Rumpole plays by Mortimer with Timothy West in the title role. Mortimer also dramatised many of the real-life cases of the barrister Edward Marshall-Hall in a radio series featuring former Doctor Who star Tom Baker as the protagonist.
Mortimer was credited with writing the script for Granada Television's 1981 serialization of Brideshead Revisited, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh. However, Graham Lord's unofficial biography, John Mortimer: The Devil's Advocate, revealed in 2005 that none of Mortimer's submitted scripts had in fact been used and that the screenplay was actually written by the series' producer and director. Mortimer adapted John Fowles's The Ebony Tower starring Laurence Olivier for Granada in 1984. In 1986, his adaptation of his own novel Paradise Postponed was televised. He wrote the script, based on the autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, for the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini, directed by Zeffirelli and starring Joan Plowright, Cher, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Lily Tomlin. From 2004, Mortimer worked as a consultant for the politico-legal US "dramedy" television show Boston Legal.
He developed his career as a dramatist by rising early to write before attending court, and his work in total includes over fifty books, plays, and scripts.
Mortimer married Penelope Fletcher (he was her second husband), later better known as Penelope Mortimer, in 1949 and had a son, Jeremy Mortimer, and a daughter, Sally Silverman. The unstable marriage inspired work by both writers, of which Penelope's novel, The Pumpkin Eater (1962), later made into the film of the same name, is the best known. The couple divorced in 1971 and he married Penelope Gollop in 1972. They had two daughters, Emily Mortimer (1971), and Rosie Mortimer (1984). He lived with his second wife in the village of Turville Heath in Buckinghamshire. The split with his first wife had been bitter, but they were on friendly terms by the time of her death in 1999.
In September 2004, Graham Lord discovered the existence of a second son, Ross Bentley, conceived during a secret affair Mortimer pursued with the English actress Wendy Craig more than 40 years earlier, who was born in November 1961. Craig and Mortimer had met when the actress had been cast playing a pregnant woman in Mortimer's first full-length West End play, The Wrong Side of the Park. Ross Bentley was raised by Craig and her husband, Jack Bentley, the show business writer and musician. In Mortimer's memoirs, Clinging to the Wreckage, he wrote of "enjoying my mid-thirties and all the pleasures which come to a young writer."
John Mortimer was a member of English PEN. He was patron of the Burma Campaign UK, the London-based group campaigning for human rights and democracy in Burma, and was the president of the Royal Court Theatre, having been the chairman of its board from 1990 to 2000.
- Charade, Mortimer's first novel, Bodley Head, London (1947); Viking, New York (1986); ISBN 0-670-81186-6
- Like Men Betrayed, Collins, London (1953); Viking, New York (1988); ISBN 0-670-81187-4
- The Narrowing Stream, Collins, London (1954); Viking, New York (1989); ISBN 0-670-81930-1
- Heaven and Hell (including The Fear of Heaven and The Prince of Darkness) (1976)
- Will Shakespeare (1977)
- Rumpole of the Bailey (1978); ISBN 0-14-004670-4
- The Trials of Rumpole (1979)
- Rumpole's Return (1980)
- Regina v Rumpole (1981)
- Rumpole for the Defence (1982)
- Clinging To The Wreckage: A Part Of Life, (autobiography) Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London (1982); ISBN 0-297-78010-7; Houghton Mifflin, New York (1982); ISBN 0-89919-133-9
- The First Rumpole Omnibus (omnibus) (1983)
- Rumpole And the Golden Thread (1983)
- Edwin and Other Plays (1984)
- In Character (1984); ISBN 0-14-006389-7
- Paradise Postponed (1985); ISBN 0-670-80094-5
- Character Parts (1986); ISBN 0-14-008959-4
- Rumpole for the Prosecution (1986)
- Rumpole's Last Case (1987)
- The Second Rumpole Omnibus (omnibus) (1987)
- Rumpole And the Age of Miracles (1988)
- Glasnost (BBC Radio Four, 1988)
- Summer's Lease (1988); ISBN 0-14-010573-5
- Rumpole And the Age for Retirement (1989) - stand-alone publication of short story first published in The Trials of Rumpole (1979)
- Rumpole a La Carte (1990)
- Titmuss Regained (1990)
- Great Law And Order Stories (1990)
- The Rapstone Chronicles (omnibus; 1991)
- Rumpole On Trial (1992)
- Dunster (1992); ISBN 0-670-84060-2
- Thou Shalt Not Kill: Father Brown, Father Dowling And Other Ecclesiastical Sleuths (1992) (with G K Chesterton and Ralph McInerny)
- The Oxford Book of Villains (1992)
- The Best of Rumpole: A Personal Choice (1993)
- Under the Hammer (1994)
- Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life (autobiography), Viking, London (1994); Viking, NY (1995); ISBN 0-670-84902-2
- Rumpole And the Angel of Death (1995)
- Rumpole And the Younger Generation (1995) - stand-alone publication of short story first published in Rumpole of the Bailey (1978)
- Felix in the Underworld (1996)
- The Third Rumpole Omnibus (omnibus) (1997)
- The Sound of Trumpets (1998)
- The Mammoth Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories (1998)
- The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully (autobiography), Viking Penguin, London (2000); ISBN 0-670-89106-1; Viking Press, New York (2001); ISBN 0-670-89986-0
- Rumpole Rests His Case (2002)
- Rumpole and the Primrose Path (2002) 
- The Brancusi Trial (2003)
- Where There's a Will (autobiography), Viking, London (2003) ISBN 0-670-91365-0; Viking, New York (2005); ISBN 0-670-03409-6
- Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (2004)
- Quite Honestly (2005); ISBN 0-670-03483-5
- The Scales of Justice (2005)
- Rumpole and the Reign of Terror (2006)
- The Antisocial Behaviour of Horace Rumpole (2007; in United States as Rumpole Misbehaves)
- ‘’Rumpole at Christmas’’ (2009)
Select screenwriting credits
- The Innocents (additional dialogue, 1961)
- Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
- A Flea in Her Ear (1968)
- John and Mary (1969)
- Maschenka (1987) (Vladimir Nabokov novel adaptation directed by John Goldschmidt)
- Tea With Mussolini (1999)
- "Rumpole's creator Mortimer dies". BBC News Online. 16 January 2009. Retrieved 16 January 2009.
- The Law Times, vol. 232, 1961, p. 210, 'Obituary- Mr Herbert Clifford Mortimer'
- John Mortimer Biography (1923-2009) Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
- page 14, Graham Lord, John Mortimer: The Devil's Advocate (2005)
- Helen T. Verongos "John Mortimer, barrister and creator of Rumpole, is dead", Archived 3 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine International Herald Tribune, 16 January 2009. This obituary was also carried by The New York Times; a more complete version than the version on the IHT website is online here.
- Obituary, Archived 6 February 2016 at the Wayback Machine Daily Telegraph, 16 January 2009
- "Sir John Mortimer: creator of Rumpole of the Bailey", Archived 24 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine The Times, 17 January 2009.
- David Hughes "Sir John Mortimer: Lawyer and writer who created Rumpole of the Bailey and elegised a bygone England", Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine The Independent, 17 January 2009.
- Valerie Grove "Rumpole creator John Mortimer dies at 85" Archived 5 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine, The Times, 16 January 2009.
- Grove, Valerie (2007). A Voyage Round John Mortimer. London, UK: Penguin Books.
- John Mortimer Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life, 1982, p71
- "Legal Fiction: Wit, humanity and nostalgic English melancholy". The Daily Telegraph. London, UK. 19 November 2007. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
- Mortimer's biographer Valerie Grove dismisses this canard in her tribute article Archived 5 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
- Brett Humphreys "The Law that Dared to Lay the Blame ..." Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine, pinktriangle.org.uk; accessed 13 January 2016.
- Robert McCrum, Mortimer Tribute, The Observer, p.29, 18 January 2009 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 22 January 2009. Retrieved 2013-04-09.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- Published in United States as John Mortimer. The Secret Lives of Rumpole's Creator (New York, Thomas Dunne Books, 2006)
- In appreciation of John Mortimer Archived 20 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine, csmonitor.com, 16 January 2009; accessed 13 January 2016.
- Daniel, Anne (2003). "John (Clifford) Mortimer". Dictionary of Literary Biography. 271 – via Literature Resource Center.
- Obituary: Penelope Ruth Mortimer Archived 14 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine, 1999
- John Walsh "Wit, flirt, genius: John Mortimer dies aged 85" Archived 6 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine, The Independent, 17 January 2009
- http://www.lastingtribute.co.uk/tribute/mortimer/2998415[permanent dead link] John Mortimer – Lasting Tribute[dead link] New link: https://funeral-notices.co.uk/national/death-notices/notice/Sir+John+Mortimer/1980036 3 February 2019
- The Radio Companion by Paul Donovan, HarperCollins (1991) ISBN 0-246-13648-0
- Halliwell's Television Companion, Third edition, Grafton (1986) ISBN 0-246-12838-0
- Who's Who in the Theatre, 17th edition, ed Ian Herbert, Gale (1981) ISBN 0-8103-0235-7
- John Mortimer: The Devil's Advocate by Graham Lord, Orion (2005) ISBN 0-7528-6655-9
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: John Mortimer|
- John Mortimer on IMDb
- John Mortimer at the Internet Broadway Database
- John Mortimer plays in Bristol University Theatre Archive
- John Mortimer at the BFI's Screenonline
- John Mortimer biography
- Finding Aid to the John Clifford Mortimer papers at The Bancroft Library
- Inventory to the John Clifford Mortimer papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
- Rosemary Herbert (Winter 1988). "John Mortimer, The Art of Fiction No. 106". The Paris Review.
- Recordings and Photos of the visit by Sir John to the College Historical Society in October 2007.
- Miller, Lucasta (7 October 2006). "The old devil: John Mortimer's colourful personal life has provided material for biographers, tabloid scandals and his own fiction. Now in his 80s, he is tackling terrorism and New Labour". London, UK: The Guardian. Retrieved 7 October 2006.
- Obituary: Sir John Mortimer (BBC)
- Sir John Clifford Mortimer (1923-2009), Barrister, playwright and writer Sitter in 7 portraits (National Portrait Gallery)
- Tony Lacey. "John Mortimer and Penguin". Penguin Books. Archived from the original on 8 June 2009. Retrieved 10 November 2010.
- Helen T. Verongos (17 January 2009). "John Mortimer, Barrister and Writer Who Created Rumpole, Dies at 85". The New York Times.