John Mortimer, Creator of Rumpole, Dies at 85
John Mortimer, barrister, author, playwright and creator of Horace Rumpole, the cunning defender of the British criminal classes, died Friday morning at his home in Oxfordshire, England, said his agent, Katherine Vile. He was 85 years old and had been ill for some time, Ms. Vile said.
Sir John is known best in this country for creating the Rumpole character, an endearing and enduring relic of the British legal system who became a television hero of the courtroom comedy.
But as a barrister in Britain, Sir John came to be known in the 1960s as a defender of free speech and human rights for taking up cases that he said were “alleged to be testing the frontiers of tolerance.” He became a Queen’s Counsel just in time to tackle some of the civil rights cases that arose in Britain in that decade, all the while writing fiction, non-fiction, drama and comedy.
To read Rumpole, or to watch the episodes of the popular television series “Rumpole of the Bailey” is to enter not only Rumpole’s stuffy flat or crowded legal chambers, but to feel the itch of his yellowing court wig and the flapping of his disheveled, cigar ash-dusted courtroom gown.
Rumpole spends his days quoting Keats and his nights quaffing claret at Pommeroy’s wine bar, putting off the time that he must return to his wife, Hilda, more commonly known as She Who Must Be Obeyed.
Using his wit and low-comedy distractions, Rumpole sees that justice is done, more often than not by outsmarting the ‘’old sweethearts” and “old darlings” of the bench and revealing the inner good — or at least integrity and inconsistency — of the accused, including clans like the Timsons, whose crimes have kept generations of police officers busy.
Rumpole began as a BBC teleplay 1975. The television series was produced in Britain by ITV, beginning in 1978. Once you have seen Leo McKern in the role, it’s difficult to read the Rumpole stories without hearing his rich narration.
There is a certain predictability to the Rumpole stories, and Sir John acknowledged in a 2006 interview with the Guardian that Rumpole had not “developed” in more than 30 years of stories, television scripts and novels. “What keeps him going is that he can comment on whatever’s going on at the time.”
Sir John continued to churn out the Rumpole adventures for many years, coming up with titles including “Rumpole and the Reign of Terror” (2006), in which Rumpole undertakes to defend a suspect being held under Britain’s antiterrorism laws, and Sir John undertakes to attack the broad-brush laws that he believes imperil human rights. He also adapted Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” for television, years after he became enthralled with the book as a young man. Somehow, despite the demands of his chosen careers, a “schizoid business of being a writer who had barristering as a day job,” Sir John also found time to pursue his lifelong interest in women, do some writing for newspapers and keep up the garden nurtured by his father, Clifford Mortimer, whose outsized shadow remained with him all his life.
The elder Mortimer, a man who was known for being angry and verbally abusive, was a barrister who specialized in divorce petitions and wills. He lost his sight when John was a boy, but the blindness was never discussed or acknowledged, and the father carried on much as he had before. His wife would accompany him to court, reading his legal briefs aloud en route so he could keep up on his cases, often treating fellow commuters on the train to detailed accusations of intimate marital infractions.
Sir John brought his father and their relationship to the stage in “A Voyage Round My Father,” which eventually was produced as a television movie in 1981, filmed at the family home, Turville Heath Cottage, near Henley on Thames, where Sir John grew up. Laurence Olivier played Clifford Mortimer, re-enacting his death in the same bed where the father died.
Sir John followed his father into the law, eventually taking over his law practice. After trying his hand at novels, writing in the morning before court, he turned to radio scripts and in 1957 had a first success, “The Dock Brief.” Years after its debut on BBC radio, it was produced on stage.
His memoirs, including “Clinging to the Wreckage” (1982), “Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life” (1994), drop dozens of names of the theater and movie people he spent time with. There are trays upon trays of cocktails in his stories, and interviews late in his life note the presence of what was described in one as a “comfortably large Guinness that he is drinking for his health even though it is still a long time until lunch.”
John Clifford Mortimer was born in 1923 in London to Clifford and Kathleen May Smith Mortimer. He attended Brasenose College, Oxford, and in 1949 he married Penelope Fletcher, a writer, who came to the marriage with three children. They had two children, Sally and Jeremy, and divorced. He later married Penelope Gollop, or “Penny the Second,” as he has referred to her. Their children are Rosamond and Emily.
A heretofore-unknown son, Ross Bentley, born of a liaison with Wendy Craig, an actress, surfaced when Sir John was in his 70s, and the author proclaimed himself delighted to welcome the son and new grandchildren to the family.
The existence of Ross Bentley came out in “The Devil’s Advocate,” an unauthorized biography by Graham Lord (2005), which asserted that Sir John had known about the son all along. He denied this.
An authorized biography, “A Voyage Round John Mortimer” (Viking), by Valerie Grove, was published in 2007.
As a defender of free speech, he took part in the appeal by the publishers of the novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” by Hubert Selby Jr., a book deemed unacceptable under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, and also “The Romans in Britain,” a play.
He also appeared on behalf of the London edition of Oz magazine, which produced a “school kids” edition written and illustrated by student readers. Among other items that offended the censors, it included a depiction of the head of the children’s character Rupert Bear grafted atop a body drawn by Robert Crumb, depicting Rupert in a state of sexual excitement.
“Doing these cases,” he wrote, “I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate. I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying. I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended.”
In addition, he went to Nigeria to help in the defense of the playwright and poet Wole Soyinka on a criminal charge.
In recent years, despite poor health, Sir John remained a constant fixture at London parties and social gatherings. He also maintained an active writing schedule, remaining a staunch champion of civil liberties and frequently writing opinion articles for London newspapers.
In “Murderers and Other Friends,” one of his memoirs, Mr. Mortimer recounts an interview for a radio program in which the questioner handed him the script of his own obituary, suggesting it might be “great fun” if he read it aloud for listeners. He refused. But he devoted a great deal of thought to death and dying.
He wrote about — and frequently discussed — the indignities old age visits upon humans: the daunting stairway to the restaurant restroom, the benefits of a wheelchair in places like airports and its disadvantages at cocktail parties, giving the user what he described as a child’s-eye view of the party and a crotch-level view of the guests.
“Dying is a matter of slapstick and pratfalls,” he wrote in “The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully” (2000). “The aging process is not gradual or gentle. It rushes up, pushes you over and runs off laughing. No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous.”
In an interview with The Express of London in 2006, Sir John said he had no intention of giving up writing.
“I shall continue writing until I drop,” he told the interviewer.