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John Mortimer

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Subject: Rumpole of the Bailey, Tea with Mussolini, Maschenka, Don Quixote (2000 film), Penelope Mortimer
Collection: 1923 Births, 2009 Deaths, 20Th-Century Dramatists and Playwrights, 20Th-Century English Novelists, Alumni of Brasenose College, Oxford, Booker Authors' Division, British Book Award Winners, Commanders of the Order of the British Empire, English Atheists, English Barristers, English Dramatists and Playwrights, English Male Novelists, English Male Short Story Writers, English Novelists, English Short Story Writers, English Television Writers, Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, Knights Bachelor, Male Dramatists and Playwrights, Male Screenwriters, People Educated at Harrow School, People Educated at the Dragon School, People from Hampstead, People from Wycombe (District), Prix Italia Winners
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John Mortimer

Sir John Mortimer
Born John Clifford Mortimer
(1923-04-21)21 April 1923
Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Died 16 January 2009(2009-01-16) (aged 85)
Turville Heath, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom
Occupation Barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author
Nationality British
Education Dragon School
Harrow School
Alma mater Brasenose College, Oxford
Notable works A Voyage Round My Father
Rumpole of the Bailey
The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully
Notable awards Queen's Counsel (1966)
CBE (1986)
Knighthood (1998)
Spouse Penelope Mortimer (1949-1971, divorce)
Penelope Gollop (1972-2009, his death)
Children Sally Silverman, Jeremy Mortimer (with Mortimer)
Emily Mortimer, Rosie Mortimer (with Gollop)
Ross Bentley (with actress Wendy Craig)
Four stepdaughters

Sir John Clifford Mortimer, CBE, QC (21 April 1923 – 16 January 2009)[1] was an English barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author.


  • Early life 1
  • Early writing career 2
  • Legal career 3
  • Later writing career 4
  • Personal life 5
  • Death 6
  • Attributes 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • Select screenwriting credits 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Early life

Mortimer was born in Hampstead, London, the only child of Kathleen May (née Smith) and Clifford Mortimer, a barrister[2] who became blind in 1936, when he hit his head on the door frame of a London taxi,[3] but still pursued his career. Clifford's loss of sight was not acknowledged openly by the family.[4]

John Mortimer was educated at the Dragon School, in Oxford, and Harrow, where he joined the Communist Party[5] forming a one-member cell.[6] 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,[6] 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."[5]

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.[7] In July 1942, at the end of his second year, Mortimer was asked to leave Oxford by the Dean of Christ Church, after romantic letters to a Bradfield sixth-former, Quentin Edwards, later a QC,[8] were discovered by the young man's housemaster.[6]

Early writing career

Mortimer was classified as medically unfit for military service in World War II, with weak eyes and doubtful lungs.[5] He worked for the Crown Film Unit, 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.[9]
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.[10]

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.

Legal career

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.[5] 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."[4]

He has sometimes been incorrectly cited as a member in the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial defence team, though this is inaccurate.[11] 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.[5] He assumed a similar role three years later, this time unsuccessfully, for Richard Handyside, the English publisher of The Little Red Schoolbook.[5]

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.[12] 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.[5]

Later writing career

Mortimer is best remembered for creating a barrister named Horace Rumpole, inspired by his father Clifford,[13] 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 was dead"), 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,[14] 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. This depicts what he saw as Britain's descent into viciousness in the era of Thatcherism.

Mortimer also 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.[15]

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.

Personal life

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.[16] 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.[7]

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,[17] and born in November 1961.[6] 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."

Awarded the CBE in 1986, he was knighted in 1998.


Mortimer died on 16 January 2009, aged 85, after a long illness.[18] He had suffered a stroke in October 2008.


John Mortimer was a 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. Earlier, he was on the board of the National Theatre from 1968 to 1988.


Select screenwriting credits


  1. ^
  2. ^ John Mortimer Biography (1923-2009)
  3. ^ page 14, Graham Lord, John Mortimer: The Devil's Advocate (2005)
  4. ^ a b Helen T. Verongos "John Mortimer, barrister and creator of Rumpole, is dead", 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.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Obituary, Daily Telegraph, 16 January 2009
  6. ^ a b c d "Sir John Mortimer: creator of Rumpole of the Bailey", The Times, 17 January 2009.
  7. ^ a b David Hughes "Sir John Mortimer: Lawyer and writer who created Rumpole of the Bailey and elegised a bygone England", The Independent, 17 January 2009.
  8. ^ Valerie Grove "Rumpole creator John Mortimer dies at 85", The Times, 16 January 2009.
  9. ^ John Mortimer Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life, 1982, p71
  10. ^
  11. ^ Mortimer's biographer Valerie Grove dismisses this canard in her tribute article.
  12. ^ Brett Humphreys "The Law that Dared to Lay the Blame ...", Gay and Lesbian Humanist, Summer 2002, as reproduced on the pinktriangle website.
  13. ^ Robert McCrum, Mortimer Tribute, The Observer, p.29, 18 January 2009 [1]
  14. ^ Published in USA as John Mortimer. The Secret Lives of Rumpole's Creator (New York, Thomas Dunne Books, 2006)
  15. ^ In appreciation of John Mortimer - CS Monitor
  16. ^ Obituary: Penelope Ruth Mortimer, 1999
  17. ^ John Walsh "Wit, flirt, genius: John Mortimer dies aged 85", The Independent, 17 January 2009
  18. ^ John Mortimer – Lasting Tribute Archived 22 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  • 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

External links

  • John Mortimer at the Internet Movie Database
  • John Mortimer at the Internet Broadway Database
  • John Mortimer plays in Bristol University Theatre Archive
  • John Mortimer at the British Film Institute'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
  • Recordings and Photos of the visit by Sir John to the College Historical Society in October 2007.
  • Obituary: Sir John Mortimer (BBC)
  • Sir John Clifford Mortimer (1923-2009), Barrister, playwright and writer Sitter in 7 portraits (National Portrait Gallery)
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