Sunday, January 18, 2009

John Mortimer


Mortimer conducted two high-profile careers simultaneously, that of the writer and the lawyer. A British barrister for decades, he was an expert in "Freedom of Speech" cases, winning victories for Linda (Deep Throat) Lovelace, Lady Chatterly's Lover, and the Sex Pistols. Meanwhile, he was an accomplished and prolific writer of films, television, plays, novels, and his own memoir (in three volumes). He is surely best known for creating and writing Rumpole of the Bailey, a television series concerning a disheveled legal defender of low-lifes and ne'er-do-wells. The show was a success throughout the world, and turned Shakespearean character actor Leo McKern into an international star. (McKern was not the first choice to play the role; Alistair Sim had been approached and turned down the gig.)

Mortimer wrote many plays during his career, including A Voyage Around My Father, the autobiographical story of a young lawyer and his blind parent. It was filmed with Alan Bates as the young Mortimer and Laurence Olivier as his father. He also adapted Franco Zeffirelli's autobiography into a film script, which Zeffirelli himself directed. Tea With Mussolini had a starry cast of award-winning actresses including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Lily Tomlin, and Cher.

Mortimer received credit for the TV adaptation of the sprawling miniseries Brideshead Revisited (about which I have already written), but in fact, none of his finished teleplays were used. His greatest success remains the creation of Horace Rumpole. The charismatic character was at home in front of the most intimidating of judges (whom Rumpole called "old darlings"), and was likely to be found most any afternoon at Pommeroy's Wine Bar, sipping claret and quoting something literary, after which he would return home to his overbearing wife, "She Who Must Be Obeyed."

Mortimer was knighted in 1998, and since 2004, was a legal consultant on Boston Legal. His surviving children include actress Emily Mortimer (Point Blank).
Though in ill health for several years, Mortimer continued to create. After a morning glass of champagne, he would settle at his desk and write at least 1000 words, in illegible longhand. At the time of his death this week, he had four chapters completed of the latest Rumpole novel.