One of my favorite writers, John Mortimer, has died at the age of 85. Mortimer is best know for Rumpole of the Bailey, which was turned into a TV series starring Leo McKern (who played the role to near perfection). In many ways, Horace Rumpole resembled its creator. Rumpole was an old fashioned barrister who still believed in the Magna Carta and the inalienable rights that our governments have tossed aside in its “fight” against terrorism: fair trials, the presumption of innocence, the right not to be tortured. But Mortimer was never self-righteous in expressing his beliefs through Rumpole. If anything else, what made Rumpole and the characters around him so sympathetic and intriguing was that Mortimer always poked fun at them (and Rumpole often made fun of himself).
In the Rumpole stories, Rumpole lives with his overbearing wife, Hilda (She Who Must Be Obeyed) in the Froxbury Mansions, really an unheated flat in London. He drank a cheap red wine which he called “Chateau Thames Embankment” or sometimes “Pommeroy’s Plonk”, named after his favorite pub which is near the Thames. He made fun of judges he despised, but in a merry way (Judge Bullingham was christened the “Mad Bull”). Rumpole, like Mortimer, is a barrister from another era — before computers, Blackberries and the like. In his later stories, Mortimer mocks his colleagues’ reliance on new technology but also manages to laugh at his own helplessness.
Mortimer was a barrister like Rumpole. His most famous cases involved challenging “decency laws”. He defended the Sex Pistols and the publisher of Last Exit to Brooklyn.
News reports say that Mortimer was working on his latest Rumpole novel and was four chapters into it when he died. I was looking forward to reading it. That time will never come.
Here are a few links to articles in the UK about John Mortimer:
“The barrister, playwright and author Sir John Mortimer, who has died aged 85, was a man for all the seasons that touched his Chilterns garden, where he lived asÂ profusely as he wrote, in a spirit of unjudgmental generosity. His greatest achievement was to create, in Rumpole of the Bailey, a lawyer whom the world would love. . . .”
“Of all the late John Mortimer‘s achievements – which include defending the editors of Oz and the Sex Pistols in court, his autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father, and the glorious practice of drinking a glass of champagne before breakfast – undoubtedly the greatest was creating Horace Rumpole. From the name that Dickens could not have bettered to the suite of tics that defined him, Rumpole was a classic character. He was the sort of barrister that those actually called to the bar would like to be: independent, unpompous (barristers were merely “hacks”), ready to interpose themselves between a powerful state and a fundamentally harmless criminal defendant, and a superb performer both in court and in the Fleet Street wine bar Pommeroy’s . . .”
“John Mortimer never tired of describing himself as the best playwright who ever defended a murderer at the Old Bailey. And it was true that the legal world, which he had entered reluctantly, served him well as a writer. Being a lawyer gave him a cachet, as the only playwright-QC, a subject â€” many plays, and his most famous character, the barrister Horace Rumpole, had courtroom backgrounds â€” and a refuge: if a play did not prosper, he could always retreat to chambers and take another brief . . .”
Videos of John Mortimer:
Interview with John Mortimer, Part 1
Interview with John Mortimer, Part 2
John Mortimer — The Book Show Episode 3