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Obituary: Sir John Mortimer

Obituary by Jack Foley

PROLIFIC author Sir John Mortimer, best-known for creating the character Rumpole of the Bailey, has died at the age of 85 following a long illness.

Sir John, who began working as a barrister in the 1940s, drew on his experiences working in the law and went on to become one of the most prolific writers of books and screenplays of his generation. He was knighted in 1998.

Born on April 21, 1923, in Hampstead, London, Sir John’s career took shape from an early age after being defined by two key events. Firstly, his father lost his eyesight and charged his son with describing the world and keeping him entertained.

He also made it clear that he would take over his legal practice, prompting Sir John to pursue a career in law – a career he excelled in, even becoming a Queen’s Counsel.

Among his most notable cases were acting for Penguin Books during the controversial publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by DH Lawrence, and, later, successfully defending the Sex Pistols when their Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols album produced an attempted prosecution.

But as he became more and more taken with writing, he successfully combined his careers as barrister and dramatist for several decades. His first radio play was broadcast in 1957, and – in 1971 – wrote the acclaimed Voyage Round My Father, a loose set of anecdotes about his childhood and late father that was later adapted into a successful television film starring Sir Laurence Olivier.

Sir John’s dedication to writing saw him start at 5am each morning and he continued to build a reputation as one of Britain’s finest, succeeding in many different formats (whether for novels, for TV, or for the stage).

When he finally left the Bar, Sir John channelled his adversarial energy into the beloved character, Rumpole of the Bailey, which subsequently made its debut as a BBC television play in 1975.

Rumpole then became an ITV series in 1978, starring the late actor Leo McKern, and brought its creator fame across the world.

In 1980, it was adapted for radio with Maurice Denham in the lead role and Timothy West picked up the part in 2003. Rumpole arguably remains Sir John’s most enduring character.

But other notable works included his translation, in 1981, of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited into the successful television series, as well as the screenplay for well-received movie Tea With Mussolini in 1999.

His success helped Sir John to remain active socially throughout his life and he was described by the BBC as “the quintessential champagne socialist, a champion for reform and permissiveness, who nevertheless lived in the wealthy Chilterns and backed the monarchy and fox-hunting”.

Despite failing health, he remained active well into later life and – most recently – attended the February 2008 launch of his play, Legal Fictions, in a wheelchair.

He was married twice: firstly, to fellow author Penelope Mortimer (a marriage which collapsed), and then to Penny Gollop, a model booker he met her, and who was 23 years his junior.

He passed away on Friday, January 16, 2009 and is survived by Penny, as well as three daughters and one son – including the actress, Emily Mortimer.

Among the many tributes that have already been paid, Tony Lacey, Sir John’s editor at publishing house Viking, said: “It’s hard to think he’d gone. At least we’re lucky enough to have Rumpole to remind us just how remarkable he was.”

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