Best known for his Rumpole of the Bailey television series, John Clifford Mortimer (born 1923) was a noted and prolific writer of novels, stories, and plays for radio, stage, television, and film, as well as a translator, interviewer, critic, editor, and lawyer.
John Clifford Mortimer was born to Clifford Mortimer, a barrister, and Kathleen May (Smith) Mortimer in London, England, on April 21, 1923. As an only child he grew up in an isolated, adult-centered environment. By the time Mortimer was 13 his father was totally blind and his mother devoted herself to leading him about London's law courts and their own Oxfordshire garden. Mortimer read novels and poetry to his father, who in turn told him stories and took him to the theater.
At his progressive prep school at Harrow and eventually at Brasenose College, Oxford, Mortimer mingled with England's upper classes and was encouraged to indulge his love of theater and acting. While at Harrow he had his first story published in the school literary magazine and began writing his first novel. Realizing that his dream of being an actor was impractical, he decided to be a writer. His father sent him to Oxford to study law so that he would "have something to fall back on," but Mortimer continued to write.
After graduating from Oxford in 1942, Mortimer, who was declared unfit for active army service because of vision problems, got a job as fourth assistant director and screen writer for the Crown Film Unit and spent the war years making propaganda documentaries for the government. Charade (1947), his first published novel, is based on these film unit experiences. Charade was followed by five more novels in the next decade. Rumming Park (1948), Answer Yes or No (1950), Like Men Betrayed (1953), The Narrowing Stream (1954), and Three Winters (1956) established Mortimer's reputation as a competent if somewhat derivative writer.
Called to the bar in 1948, Mortimer handled divorces and then practiced criminal law to support the children of his first wife, Penelope Ruth Fletcher Dimont, whom he married in 1949. Her four daughters from a previous marriage and their own two children, Sally (1950) and Jeremy (1955), provided an antidote to the isolation of his youth.
Mortimer had already done radio adaptations of his fiction, and in 1957 he wrote his first radio play for the BBC Third Program. The Dock Brief was well received and established Mortimer's gift for ironic comedy as well as his tendency to use autobiographical material as the basis for his writing. During the next 20 years Mortimer wrote nearly twenty more original one act and full-length plays, many of which were adapted for radio, stage, and television. He also made frequent trips to Hollywood to work on screen plays. As a playwright, Mortimer was compared to Chekhov and Gogol, Ionesco, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. While often grouped with Britain's "Angry Young Men" of the late 1950s (Osborne, Wesker, and Pinter), his main interest was charting the decline of the middle class rather than the rise of the working class.
The menage a trois, the failure to communicate, and the unhappy marriage are themes to which he returned time and time again. I Spy (1957), What Shall We Tell Caroline? (1958), Call Me a Liar (1958), The Wrong Side of the Park (1960), Lunch Hour (1960), Collect Your Hand Baggage (1962), four one acts in Come as You Are (1970), Collaborators (1973), and The Bells of Hell (1977) are all bitingly comic plays which sympathetically explore relationships between men and women and the various accommodations they make, for the most part, to maintain the status quo. Not surprisingly, it was during this period that Mortimer's own first marriage was floundering; he was divorced in 1972 and married Penelope Gollop the same year.
In addition to the autobiographical probing of male-female relationships, Mortimer's writing drew heavily on his childhood experiences and professional expertise, first as a barrister and then as queen's council. His plays Two Stars for Comfort (1962) and The Judge (1967) introduce characters who view the law as a repressive force. The law is also a focus in the widely praised, highly autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father (stage play 1970 and television adaptation 1980), which explores the relationship between Mortimer and his blind father. Much of this material reappears in his autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life (1982), which wittily and lovingly details Mortimer's life through 1970. Another installation of his memoirs was Murderers and Other Friends in 1994.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were particularly prolific years. In addition to his autobiographical works, he also adapted numerous Graham Greene stories (1976) and Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1981) for television. The first Rumpole of the Bailey series was produced for the BBC in 1975; five more followed. These programs feature a seedy, aging barrister, Horace Rumpole, played by Leo McKern, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mortimer. Elements of Mortimer's father and Mortimer himself are evident in the composite Rumpole who, plain spoken, irascible, and definitely anti-establishment, often has more sympathy for his clients than his peers. Ten collections of Rumpole stories have been published to date, most recently Rumpole on Trial (1992), The Best of Rumpole (1993), and Rumpole and the Angel of Death (1996).
Mortimer's versatility continued unabated. He was known as a translator, primarily of Feydeau farces, as a skilled interviewer for In Character (1983) and Character Parts (1986), and as an editor for Famous Trials (1984), Great Law and Order Stories (1991), and The Oxford Book of Villains (1992). But it was his return to the novel after an absence of nearly 30 years that was perhaps most noteworthy. Summer's Lease was published in 1988. Paradise Postponed (1985) and its sequel, Titmuss Regained (1990), explore politics and power in the post World War II England of Margaret Thatcher. Mortimer's later novel, Dunster (1992), peopled with Dickensian eccentrics and figures from his past, expanded his reputation as a teller of wryly humorous stories. His Felix in the Underworld was published in 1997.
A Voyage Round My Father (1970), Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life (1982) and Murderers and Other Friends (1994) are autobiographical. No book-length critical study of Mortimer's work yet exists, but chapters discussing his plays have appeared in John Russell Taylor's Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama (1969), George E. Well-warth's Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in Avant-Garde Drama (1971), and Ronald Hayman's British Theater Since 1955: A Reassessment (1979). Good portraits of Mortimer appeared in the New Yorker. (March 20, 1995) and in The New York Times (April 12, 1995). □