John Mortimer dies aged 85

Published January 16, 2009

Barrister and author Sir John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole Of The Bailey, died this morning at the age of 85.

Mortimer passed away at his home near Henley. His second wife Penny, and daughters Emily and Rosie, were with him.

A trained barrister, who appeared for the defence during the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and helped bring an end to the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship powers with the 1968 Theatres Act, Mortimer used his knowledge of legal proceedings to create the much-loved character of barrister Rumpole. Originally written in 1975 as a BBC Play For Today, Rumpole grew into a series of novels and a hit ITV television series starring Leo McKern.

A prolific writer for stage, screen and literature, Mortimer’s autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father, which was staged most recently by the Donmar Warehouse in 2006, told of how his life was dominated by an over-bearing blind father, a barrister who lived by his own rules. The piece, written in 1963, originally for radio, depicted the creation of his character as he moved from youth to adulthood, and aided his reputation as a writer.

In addition to writing original pieces, Mortimer also adapted work for television, most famously the 1981 11-part adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and the 1998 adaptation of Cider With Rosie. Mortimer also wrote the film Tea With Mussolini, which starred theatrical dames Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith.

Mortimer’s work was last seen in the West End in early 2008 when Legal Fictions, a double bill comprising his first play The Dock Brief and Edwin, played at the Savoy theatre starring Edward Fox and Nicholas Woodeson.

Speaking in reaction to Mortimer’s death, Dominic Cooke, Artistic Director of the Royal Court, said: “John spent a decade as Chairman of the board of the Royal Court, and another as our President, and we shall miss him terribly. As one of Britain’s most eloquent, and successful, champions of free speech and campaigners against censorship, he was a peerless role model to us all. His loss will be felt deeply by anyone who met him, or who experienced his love of theatre, his passion for justice, or his incomparable zest for life.”

Anthony Burton, Chair of the Royal Court, added: “I served as John’s Vice-Chair at the Royal Court for many years, and he became a dear friend to me and an invaluable friend to the theatre. He was a constant source of support to the Royal Court, always accompanied with his trademark wit and sense of mischief. I remember especially a tricky period in the late Nineties when the theatre was being redeveloped and we were trying to find the money to pay for it. His advice and his sense of humour were priceless in very difficult times.”

Mortimer, who had been battling long term health issues, received a knighthood in 1998.

MA