Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
John Mortimer: The Guardian Interview (1994)

On Rumpole's success and broadcast campaigner Mary Whitehouse

Main image of John Mortimer: The Guardian Interview (1994)

John Mortimer was interviewed by Sheridan Morley at the National Film Theatre on 16 October 1994.

1. Rumpole's worldwide appeal

SM: Of all the books, of all the television, of all the movies, I suppose it's Rumpole that comes to mind first when anybody talks to you.

JM: Well, he's the most popular.

SM: Did you know when you started what you had there?

JM: No, not at all. I mean not at all. I thought of Rumpole, I really wanted to think of a detective like Sherlock Holmes or Maigret or someone I could write about, and I started writing odd speeches for Rumpole, and then we did one play, which I think was revived not very long ago at the BBC, which John Gorrie, who was here, directed, and John Gorrie thought of the title, Rumpole of the Bailey, and we did it and thought we really I didn't see any reason why we would ever do anymore. I didn't even think that Leo McKern would be in it either. I thought Alastair Sim would be a wonderful Rumpole, then I discovered Alastair Sim was dead and unable to take it on. [Laughter]

SM: Typical actors! Useless. When you want them they're always dead. [Laughter]

JM: Yes, they're always dead or something.

SM: But why do you think not just Britain, but Australia, America, everywhere, took him to their heart? There are Rumpole conventions in Minneapolis.

JM: There's a huge Rumpole Society in San Francisco. [Laughter] I mean vast. And they meet in the Pacific Gas and Electricity Company and they come from Israel, far and wide, and they have Hilda Rumpole lookalike contests. [Laughter]

SM: But explain it. What is it that everybody caught onto about - ?

JM: Well, I think in every organisation, every office, there's somone who wants to be rude to the boss, difficult, and I think then also there are so many lawyers in the world. I mean there are an awful lot of lawyers in America. And lawyers, defence lawyers the world over go through exactly the same feelings, I think, as Rumpole does in court. And then a great number of people who lead rather tough married lives. At Christmas time I'm always asked to sign books to people's wives, and first I say, "What do I write? You know, 'Darling Elizabeth', 'Sweet'." "No, no. Write 'To she who must be obeyed'," they always say. [Laughter]

2. Impressions of Mary Whitehouse

SM: Has John ever had dealings with Mary Whitehouse?

JM: Many dealings with Mary Whitehouse: [Laughter] a person for whom I have a certain amount of regard, really. The first time I ever encountered Mary Whitehouse, we were doing a debate in the Cambridge Union, at the beginning of the Oz trial, and the whole place was terribly overexcited and all the Oz editors who were on bail were there speaking. She was speaking in favour of censorship, and as she spoke somebody lowered a skull very slowly from the gallery, suspended it over her head, and it had written on it, "Alas, poor Muggeridge, I knew him well," [Laughter] and she went on impeturbably, you know, and I thought she was quite a gutsy old thing. And we then met, you know, and if any questionable book arose which might distress and shock Mrs Whitehouse, she used to rush out and buy it at the earliest possible opportunity, [Laughter] and with any luck she would prosecute it so we'd all be in work. [Laughter] But I slightly went off her during the Gay News trial which was a trial for blasphemy, because when the jury were out she and her friends were standing in the corridor of the law courts praying to God for a guilty verdict, and I really thought, "I mean, God's got wars, pestilences, everything on his hands. [Laughter] I mean, can he be bothered to go down the Old Bailey and get somebody convicted for publishing Gay News?" So I went off her a bit at that point, but she's quite a, the only thing I could never find out about her was her organisation because there doesn't seem to be anybody else in the organisation.

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
1. Rumpole's worldwide appeal (2:09)
2. Impressions of Mary Whitehouse (1:38)
Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-83, 87-92)
Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)
Whitehouse, Mary (1910-2001)