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Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)


Main image of Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)

For six decades John Mortimer has been one of Britain's most prolific and varied writers, producing dozens of novels, short stories, stage plays and scripts for television, radio and the cinema, all characterised by clever plots, witty dialogue and a dash of melancholy. For almost forty years he was also a highly successful barrister and one of the country's best-known advocates for civil liberties and free speech.

John Clifford Mortimer was born on 21 April 1923, and after three years at Harrow went to study law at Oxford. His first professional encounter with the cinema came during the war, when he wrote documentaries for the Crown Film Unit. His experiences there later formed the basis for his first novel, the 1947 thriller Charade. After the war Mortimer began his career as a barrister, which he would frequently refer to as his 'day job', continuing to write in his spare hours. Several books followed, but Mortimer only really came into his own with his 1957 radio play, The Dock Brief, a legal satire about an unsuccessful barrister who elicits the sympathy of his wife-murdering client. Initiating a pattern that would continue for the rest of his career, Mortimer later refashioned this work for a number of media, turning it first into a stage play then adapting it again for television (both times with Michael Hordern in the starring role), finally making it into a 1962 film (d. James Hill), with Peter Sellers as the barrister and Richard Attenborough as the murderer.

Following its success Mortimer was asked to write additional dialogue for a number of films including The Innocents (d. Jack Clayton, 1961), a spine-chilling adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Mortimer collaborated with his wife, novelist Penelope Mortimer (née Fletcher), on Bunny Lake is Missing (d. Otto Preminger, 1965), an eccentric psychological mystery mainly notable for Denys Coop's fine widescreen cinematography and an unusually naturalistic performance by Laurence Olivier, who would later collaborate with Mortimer on several television and theatre projects. Mortimer used the making of the film, and his relationship with its producer/director Preminger, as the basis for his 1973 play Collaborators.

After the underrated John and Mary (UK/US, d. Peter Yates, 1969), a story of a brief New York romance starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow that looks forward to Last Tango in Paris (Italy/France, 1972), Mortimer wrote the first version of perhaps his greatest single work, A Voyage Round My Father (BBC, tx. 16/10/1969), a moving autobiographical piece in which Ian Richardson played Mortimer and Mark Dignam played his blind father. Mortimer later adapted it for the stage, with Alec Guinness taking over from Dignam when it transferred to the West End. Mortimer later turned the play back into a television film for Thames (ITV, tx. 2/3/1982), with Olivier as the father and Alan Bates as the son. It was at Thames that Mortimer also had his greatest popular success with Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-1992), with Leo McKern in the title role as an honest but frequently unsuccessful defence barrister whose lack of career advancement has blighted his relationship with his wife Hilda ('She Who must be Obeyed').

After his well-received six-part biographical drama Will Shakespeare (ITV, 1978), he was asked to adapt Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981) into a six-hour series. Although Mortimer received sole writing credit on the eleven-part version that was eventually screened to worldwide success, it has recently been revealed that producer Derek Granger abandoned Mortimer's more original condensation and opted to slavishly follow the novel instead.

After adapting John Fowles' The Ebony Tower (ITV, tx. 9/12/1984) for Olivier and reuniting with Alec Guinness on Edwin (Channel 4, tx. 3/5/1984), from his 1982 radio play about a cuckolded judge, Mortimer returned to novels for the first time in almost thirty years with Paradise Postponed, an ambitious saga about life after the end of the Second World War. Shortly afterwards, he adapted it into a massive eleven-part miniseries (with a reported budget of £6 million), which helped launch the career of David Threlfall as the odious Tory MP Leslie Titmuss, a character that re-appeared in Mortimer's sequel Titmuss Regained (ITV, 1991). Like the 1992 series of Rumpole, David Nobbs' Love on a Branch Line (BBC, 1994) and Mortimer's auction room series Under the Hammer (ITV, 1994), it was made for New Penny Productions, the company he set up with his long-term producing partner Jacqueline Davis. His most recent work includes Cider with Rosie (ITV, tx. 27/12/1998) from Laurie Lee's novel, Franco Zeffirelli's wartime memoir Tea with Mussolini (Italy/UK, 1999) and an adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote (US, tx. 9/4/2000) directed by Peter Yates.

Mortimer has long been an outspoken critic of limits to freedom of expression and his victory defending the publishers of 'Oz' magazine on charges of obscenity was itself turned into the drama The Trials of Oz (BBC, tx. 9/11/1991), with Simon Callow cast as Mortimer.

Made a Queen's Counsel in 1966, awarded a CBE in 1986 and knighted in 1998, Mortimer and his second wife Penny Gollop have two children, the eldest of which is the actress Emily Mortimer.

Graham Lord, The Devil's Advocate (Orion, London, 2005)
Leo McKern, Just Resting (Methuen, London, 1983)
John Mortimer, Clinging to the Wreckage (Penguin, London, 1983)
John Mortimer, Murderers and Other Friends (Penguin, London, 1994)
Penelope Mortimer, About Time Too, 1940-78 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993)
Irene Shubik, Play for Today - 2nd edition (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000)

Sergio Angelini

*A season of films and television programmes by John Mortimer is playing at BFI Southbank in May 2009.

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

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

On Rumpole's success and broadcast campaigner Mary Whitehouse

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Innocents, The (1961)Innocents, The (1961)

Unnerving ghost story based on Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw'

Thumbnail image of Brideshead Revisited (1981)Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Lavish, standard-setting adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel

Thumbnail image of Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-83, 87-92)Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-83, 87-92)

Much-loved comedy drama following a cynical, put-upon barrister

Thumbnail image of Trials of Oz, The (1991)Trials of Oz, The (1991)

Dramatisation of the notorious 'Oz' magazine obscenity trial

Thumbnail image of Voyage Round My Father, A (1982)Voyage Round My Father, A (1982)

John Mortimer's fine play about his relationship with his blind father

Thumbnail image of Will Shakespeare (1978)Will Shakespeare (1978)

Tim Curry stars in John Mortimer's rollicking biographical portrait

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