Mortimer, John 1923- (John Clifford Mortimer, John Mortimer, Sir)
Mortimer, John 1923- (John Clifford Mortimer, John Mortimer, Sir)
Born April 21, 1923, in London, England; son of Clifford (a barrister) and Kathleen May Mortimer; married Penelope Ruth Fletcher (a writer), 1949 (divorced, 1972); married Penelope Gollop, 1972; children: (first marriage) Sally, Jeremy; (second marriage) Emily Mortimer Rosamond; stepchildren: Madelon Lee Mortimer, Caroline Mortimer, Julia Mankowitz, Deborah Rogers. Education: Attended Brasenose College, Oxford. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, opera.
Novelist and playwright. Barrister-at-law in London, England, 1948—; named to Queen's Council, 1966; master of the bench Inner Temple, 1975. Royal Court Theatre, former chairman.
Royal Society of Literature (former chairman), Garrick Club.
Italia Prize, 1957, for The Dock Brief; Writers Guild of Great Britain award for best original teleplay, 1969, for A Voyage round My Father; Golden Globe award nomination, 1970, for screenplay John and Mary; writer of the year, British Film and Television Academy, 1980; named Commander of the British Empire, 1986; honorary doctorate in law, Exeter University, 1986; D.Litt., Susquehanna University, Nottingham University, and St. Andrews University; knighted, 1998; British Book Award, Publishing News, 2005, for lifetime achievement.
Charade (novel), Lane (London, England), 1948.
Rumming Park (novel), Lane (London, England), 1949.
Answers Yes or No (novel), Lane (London, England), 1950, published as Silver Hook, Morrow (New York, NY), 1950.
Like Men Betrayed (novel), Collins (London, England), 1953, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1954.
Three Winters (novel), Collins (London, England), 1956.
Narrowing Stream (novel), Collins (London, England), 1956.
Will Shakespeare (stories), Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1977.
Rumpole of the Bailey (stories), Penguin (London, England), 1978.
Regina v. Rumpole, A. Lane (London, England), 1981.
Rumpole's Return (stories), Penguin (London, England), 1982.
Trials of Rumpole (stories), Penguin (London, England), 1982.
Rumpole and the Golden Thread, Penguin (London, England), 1984.
Rumpole for the Defence, Penguin (London, England), 1984.
A Rumpole Omnibus, Penguin (London, England), 1984.
Paradise Postponed (first novel in the "Rapstone Chronicles" series; also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
The Second Rumpole Omnibus, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1988.
Rumpole's Last Case, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1988.
Rumpole and the Age of Miracles, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1989.
Rumpole a la Carte, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1990.
The Narrowing Stream, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1990.
Titmuss Regained (second novel in the "Rapstone Chronicles" series; also see below), Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1991.
Summer's Lease, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1991.
Rumpole on Trial, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.
The Rumpole Collection, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
The Rapstone Chronicles: Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
Dunster, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
The Best of Rumpole, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
Rumpole and the Angel of Death, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
Felix in the Underworld, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
The Third Rumpole Omnibus, Penguin (New York, NY), 1998.
The Sound of Trumpets (third novel in the "Rapstone Chronicles" series), Viking (New York, NY), 1999.
Rumpole Rests His Case, Viking (London, England), 2001.
Rumpole and the Primrose Path, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
Where There's a Will, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.
Quite Honestly, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.
Three Plays: The Dock Brief; What Shall We Tell Caroline? [and] I Spy (also see below), Elek, 1958, Grove (London, England), 1962.
The Wrong Side of the Park (three-act), Heinemann (London, England), 1960.
Lunch Hour, and Other Plays (contains Collect Your Hand Baggage, David and Broccoli, and Call Me a Liar), Methuen (London, England), 1960.
Lunch Hour (one-act), Samuel French (London, England), 1960.
What Shall We Tell Caroline? (three-act), Heinemann (London, England), 1960.
Collect Your Hand Baggage (one-act), Samuel French (London, England), 1960.
I Spy, Samuel French (London, England), 1960.
Two Stars for Comfort, Methuen (London, England), 1962.
(Translator) Georges Feydeau, A Flea in Her Ear: A Farce (first produced in London, England, at Old Vic Theatre, February 8, 1966; also see below), Samuel French (London, England), 1968.
The Judge (first produced in London, England, at Cambridge Theatre, March 1, 1967), Methuen (London, England), 1967.
(Translator) Georges Feydeau, Cat among the Pigeons (three-act; first produced in Milwaukee, WI, at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, November, 1971), Samuel French (London, England), 1970.
Five Plays (contains The Dock Brief, What Shall We Tell Caroline?, I Spy, Lunch Hour, and Collect Your Hand Baggage), Methuen (London, England), 1970.
Come as You Are! (contains one-act comedies Mill Hill, Bermondsey, Gloucester Road, and Marble Arch; first produced, under combined title, in London, England, at New Theatre, January 27, 1970), Methuen (London, England), 1971.
A Voyage round My Father (first produced in New York, NY, at Greenwich Theatre, November 24, 1970; also see below), Methuen (London, England), 1971.
(Translator) Carl Zuckmayer, The Captain of Koepenick (first produced in London at Old Vic Theatre, March 9, 1971), Methuen (London, England), 1971.
I, Claudius (two-act; adapted from Robert Graves's novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God), first produced in London, England, at Queen's Theatre, July 11, 1972.
Knightsbridge, Samuel French (London, England), 1973.
Collaborators (two-act), first produced in London, England, at Dutchess Theatre, April 17, 1973.
Heaven and Hell (includes one-act plays The Fear of Heaven and The Prince of Darkness), first produced in London, England, at Greenwich Theatre, May 27, 1976.
(Translator) Georges Feydeau, The Lady from Maxim's (first produced in London, England, at Lyttleton Theatre, October 18, 1977), Heinemann, 1977.
The Bells of Hell (full-length version of The Prince of Darkness; first produced in London, England, at Garrick Theatre, July 27, 1977), published as The Bells of Hell: A Divine Comedy, Samuel French (London, England), 1978.
The Fear of Heaven, Samuel French (London, England), 1978.
John Mortimer's Casebook (collected plays, including The Dock Brief, The Prince of Darkness, and Interlude), first produced in London, England, at Young Vic, January 6, 1982.
When That I Was, first produced in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, at Arts Centre, February 16, 1982.
Contributor to anthologies, including English One-Act Plays of Today, edited by Donald Fitzjohn, Oxford University Press, 1962.
Like Men Betrayed, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), 1955.
No Hero, BBC, 1955.
The Dock Brief, BBC, 1957.
Three Winters, BBC, 1958.
Call Me a Liar, BBC, 1958.
Personality Split, BBC, 1964.
Education of an Englishman, BBC, 1964.
A Rare Device, BBC, 1965.
Mr. Luby's Fear of Heaven, BBC, 1976.
TELEVISION PLAYS AND SERIES
David and Broccoli, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBCTV), 1960.
The Encyclopaedist, BBC-TV, 1961.
The Choice of Kings, Associated Rediffusion, 1966.
The Exploding Azalea, Thames Television, 1966.
The Head Waiter, BBC-TV, 1966.
The Other Side, BBC-TV, 1967.
Desmond, BBC-TV, 1968.
Infidelity Took Place, BBC-TV, 1968.
Married Alive, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), January 23, 1970.
Only Three Can Play, Independent Broadcasting Authority, June 6, 1970.
Alcock and Gander, Thames Television, June 5, 1972.
Swiss Cottage, BBC-TV, 1972.
Knightsbridge, BBC-TV, 1972.
Rumpole of the Bailey (two series), BBC-TV, 1975 and 1978.
Will Shakespeare, ATV, 1977.
Unity, BBC-TV, 1978.
A Voyage round my Father, Thames Television, 1980.
(Adapter) Brideshead Revisited (based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh), Granada, 1981.
The Ebony Tower, Granada, 1984.
Paradise Postponed, Thames Television, 1986.
Summer's Lease, BBC-TV, 1989.
(Adapter) Die Fledermaus, BBC-TV, 1990.
Titmus Regained, 1991.
Cider with Rose, WGBH Boston/Carlton Television, 1998.
(Adapter) Don Quixote, Turner Network Television (TNT), 2000.
Love and War in the Appenines, 2000.
Also adapted several Graham Greene stories for television, Thames Television, 1976.
Bunny Lake Is Missing, Columbia Pictures, 1965.
A Flea in Her Ear, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1968.
John and Mary, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1969.
Maschenka, Jorn Donner Productions, 1987.
(With Franco Zeffirelli) Tea with Mussolini, G2 Films, 1999.
(With first wife, Penelope Ruth Mortimer) With Love and Lizards (travel), M. Joseph (London, England), 1957.
Clinging to the Wreakage: A Part of Life (autobiography), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1982.
In Character (interviews), Allen Lane, 1983.
Trees for the New Zealand Countryside: A Planter's Guide, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1987.
Character Parts, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1988.
(Editor) The Oxford Book of Villains, Oxford University Press, 1992.
(Editor) Great Law and Order Stories, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life (memoir), Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
The Summer of a Dormouse: Another Part of Life (memoir), Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of a scenario for ballet, "Home," 1968. Contributor to periodicals. Has served as dramatic critic for New Statesman, Evening Standard, and Observer, all London, England.
John Mortimer's fiction has been compared to that of Charles Dickens for its eccentric characters, and to that of Evelyn Waugh for its portrayal of class consciousness. Best known in America for his television work, including creating Rumpole of the Bailey and adapting Waugh's Brideshead Revisited as a television series, Mortimer is renowned in his native England as both a barrister and a playwright/author. The two professions have intermingled in many of Mortimer's writings. From the tippling, cynical Rumpole to Morgenhall, the failed hero of The Dock Brief, to the autobiographical young protagonist of A Voyage round My Father, writers and lawyers have played major roles in the author's work. He also has a talent for farce as an adapter of Georges Feydeau's plays and as author of his own Come as You Are!
The son of a barrister, Mortimer was himself called to the bar in 1948, at about the same time his first novel, Charade, was published. He has been viewed as a controversial figure in both fields. In a celebrated 1970 case, Mortimer, as barrister, successfully defended the publishers of the magazine Oz against charges of pornography; and Mortimer himself has often been criticized for treading past the bounds of propriety in his own work. His plays run the gamut of style; as Ronald Hayman wrote in British Theatre since 1955: A Reassessment, the author "has oscillated between writing safe plays, catering for the West End audience, and dangerously serious plays, which might have alienated the public [he] had won." Gerald H. Strauss continued in a Dictionary of Literary Biography article: "Indicative more of his versatility than of his limitations, this ambivalence is shared by Mortimer with a number of his contemporaries. He can be praised for clever conception and deft management of situations, characters that are believable even when they are largely stereotypes, and dialogue that abounds with witticisms; and all of his plays, not just his ambitious ones … are the work of a perceptive social conscience."
To be sure, socially conscious plays thrived during the mid-1950s, when Mortimer's work began receiving serious attention. What separates the author from such peers as John Osborne and Harold Pinter is that Mortimer "applies his exploratory techniques to the middle classes in decline rather than the working classes ascendant," according to John Russell Taylor in his book Anger and After. Taylor went on to comment that in Mortimer's plays "there are no ready-made villains on whom the blame can be put…. [I]nstead, the seedy and downtrodden are accepted on their own terms, as human beings, mixtures inevitably of good and bad qualities, and then without glossing over or minimizing the bad qualities, Mortimer gradually unfolds the good for our inspection."
In his book The Theatre of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama, George Wellwarth found another kind of nemesis in Mortimer's stories: "The efficient compromisers are the villains of Mortimer's plays, even though they do not appear in them personally." Wellwarth pointed out that in a typical example of Mortimer drama, the author presents "the glorification of the failure." A failure, Wellwarth added, "is hardly a heroic figure. Mortimer's failures receive their stature by analogy: they are the antithesis of the organization men…. [The author] has no use for the survival-of-the-fittest doctrine, since, as he sees it, the terms of the survival are dictated by those who know they will triumph under those terms."
One play that illustrates Wellwarth's theory is The Dock Brief, a study of how harsh reality intrudes on pleasant fantasy. Morgenhall is a small-time barrister who gets the chance to defend a murder suspect in a case that could turn his dismal career around. But instead of working diligently on the case, Morgenhall drifts into an elaborate fantasy of success, playing the roles of judge and jury himself, and subsequently ruins his own sense of reality. At the same time, the accused, Fowle, is so caught up in his lawyer's illusions that he too adopts a fantasy perspective on his fate. Thus, even after a mistrial is called because of the barrister's incompetence, the characters exit "with enough illusions to continue living," as Taylor put it. The character of Morgenhall, the author added, "might well have stepped straight from the pages of [Nikolai] Gogol—his seediness and unreliability, his proliferating fantasy life and his impotence in the world of action at once proclaim his kinship with many of the characters in Dead Souls."
While he has been an active and prolific writer since the 1950s, it is the late 1970s and early 1980s that saw Mortimer's greatest commercial success. During that period he completed his television series for "Rumpole" and Brideshead Revisited, published an autobiography, Clinging to the Wreakage: A Part of Life, to accompany his autobiographical play, A Voyage round My Father, and produced two versions of Paradise Postponed, written concurrently as a novel and a television series.
While Voyage is a fictional telling of the author's early life, Clinging to the Wreakage is pure autobiography, a book described by London Times critic Michael Ratcliffe as an "exceptionally touching and funny memoir rich in remarkable occasions and disconcerting surprises." Charles Champlin wrote in a Los Angeles Times review that, like the play, the book "is a moving but by no means always affectionate account of [Mortimer's] relationship with his father, [who wrote] a standard reference on probate law and who was blind for much of his career. He had an ungovernable temper … and a flair for courtroom dramatics that could make strong men quail." Champlin added that the author "never really doubted [his father's] love; gaining his respect was a difficult, slow process. The autobiography, beautifully written, has the strength and sensitivity of a carefully observed novel." Mortimer followed Clinging to the Wreakage with another autobiographical volume, Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life, in which he focuses predominantly on his experiences practicing law as a defense counsel. Critics praised Mortimer's recounting of legal tales, noting that some of the cases later appeared in "Rumpole" episodes. "Mortimer tells us more about the practice of the law than any textbook," remarked David Pannick in the Times Literary Supplement.
"To a considerable extent the story reflects the prejudices and regrets of the author, and some good times and redeeming optimism, too," according to New York Times reviewer Francis X. Clines. Mortimer, like his protagonist Simcox of his "Rapstone Chronicles" series, established himself as a socialist in the classic Bernard Shaw mold, one who maintains that "the idea that you should feel compassion for the less fortunate [should] be your dominant political feeling," as Mortimer stated in Cline's article. And, like his protagonist, the author found himself at a stage in history when Margaret Thatcher's Britain perpetuated "conservatives, class distinctions, unemployment. It's where we started." What he wanted to emphasize in the book, Mortimer told Elizabeth Neuffer in the Washington Post, "is that whether [paradise] fails or not, it's better to have believed in it than taken the other view."
In Wellwarth's study, Mortimer is quoted as saying near the beginning of his career: "There may, for all I know, be great and funny plays to be written about successful lawyers, brilliant criminals, wise schoolmasters, or families where the children can grow up without silence and without regret. There are many plays that show that the law is always majestic or that family life is simple and easy to endure. Speaking for myself I am not on the side of such plays and a writer of comedy must choose his side with particular care. He cannot afford to aim at the [defenseless], nor can he, like the more serious writer, treat any character with contempt."
Character Parts is a collection of interviews conducted by Mortimer with a diverse group of people including politicians, writers, actresses, bishops, and criminals. The volume follows the same format as its predecessor, In Character, with Mortimer questioning his subjects about various personal and philosophical subjects. Praising Mortimer's interviewing style, Patrick Taylor Martin commented in Books and Bookmen: "The interviewees are allowed to reveal themselves; Mortimer passes no judgements and makes only a few carefully neutral observations of his own."
In his novel Summer's Lease Mortimer satirizes British tourists in Tuscany. The novel also contains a murder mystery as its protagonist, Molly Pargeter, attempts to decode a series of clues to explain the presence of a dead body. Another novel, Dunster, focuses on the intense rivalry between a journalist named Dick Dunster and his old college friend, Philip Progmire. When Dunster begins investigating war criminals, he finds himself targeting Progmire's friend and employer, the chairman of Megapolis.
"A witty chronicle of rural English life as it reflects national fads and preoccupations from 1945 to the present day," is how London Times critic Stuart Evans characterized Paradise Postponed, the first of three novels in Mortimer's "Rapstone Chronicles" series. The novel and television series concern the Rev. Simeon Simcox, "one of those beaming, affluent, Christian Socialist crusaders," noted Evans. Simcox perplexes his parish by leaving a fortune, not to his family, "but to a maladroit, opportunist local lad who has soared out of the lower middle-class into the rarefied air of the Conservative Cabinet of the present day." The inevitable clash of cultures and politics fuels the tale.
Mortimer's comic novel Titmuss Regained, the next "Rapstone Chronicles" book, focuses on the conflict that ensues between liberals and conservatives when developers plan to create a community named Fallowfield Country Town in the English countryside. "Though the results are frequently as funny as those produced by Evelyn Waugh," asserted Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, "there's none of Waugh's viciousness or malice. It's obvious that Mr. Mortimer sides with the lovers of a pastoral past, but he remains remarkably evenhanded in his satire."
The Sound of Trumpets follows Titmuss Regained as the third volume in the "Rapstone Chronicles" series. The book introduces the young idealistic Labor politician Terry Flitton, who finds himself influenced and then embroiled in scandal by Lord Titmuss in order to win an election. Eventually, Terry comes to understand that his liberal views are at odds with his desire for power, and he smears the reputation of his lover's gay friend in order to secure his political standing. In the process, Terry falls in love with a pragmatic older woman and loses his adoring wife. As with his previous novels, Mortimer uses The Sound of Trumpets to explore his own political views and criticisms of the British class system. New York Times Book Review critic Alison Lurie found much to admire in the novel. Citing Mortimer's "Dickensian range" and an understanding of human nature that echoes the works of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, Lurie noted that "Titmuss manipulates everyone around him, just as an author manipulates his characters." Furthermore, wrote Lurie, "Mortimer seems to sympathize with, almost to admire, his most remarkable creation" of Lord Titmuss. Booklist critic Bill Ott was more ambivalent about the book, calling it a "scathing indictment of sociopolitical tomfoolery … but without the tragicomic edge we've come to expect." Nevertheless, Lurie was satisfied with the book's range: "The Sound of Trumpets is a wonderful comic novel, but underneath its humor runs a black shadow of pessimism. Politics, it proposes, is always a dirty business."
Mortimer's third volume of autobiography, The Summer of a Dormouse: Another Part of Life, focuses on a year in his life as a septuagenarian. Even as he ages "disgracefully," in his words, he manages to write the screenplay for Tea with Mussolini, which is based on cowriter Franco Zeffirelli's childhood, study the Bible, travel, remain active in civic affairs, and live up to his status as a celebrity writer, even though his bad leg confines him to a wheelchair. All the while, wrote E.S. Turner in the Times Literary Supplement, he exhibits "his stout Rumpolean common sense." The book is a "short witty entertainment," Turner reported, in which "old memories and tall tales … jostle with reflections on mortality and mildly dyspeptic judgments on the contemporary scene." With reminiscences ranging from childhood memories of his blind father to sex scandals tried before the House of Lords, The Summer of a Dormouse is, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "a most civilized and witty book by a most civilized and witty man."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 28, 1984, Volume 43, 1987.
Contemporary Novelists, seventh edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 13: British Dramatists since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Hayman, Ronald, British Theatre since 1955: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1979.
Mortimer, John, Clinging to the Wreakage: A Part of Life, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1982.
Mortimer, John, Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
Mortimer, John, The Summer of a Dormouse: Another Part of Life, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Taylor, John Russell, Anger and After, Methuen (London, England), 1962.
Taylor, John Russell, The Angry Theatre: New British Drama, revised edition, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1969.
Wellwarth, George, Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in Avant-Garde Drama, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1964.
Booklist, January 1, 1999, Bill Ott, review of The Sound of Trumpets, p. 833; April 15, 2005, Whitney Scott, review of Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, p. 1474.
Books and Bookmen, December, 1986, Patrick Taylor Martin, review of Character Parts, p. 32.
Library Journal, May 15, 2001, Stephanie Maher, review of The Summer of a Dormouse, p. 124.
Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1982, Charles Champlin, review of Clinging to the Wreckage.
New York Times, October 19, 1986, Francis X. Clines, review of Paradise Postponed; January 23, 1987; April 10, 1990, Michiko Kakutani, review of Titmuss Regained.
New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1999, Alison Lurie, "Tantantara!," review of The Sound of Trumpets.
Publishers Weekly, April 30, 2001, review of The Summer of a Dormouse, p. 64.
Times (London, England), April 1, 1982, Michael Rat cliffe, review of Clinging to the Wreckage; September 19, 1985, Stuart Evans, review of Paradise Postponed.
Times Literary Supplement, October 14, 1994, David Pannick, review of Murderers and Other Friends, p. 30; December 29, 2000, E.S. Turner, review of The Summer of a Dormouse, p. 29.
Washington Post, October 19, 1986, Elizabeth Neuffer, review of Paradise Postponed.