Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

Obituary: Sir John Mortimer

Sir John Mortimer in 1968
Sir John Mortimer used his legal career to inspire his best-loved works

Sir John Mortimer, who has died aged 85, was a celebrated barrister, author and raconteur. He often used his legal exploits to fuel his writing, and his most famous courtroom creation was Rumpole of the Bailey.

"I was raised , educated and clothed almost entirely on the proceeds of cruelty, adultery and neglect," he said of his upbringing as the son of a successful divorce lawyer.

Sir John's prodigious career was shaped by two events at a young age. His father lost his eyesight, and it became the youngster's duty to describe the world and keep his blind father entertained.

His father made it clear he expected his only son to take over his legal practice, and so Sir John began a career in law, later becoming a Queen's Counsel.

He first came to the public eye when he successfully defended Oz magazine against charges of obscenity in 1971.

He had already acted for Penguin Books when they published Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence. Later, he successfully defended the Sex Pistols when their Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols album resulted in an attempted prosecution.

Permissive society

Sir John became a beacon for the permissive society, but also defended high moral standards. "Liberty is allowing people to do things you disapprove of," he said.

Already the author of several plays and novels, Sir John wrote Voyage Round My Father in 1971. A loose set of anecdotes about his childhood and late father, the play was later adapted into a successful television film starring Laurence Olivier.

Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey
Leo McKern first appeared as Rumpole in the 1975 BBC television play
Two instalments of autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage and Murderers and other Friends, followed.

Displaying his offbeat view of life, Sir John revealed in the latter how he found murderers "really the most relaxed people" he had come across.

"Generally, they had disposed of the one person that was irritating them," he said.

Sir John rose at 5am each morning to write, and his prodigious workload brought him success in many fields.

As well as the adaptation of Voyage Round my Father, he brought his own novels Summer's Lease and Paradise Postponed to television.

'Breakfast with a fraudster'

In 1981, he translated Evelyn Waugh's classic novel Brideshead Revisited into a phenomenally successful television series, and wrote the film screenplay of the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini.

A celebrated member of the literati and one-time chairman of the Royal Court, Sir John led a self-professed double life for many years.

He described a typical day as "breakfast with a fraudster, down to the cells to see a murderer, and off to rehearsals at the end of the day".

When he left the Bar, Sir John channelled his adversarial energy into his character, Rumpole of the Bailey, portrayed on screen by Leo McKern.

After making its debut as a BBC television play in 1975, Rumpole became an ITV series in 1978 and brought its creator fame across the world. In 1980 it was adapted for radio with Maurice Denham in the lead role, with Timothy West picking up the part in 2003.

Sir John was the quintessential champagne socialist, a champion for reform and permissiveness, who nevertheless lived in the wealthy Chilterns and backed the monarchy and fox-hunting.

Despite failing health, he remained active well into later life, attending the February 2008 launch of his play, Legal Fictions, in a wheelchair.

He told The Times: "One of my weaknesses is that I like to start the day with a glass of champagne before breakfast. When I mentioned that on a radio show once, I was asked if I had taken counselling for it."

Large and idiosyncratic

He remained disappointed by the modern Labour Party, saying, "we don't ask for much, but it would be nice to have a spoonful of socialism".

Sir John Mortimer
Sir John remained active in public well into his later life
He was married twice, the first time to author Penelope Mortimer. After their marriage collapsed, her autobiography detailed infidelities and rows.

Sir John would say only that "marriage between two writers is always difficult".

His second wife, Penny, was a model booker when he met her, and 23 years his junior. Sir John was able to explore this true life theme of age difference in his novel The Sound of Trumpets.

Although he constantly borrowed from his life to enhance his writing, he remained as large and idiosyncratic as any character he created.

In his novel, Felix in the Underworld, the book's central accusation is that the novelist expects others to live out dramatic moments for him.

From the clapboard home of his childhood to the wooden benches of the High Court, the same could not be said of Sir John Mortimer.

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Rumpole's creator Mortimer dies
16 Jan 09 |  Entertainment

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