Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

'National treasure' who adored women

Joanna Lumley and Sir John Mortimer

Valerie Grove, biographer and friend of Sir John Mortimer, remembers the Rumpole of the Bailey author, who has died at the age of 85.

It was impossible not to be aware of John Mortimer.

He was such a towering figure as a barrister and a playwright and novelist. I first met him in about 1975 and we were friends for many years.

I quite often interviewed him, as a journalist, and wrote about him and then, four years ago, I was asked by him to write his authorised biography and, since I'd enjoyed his company for so long, for so many years, I said yes.

I was, of course, very pleased.

In principle, one shouldn't write biographies of the living but his national treasurehood was so obviously manifest that I couldn't resist it. I was excited.

He was a journalist's dream

He loved being interviewed. His wife, Penny, actually says a weekend that didn't have an interview with John in one of the broadsheet papers or an interview by him or a piece by him would cast him into a gloom.

He loved publicising his work. He loved talking, retelling his old anecdotes.

He adored all these things so whenever the opportunity arose he would say yes. To anyone. He was a journalist's dream.

Own agenda

Interviewing him for his biography, I went regularly to the house and sat at his desk - his father's old desk in the house his father had built in 1932 - and he would pour me glasses of champagne.

With his writing, he just did it - he never rewrote. He never reread what he'd done

Actually, if one ever veered from the straight and narrow - which was to go into the areas which he'd already told in his anecdotes over the years - he wasn't madly keen to talk about anything that he didn't want to talk about.

He had his own agenda.

How he fitted all his work in was just amazing.

He wasn't a great sleeper. He would arise very early in the morning, always, always, and I suppose his mind teemed with ideas and he always had a large number of projects on the go.

He liked to have a screenplay going, a television series going, a new Rumpole going and articles.

The Daily Mail would ring him and ask him for a thousand words and he would do it in an hour.

John Mortimer and Rumpole of the Bailey star Leo McKern
Sir John Mortimer was always "Rumpolean" in court

In the days when he was in court, which ended in 1984, he was always in court by 10 and, however Rumpolean and rumpled a figure himself, he was there, dashing off and mugging up his brief at the last minute.

With his writing, he just did it - he never rewrote.

He never reread what he'd done. He just dashed things off.

It was slightly on the side of slapdash, I suppose, but people loved his stuff so much

He was fluent in the most amazing way and he just said what he thought and his name was one of those you could put on the billboard of a newspaper to sell copies and he knew that.

Ladies' man

In writing the biography, I had total access to his files but he's neither a diarist nor a keeper of letters nor someone who writes anguished notes to himself - except for one period, quite late, about 2000/2001.

He began to be anxious about the future and a bit anguished about finding another plot and having another play success.

Sir John Mortimer
Valerie Grove would enjoy a tipple with champagne lover Sir John

He gave me a notebook which had notes in of that kind which actually revealed a great deal more about the great mind behind all his work and his productivity.

He had an eye for the ladies. Well yes, he always liked to have that emphasised.

He gathered around him a really delightful group of women who he adored and who adored him. They included the novelist Kathy Lette, the actress Joanna David, Sinead Cusack as well, and everybody seemed to be at his beck and call.

He liked company and he liked to be surrounded by these women and they would come and listen to him and applaud him and adore him.

He had a very happy life.

Print Sponsor


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific