John (Clifford) Mortimer Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Hampstead, London, 1923. Education: Harrow School, Middlesex, 1937-40; Brasenose College, Oxford, 1940-42, B.A. 1947; called to the bar, 1948; Queen's Counsel, 1966; Master of the Bench, Inner Temple, 1975. Military Service: Served with the Crown Film Units as scriptwriter during World War II. Career: drama critic, New Statesman, Evening Standard, and Observer, 1972, all London; member of the National Theatre Board, 1968-88; president, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxford Naturalists' Trust, from 1984; chairman, League of Dramatists; chairman of the council, Royal Society of Literature for 1989; chairman, Royal Court Theatre since 1990; president, Howard League for Penal Reform since 1991; chairman, the Royal Society of Literature since 1992. Lives in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. Awards: Italia prize, for radio play, 1958; Screenwriters Guild award, for television play, 1970; BAFTA award, for television series, 1980; Yorkshire Post award, 1983. D. Litt.: Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, 1985; University of St. Andrews, Fife, 1987; University of Nottingham, 1989; LL.D.: Exeter University, 1986. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1986; knighted, 1998. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.
Charade. London, Lane, 1948.
Rumming Park. London, Lane, 1948.
Answer Yes or No. London, Lane, 1950; as The Silver Hook, NewYork, Morrow, 1950.
Like Men Betrayed. London, Collins, 1953; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1954.
The Narrowing Stream. London, Collins, 1954; New York, Viking, 1989.
Three Winters. London, Collins, 1956.
Will Shakespeare: The Untold Story. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1977; New York, Delacorte Press, 1978.
Paradise Postponed. London and New York, Viking, 1985.
Summer's Lease. London and New York, Viking, 1988.
Titmuss Regained. London and New York, Viking, 1990.
Dunster. London and New York, Viking Penguin, 1992.
Rumpole and the Angel of Death. New York, Viking, 1996.
Felix in the Underworld. New York, Viking, 1997.
The Sound of Trumpets. New York, Viking, 1999.
Rumpole. London, Allen Lane, 1980.
Rumpole of the Bailey. London, Penguin, 1978; New York, Penguin, 1980.
The Trials of Rumpole. London, Penguin, 1979; New York, Penguin, 1981.
Regina v. Rumpole. London, Allen Lane, 1981.
Rumpole's Return. London, Penguin, 1980; New York, Penguin, 1982.
Rumpole for the Defence. London, Penguin, 1982.
Rumpole and the Golden Thread. New York, Penguin, 1983.
The First Rumpole Omnibus (includes Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole, Rumpole's Return). London, Penguin, 1983.
Rumpole's Last Case. London, Penguin, 1987; New York, Penguin, 1988.
The Second Rumpole Omnibus (includes Rumpole for the Defence, Rumpole and the Golden Thread, Rumpole's Last Case). London, Viking, 1987; New York, Penguin, 1988.
Rumpole and the Age of Miracles. London, Penguin, 1988; NewYork, Penguin, 1989.
Rumpole à la Carte. London and New York, Viking Penguin, 1990.
Rumpole on Trial. London and New York, Viking Penguin, 1992.
The Best of Rumpole. London and New York, Viking Penguin, 1993.
The Third Rumpole Omnibus (includes Rumpole and the Age of Miracles, Rumpole a la Carte, Rumpole and the Angel of Death.) London, Viking, and New York, Penguin, 1998.
The Dock Brief (broadcast 1957; produced London, 1958; New York, 1961). In Three Plays, 1958.
I Spy (broadcast 1957; produced Salisbury, Wiltshire, and PalmBeach, Florida, 1959). In Three Plays, 1958.
What Shall We Tell Caroline? (produced London, 1958; New York, 1961). In Three Plays, 1958.
Three Plays: The Dock Brief, What Shall We Tell Caroline?, I Spy. London, Elek, 1958; New York, Grove Press, 1962.
Call Me a Liar (televised 1958; produced London, 1968). In Lunch Hour and Other Plays, 1960; in The Television Playwright: Ten Plays for B.B.C. Television, edited by Michael Barry, New York, Hill and Wang, 1960. Sketches in One to Another (produced London, 1959). London, French, 1960.
The Wrong Side of the Park (produced London, 1960). London, Heinemann, 1960.
Lunch Hour (broadcast 1960; produced Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1960;London, 1961; New York, 1977). In Lunch Hour and Other Plays 1960; published separately, New York, French, 1961.
David and Broccoli (televised 1960). In Lunch Hour and Other Plays, 1960.
Lunch Hour and Other Plays (includes Collect Your Hand Baggage, David and Broccoli, Call Me a Liar). London, Methuen, 1960.
Collect Your Hand Baggage (produced Wuppertal, Germany, 1963).In Lunch Hour and Other Plays, 1960. Sketches in One over the Eight (produced London, 1961).
Two Stars for Comfort (produced London, 1962). London, Methuen, 1962.
A Voyage round My Father (broadcast 1963; produced London, 1970). London, Methuen, 1971. Sketches in Changing Gear (produced Nottingham, 1965).
A Flea in Her Ear, adaptation of a play by Feydeau (producedLondon, 1966; Tucson, Arizona, 1979). London and New York, French, 1967.
A Choice of Kings (televised 1966). In Playbill Three, edited by AlanDurband, London, Hutchinson, 1969.
The Judge (produced London, 1967). London, Methuen, 1967.
Desmond (televised 1968). In The Best Short Plays 1971, edited byStanley Richards, Philadelphia, Chilton, 1971.
Cat Among the Pigeons, adaptation of a play by Feydeau (producedLondon, 1969; Milwaukee, 1971). New York, French, 1970.
Come As You Are: Four Short Plays (includes Mill Hill, Bermondsey, Gloucester Road, Marble Arch) (produced London, 1970). London, Methuen, 1971.
Five Plays (includes The Dock Brief, What Shall We Tell Caroline?, I Spy, Lunch Hour, Collect Your Hand Baggage). London, Methuen, 1970.
The Captain of Köpenick, adaptation of a play by Carl Zuckmayer (produced London, 1971). London, Methuen, 1971.
Conflicts, with others (produced London, 1971).
I, Claudius, adaptation of the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves (produced London, 1972).
Knightsbridge (televised 1972). London, French, 1973.
Collaborators (produced London, 1973). London, Eyre Methuen, 1973.
The Fear of Heaven (as Mr. Lucy's Fear of Heaven, broadcast 1976; as The Fear of Heaven, produced with The Prince of Darkness as Heaven and Hell, London, 1976). London, French, 1978.
Heaven and Hell (includes The Fear of Heaven and The Prince of Darkness) (produced London, 1976; revised version of The Prince of Darkness, as The Bells of Hell produced Richmond, Surrey, and London, 1977). The Bells of Hell published London, French, 1978.
The Lady from Maxim's, adaptation of a play by Feydeau (producedLondon, 1977). London, Heinemann, 1977.
John Mortimer's Casebook (includes The Dock Brief, The Prince of Darkness, Interlude) (produced London, 1982).
When That I Was (produced Ottawa, 1982).
Edwin (broadcast 1982). In Edwin and Other Plays, 1984.
A Little Hotel on the Side, adaptation of a play by Feydeau andMaurice Desvalliers (produced London, 1984). In Three Boulevard Farces, 1985.
Edwin and Other Plays (includes Bermondsey, Marble Arch, The Fear of Heaven, The Prince of Darkness). London, Penguin, 1984.
Three Boulevard Farces (includes A Little Hotel on the Side, A Flea in Her Ear, The Lady from Maxim's). London, Penguin, 1985.
Die Fledermaus, adaptation of the libretto by Henri Meihac andLudovic Halévy, music by Johann Stauss (produced London, 1989). London, Viking, 1989.
A Christmas Carol, adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens (produced London, 1994); published as Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, New York and London, S. French, 1995.
Ferry to Hong Kong, with Lewis Gilbert and VernonHarris, 1959; The Innocents, with Truman Capote and William Archibald, 1961; Guns of Darkness, 1962; I Thank a Fool, with others, 1962; Lunch Hour, 1962; The Running Man, 1963; Bunny Lake Is Missing, with Penelope Mortimer, 1964; A Flea in Her Ear, 1967; John and Mary, 1969.; Tea with Mussolini, 1998.
Like Men Betrayed, 1955; No Hero, 1955; The Dock Brief, 1957; I Spy, 1957; Three Winters, 1958; Lunch Hour, 1960; The Encyclopedist, 1961; A Voyage round My Father, 1963; Personality Split, 1964; Education of an Englishman, 1964; A Rare Device, 1965; Mr. Luby's Fear of Heaven, 1976; Edwin, 1982; Rumpole, from his own stories, 1988; Glasnost, 1988.
Call Me a Liar, 1958; David and Broccoli, 1960; A Choice of Kings, 1966; The Exploding Azalea, 1966; The Head Waiter, 1966; Hughie, 1967; The Other Side, 1967; Desmond, 1968; Infidelity Took Place, 1968; Married Alive, 1980; Swiss Cottage, 1972; Knightsbridge, 1972; Rumpole of the Bailey, 1975, and series, 1978, 1979, 1987, 1988; A Little Place off the Edgware Road, The Blue Film, The Destructors, The Case for the Defence, Chagrin in Three Parts, The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen, Special Duties, and Mortmain, all from stories by Graham Greene, 1975-76; Will Shakespeare, 1978; Rumpole's Return, 1980; Unity, from the book by David Pryce-Jones, 1981; Brideshead Revisited, from the novel by Evelyn Waugh 1981; Edwin, 1984; The Ebony Tower, from the story by John Fowles, 1984; Paradise Postponed, from his own novel, 1986; Summer's Lease, from his own novel, 1989; The Waiting Room, 1989; Titmuss Regained, 1991; Cider with Rosie, 1998; Don Quixote, 2000.
No Moaning of the Bar (as Geoffrey Lincoln). London, Bles, 1957.
With Love and Lizards (travel), with Penelope Mortimer. London, Joseph, 1957.
Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life (autobiography) . London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New Haven, Connecticut, Ticknor and Fields, 1982.
Murderers and Other Friends (autobiography). London and NewYork, Viking Penguin, 1994.
In Character (interviews). London, Allen Lane, 1983.
The Liberty of the Citizen (lecture), with Franklin Thomas and LordHunt of Tanworth. London, Granada, 1983.
Character Parts (interviews). London, Viking, 1986.
Editor, with Harry Hodge and James H. Hodge, Famous Trials. London, Viking, and New York, Penguin, 1984.
Editor, Great Law and Order Stories. London, Bellew, 1990.
Boston University; University of California, Los Angeles.
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Now approaching eighty but showing no signs of reducing his considerable literary output, John Mortimer continues as one of England's best known living authors. His stories, novels, plays, film and television scripts, and autobiographical writing have won him both critical and popular success. Still best known for his engaging "Rumpole of the Bailey" stories, inspired by his own experiences as a working barrister, Mortimer has published two memoirs, Clinging to the Wreckage and Murderers and Other Friends, complementing the story only sketched in his early autobiographical television drama, A Voyage round My Father. He has also maintained a prolific output in fiction, publishing three installments in the "Rapstone Chronicles" series, a satiric look at English politics in the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era, and a number of free-standing novels about the manners and morals of contemporary English life.
In his earlier days, while still an active barrister, Mortimer wrote two novels which did not attract much attention: Like Men Betrayed, the story of a London solicitor whose son has misappropriated a client's investments, and The Narrowing Stream in which a young woman's murder disrupts the lives of an ordinary family. Though apprentice work, both novels take a characteristically perceptive view of English life and have many of the themes Mortimer would develop to better effect in his later novels.
Inspired perhaps by Evelyn Waugh, whose Brideshead Revisited Mortimer had adapted for television, Mortimer attempted his own novels of manners in the "Rapstone Chronicles," beginning with Paradise Postponed. Using many of the conventions of Victorian and Edwardian novels, though with telling variations, Mortimer deftly weaves throughout his story sharp observations on the state of postwar England. When the revered liberal Rector of Rapstone Fanner, Simeon Simcox, dies leaving his entire estate to Leslie Titmuss, Conservative M.P. from Rapstone, his widow and his two sons attempt to understand their father's surprising bequest. Mortimer traces the story of the Simcox, Titmuss, and Fanner families, moving back and forth in time until at last family secrets are revealed and the inheritance explained. Along the way, Mortimer draws on familiar character types from earlier English novels, from the idealistic village Rector (reminiscent of Trollope's Septimus Harding) to any of Dickens's lower-class boys striving for acceptance in high society. In Paradise Postponed, however, the characters break their stereotypes. The seeming innocence of the rector is qualified at the end, and the working lad, Titmuss, at first treated sympathetically, proves to be utterly without scruple as he marries his way into the best family of the village on his climb up the ranks of the Thatcher government. Mortimer's own political leanings come through clearly. The leftists in the novel may be muddle-headed and ineffective, but they are never as mean-spirited as their right-wing opponents.
Following the success of Paradise Postponed and responding to the public's interest in the character of Leslie Titmuss, Mortimer continued his story in Titmuss Regained. Now a conservative government minister, Titmuss purchases the very Fanner Manor where his mother had worked as a servant and which in the earlier novel had represented unattainable social preeminence. But corporate developers are determined to reconstruct the village into a real estate agent's version of English rustic life. Mortimer is at his best describing the various factions involved in promoting or opposing the enterprise: developers, environmentalists, local politicians, even the villagers themselves—all revealed as self-seeking hypocrites. While his portrait of this cluster of peripheral characters is bitingly satiric, Mortimer is somewhat easier on his hero, and in his efforts to make his second marriage a success, he even wins back a measure of the sympathy we felt for Titmuss as a child in Paradise Postponed.
In the third novel in the series, The Sound of Trumpets, Leslie, now Lord Titmuss, having been swept out of office by the Labour Party victory, has retired to the country. Angry at the new Conservative leadership, he forms an alliance with an idealistic young politician, Terry Flitton, whose socialist political philosophy Titmuss softens into a more centrist, and electable, stance. But Flitton, having already betrayed his principles to get elected, is caught up in an extramarital affair with Agnes Simcox, reminding the dedicated Mortimer reader of the intricate romantic relationships chronicled in Paradise Postponed. The ensuing scandal ends Flitton's political career, but the novel ends sadly for Titmuss as well, as the master manipulator is left to face death alone. Whereas Mortimer's sympathies had been for the social welfare programs of the left, this bitter portrayal of English politics calls for a plague on both Tory and Labour houses.
For the same moral vision but a less pessimistic outlook, Mortimer has returned to more congenial subjects than contemporary politics. In Summer's Lease Mortimer draws on themes of the English abroad he had found in Brideshead Revisited. The setting is Tuscany, where an English family has leased a villa for the summer. The wife, Molly Pargenter, is determined to investigate the mysterious absence of their landlord, uncovering a complex web of relationships in which her family becomes entangled. As she comes to terms with what is happening around her, she finds that she must fight to save her own integrity and her marriage. Her father-in-law's irresponsible nonchalance beautifully contrasts Molly's determination to understand and control her life. While Mortimer's focus is still on English character types, the Italian surroundings depict those traits in sharper focus.
An incident involving the activities of English officers serving in Italy during World War II plays a role in Dunster, but the core of the novel is the relationship between the narrator, Philip Progmire, an accountant and amateur actor, and his old school nemesis, Richard Dunster, now a producer of television documentaries. The determined and dynamic but ruthless Dunster has accused Progmire's employer of a war crime, prompting a libel suit. Mortimer explores the comic effects of the contrast between Progmire and Dunster, though the reader may be too sympathetic to the long-suffering narrator to enjoy the humor in Dunster's reckless schemes. The conclusion of the war-crime plot, that even the best and the brightest are potential war criminals, may be too unsettling for what is essentially a comic novel.
For the more recent Felix in the Underworld, Mortimer describes two worlds he knows well, the criminal justice system and the publishing business. The main character, Felix Morsom, is a minor novelist once nominated for the Booker Prize and once compared to Chekhov. Criticized for writing stories about insignificant people to whom nothing ever happens, Felix finds himself, for the first time in his life, a celebrity, accused first in a paternity action and then in a gory murder. Mortimer is at his best describing police more interested in closing cases than in finding criminals, attorneys more concerned about their reputations than about justice, publishers more eager for profits than for literary merit. Felix, the mild-mannered observer of life, has to endure living among the homeless on the streets of London and a few weeks in prison before he is finally exonerated. The experience, however threatening, promises to improve his lonely, routine existence.
In the many genres and media he has used in his fifty-plus years of writing, Mortimer offers a view of humankind that is rarely comforting, but he manages to show us our worst side without condemning us. Like his Horace Rumpole, who has no romantic illusions about the criminals he defends, Mortimer is simultaneously harsh and forgiving. The first quality gives his work its import, the latter its appeal.
Robert E. Lynch
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