John Mortimer

Perhaps the most famous television dramatist to have defended a murderer at the Old Bailey, John Mortimer's career as a barrister held him in good stead, not only in supporting his early writings, but also in terms of inspiration. The radio play The Dock Brief was first broadcast in May 1957 and televised with the same cast and producer (Nesta Pain) four months later. Unsuccessful aging barrister Morganhall (Michael Hordern) is asked to represent wife murderer Fowle (David Kossoff), and hopes that a "not guilty" verdict with bring him the fame that has always eluded him. He constructs a masterly defence and subjects Fowle to an energetic dry run in his cell, but when they reach the courtroom his actual performance is so abysmal that the Home Secretary grants Fowle a reprieve. According to The Times, the performance, "touched that rare dramatic level at which comedy and tragedy are indistinguishable."

Mortimer later wrote two Wednesday Play's, The Head Waiter (1966), with Donald Pleasance, and Infidelity Took Place (1968). The latter was another legal drama, starring John Nettleton as a fortyish divorce lawyer determined to win his latest case for his female client (Judy Cornwall) and - hopefully - replace her husband himself. A year later Mortimer contributed to the Play of Today strand with the autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father, with Ian Richardson and Mark Dignam.

1972 saw a quintet of plays for BBC's Thirty-Minute Theatre, but the turning point in Mortimer's career was a 1975 Play for Today. Rumpole of the Bailey centred on Horace Rumpole, one of what Mortimer calls the "Old Bailey hacks" - barristers working for themselves rather than a practice on whatever cases their chambers clerks can scrimp for them. Played to perfection by Leo McKern, Rumpole has a pension for cheap cigars and claret, quoting from the Oxford Book of English Verse and Ackerman on Blood-Stains, whilst at the same time doing his best to keep his domineering wife, Hilda (Joyce Heron), "She who must be obeyed," in the manner to which she would like to become accustomed. To Hilda's secret (and sometimes not so secret) shame, Rumpole is still a "junior" barrister, never having become a Queen's Counsel, while her own father had been a judge by his age. Rumpole is asked to defend a young West Indian boy accused of wounding, despite having already signed a damning confession while in police custody and seeming ready to plead guilty. Sensing the boy is hiding something, Rumpole discovers he is virtually illiterate - and so could not have known what he was signing - but to too ashamed to admit it.

The play was an instant hit, with Sean Day-Lewis remarking that Rumpole should be, "preserved for another day and another play," but the BBC Drama department stubbornly refused to countenance producer Irene Shubik's suggestion for a series on the grounds that it would have to be made by the "rival" Series Department and she could not be involved. Incensed, Shubik resigned and she and Mortimer took the idea to Thames Television. The first series was launched with much TV Times publicity in April 1978, including an introductory short story by Mortimer (later re-worked for the second season). Rather than a straight follow-on from the Play for Today, the six cases were taken from Rumpole's career (reflecting the fact that most barristers don't see that many exciting briefs in their time), with the first, Rumpole and the Younger Generation being set in 1967, when he has to defend a young member of a notorious crime family (a regular source of income for him) accused of robbery when he was actually at a Rolling Stones gig. McKern returned as Rumpole, and while Peggy Thorpe-Bates replaced Joyce Heron as Hilda and was even more fierce, David Yelland played a younger version of their son, Nick, than he had in the BBC play. Introduced were semi-regular characters like Uncle Tom (Richard Murdoch), an elderly barrister in Rumpole's chambers whom nobody remembers ever having had a case, the over-worked clerks Albert and Henry (Derek Benfield and Jonathan Coy), and Rumpole's more ambitious colleagues - and often opponents in court - Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry), George Frobisher (Moray Watson), and Guthrie Featherstone QC MP (Peter Bowles), not the mention the latter's pushy wife Marigold (Joanna Van Gyseghen).

Perhaps Mortimer's most famous case was his (initially unsuccessful) defence of two of the three editors of the underground magazine Oz on a charge of obscenity in 1971 (and the subject of a BBC2 dramatisation in 1991, with Simon Callow playing Mortimer), and shades of their lifestyle were no doubt the inspiration for Rumpole and the Alternative Society, with Jane Asher as a hippie commune member accused of cannabis dealing in a 1970 provincial town. Memorably, Rumpole flits between laid-back meals at the commune and the pub full of hostile locals run by an ex-RAF chum, and - attracted more to the former - seems on the verge of dropping out before his client admits her guilt, but wants to continue pleading innocence. Rumpole tells her that he will only continue to represent her if she pleads guilty and she gets three years. In Rumpole and the Honourable Member (set in 1974) he aggressively defends an MP charged with rape and in doing so alienates Nick's American fiance (who doesn't seem to consider the possibly that the client might be innocent). In 1975 Rumpole takes on a divorce case in Rumpole and the Married Lady, as well as a young pupil in the shape of Phyllida Trant (Patricia Hodge), who would go on to marry Erskine-Brown and be far more successful than either. Rumpole and the Learned Friends sees Rumpole defending a safe-breaker in 1976, while the season concluded with an episode set in 1977. Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade was the first in a number of occasions when Rumpole is hired  precisely because he is considered past it and incapable of winning the case.

Further series of six episodes followed in 1979 and 1983, with a two-hour special - Rumpole's Return - in 1980. After a four-year gap, by which time Peggy Thorpe-Bates was too ill to play Hilda and was replaced by the only marginally less fierce Marion Mathie, the series returned, with further seasons in 1988, 1991 and 1992. Over the years Rumpole had two more pupils: the "jolly-hockey-sticks" Fiona Allways (Rosalyn Landor) in Season 3, and the "so-PC-it-hurts" Liz Probert from 1987. Initially played to perfection by Samantha Bond, she was replaced in 1988 by Abigail McKern, who always seemed to be doing a poor impression og her precessor.

Over the years Rumpole has kept very much up to date, with contemporary topics such racial tension (Rumpole and the Fascist Beast, 1979), whistle-blowing civil servants (Rumpole and the Official Secret, 1987), City fraud (Rumpole and the Barrow Boy, 1988), and even joy-riding and rioting (Rumpole and the Family Pride, 1992) cropping up alongside the more unusual cases of Mortimer's most famous creation. And if anyone should doubt his prominence, it is worth noting that he was mentioned twice during the O.J. Simpson trial, with one defence attorney remarking that, "as Mrs Rumpole would put it, I think we have a case of premature adjudication...."

Mortimer was also responsible for the six-episode series Will Shakespeare in 1978 (starring Tim Curry, Ian McShane and AndrÆ Morrell), the 1984 Channel 4 play Edwin, and Paradise Postponed in 1987. He also adapted the hugely successful Brideshead Revisited for ITV in thirteen episodes in 1981, and John Fowles' The Ebony Tower for Granada in 1984 (notable only for the extensive nude shots of Toyah Wilcox and Greta Scacchi). 1981 also saw a remake of A Voyage Round My Father, with Alan Bates as the writer and Laurence Olivier his father.

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[Biography as submitted for inclusion in The Guinness Book of Classic British TV (1996, 2nd edition), with minor corrections]

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