Interviews

John Mortimer, The Art of Fiction No. 106

Interviewed by Rosemary Herbert

The only child of a highly literate and eccentric barrister and his wife, John Mortimer was born into a life of literature and the law. After Mortimer’s birth in April, 1923, he was raised in his parents’ flat in the Inner Temple in London and later the Chiltern Hills, in a home and garden designed by his father. Mortimer led a rather solitary childhood, enlivened by long walks in the company of his blind father who recited Sherlock Holmes stories to him from memory.

Mortimer was educated at The Dragon School in Oxford, then at Harrow where he escaped the sports program to attend the theater, and at Brasenose College, Oxford. During the war he served in the Crown Film Unit making documentary films as an assistant director and then scriptwriter. He studied law and was called to the bar in 1948, subsequently working as a divorce barrister and later as a Queen’s Counsel in criminal law. He went on to act as defense lawyer in several celebrated cases concerning questions of censorship and freedom of expression.

Mortimer retired from the law ten years ago, but not before he had established himself as a playwright for stage, screen and radio, and as a novelist, journalist, translator, and author of nonfiction volumes—even while pursuing a full-time law practice. He has written over sixty-five scripts for film and television, some forty scripts for radio, nine novels, several volumes of Rumpole stories, five volumes of nonfiction, and countless articles for newspapers and magazines. One of his latest accomplishments is a translation of the Strauss opera Die Fledermaus.

Mortimer was married to the writer Penelope Mortimer for twenty-three years, during which time the couple had two children and were parents to her four children from a previous marriage. The two wrote one travel book and a screenplay together.

In 1972 Mortimer married Penny Gollop, with whom he now has two daughters, Emily, age seventeen, and Rosamund, four years old. The family resides in London and in the expanded house in the Chilterns, in Oxfordshire, where they maintain the lovely gardens established by Mortimer’s parents. The Mortimers also spend considerable time in Italy, where Mortimer has set his latest novel, Summer’s Lease (1988).

The following interview was conducted in Mortimer’s homes in London and Oxfordshire, and in his favorite local pub, The Bull & Butcher, a stone’s throw away from the idyllic churchyard where his parents are buried. We also conversed during a tour of his garden. There he spoke about his father while pointing out various flora that his parents had cultivated as well as the very tree where the accident occurred that destroyed the elder Mortimer’s vision. Driving us through the Chiltern Hills in his red Mercedes with opera gently emanating from the stereo, he recalled his boyhood and showed us some of the locations filmed for productions of Voyage Round My Father and Paradise Postponed. Places from his boyhood, familiar to viewers of the television series—the local churches, a windmill, the homes of the local gentry, even the grave of a pet monkey—were all pointed out in due course along with revealing comments disclosing that this rural outbuilding actually houses a Jacuzzi, and that one is owned by a rock star. It seems the chair makers and field-workers of Mortimer’s childhood were driven from their beautiful real estate years ago. But the bulk of our conversation occurred in Mortimer’s study in the Oxfordshire house, where he relaxed on a sofa with his dog Tizzy beside him, and where he frequently bestirred himself to stoke a blazing wood fire.

 

INTERVIEWER

Because of the popularity of your character Rumpole of the Bailey, and because you practiced law for the greater part of your working life, one thinks of you as a barrister and writer. In your autobiographical novel, Clinging to the Wreckage, you wrote, “As a barrister who wrote, or, as I wanted to think of it, as a writer who did barristering, I was stretched between two opposite extremes.” Did your dual professions sometimes make you feel as if you were leading a double life?

JOHN MORTIMER

Yes, but then that’s what I like. I liked it! I mean I love leading double lives because I have a very low threshold of boredom. My happiest thing was to go to court and do a murder case and then come out and go to a rehearsal and see a lot of actors acting something I’d written. And I’d always had a feeling that the real life was in the acting and the pretend life was in the murder trial!

INTERVIEWER

Which was the more real to you as a person, the role of the writer or of the barrister?

MORTIMER

Life as a barrister never was terribly real to me and courtrooms were always a place of fantasy to me. They had nothing to do with discovering the truth, really, of course.

INTERVIEWER

Your father was a barrister, so presumably the idea of a barristerial career came to you early in life. Did you also, at a young age, dream of becoming a writer?

MORTIMER

I knew early on that I was going to be a writer. I think it’s something rather like a curse that you’re born with. I knew I wanted to be a writer and my father was far too intelligent to tell me not to be one. Instead of that, he said, “Of course you’ll be a writer. Of course you’ll be a very successful writer, but just till you make a fortune by writing, just divorce a few people. You know, just a few. There’s nothing in it.” He thought that writers’ wives led such terrible lives because the writer was always at home brewing tea and stumped for words. And he said, “Your marriage will be much happier if you go down to Temple tube station and go to the law courts and divorce people.” And he told me there was really nothing to being a lawyer except a certain amount of common sense, and relatively clean fingernails. You see, I was practically born into the divorce courts. My father was the doyen of the divorce barristers. He was an extremely erudite and very famous divorce barrister. So that when I was a little boy in the nursery, instead of a story like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” I used to get “The Duchess and the Seven Correspondents.” My father used to return to me glowing with his triumphs in the divorce courts and give me wonderful lines, which I was afterwards able to use in a play I wrote about him. He did really come home to me one night in the nursery and say, “I had a wonderful day in court, John. Terrific trial,” he said. “Managed to prove adultery by evidence of inclination and opportunity,” he said. “The only piece of evidence we had was a pair of footprints upside down on the dashboard of an Austin 711 parked in a Hampstead garden suburb.” That was my father. You’ve read Voyage Round My Father, my play about him, so you know that my father went blind and my mother had the task of reading aloud to my father all of this terrible evidence in all of his divorce cases. And they used to travel up to London from Henley-on-Thames, where we lived, and they used to sit in the first-class compartment on the Great Western Railway. If you may picture the scene: my mother was reading out all this terrible evidence about stained sheets and male and female clothing scattered around hotel bedrooms—and the train would grind to a halt, somewhere around Slough, and the entire first class carriage would fall absolutely silent, listening to the ever-diminishing tale, in the hope of catching the name of some close friend or relative who has at last been caught out!

INTERVIEWER

According to both your play and your novel about your father, his blindness was never mentioned by anyone in his family?

MORTIMER

Yes. That is so.

INTERVIEWER

Your work about your father is handled with humor and affection, yet it would seem that the circumstances of having such a father would not always have been easy. It appears that there was sometimes a lack of communication and, as in the case of his blindness, an unwillingness even to mention an issue of major importance. How did you come to your fond comprehension of your parents?

MORTIMER

Well, they were very nice to me, my parents; they were never nasty. And they did treat me as if I were grown up. I try and treat my children from the age of ten months as if they were totally grown up, which I think is the only way to treat children. But as for that lack of communication you mention, I’m very fond of that, I think. I hate people saying what they think. If you’re an American you must say what you think, whereas if you’re English you should say everything except what you think.

INTERVIEWER

This leaves much more room for speculation, obviously.

MORTIMER

And also it’s a much more interesting way to write, because you have to tell the audience what people think by means of what they’re not saying, instead of what they are saying. So with my parents, I was perfectly able to cope with all of that, really, and the fact that they didn’t say things indicated a trust, in a way.

INTERVIEWER

And your father’s appreciation of literature was also a great influence upon you as a developing writer.

MORTIMER

That is so. As he couldn’t see, I used to read to him. I read everything to him. I read a lot of poetry and Shakespeare—he knew all of the plays of Shakespeare by heart. We used to go to the theater every year at Stratford-on-Avon. We always used to arrive about a quarter of an hour after the curtain rose, because my father enjoyed a seven-course dinner. But he was a wonderful help in the audience because he always sat in the front row of the stalls, he knew all of the plays by heart, and he could always recite all of the lines about fifteen seconds before the actors. And like Rumpole—this was something I used in Rumpole later—my father would always quote Shakespeare extremely inappositely. When I was about four, every time he saw me, my father would say, “Is execution done on Cawdor?” which, when you’re four, is a pretty tough question to answer.

INTERVIEWER

You say you knew from an early age that you wanted to be a writer. Aside from your father’s love of literature and his influence upon you, do you recall any hints coming from within yourself that you might one day write? For instance, did you find yourself narrating your own day-to-day activities to yourself as they occurred?

MORTIMER

Oh, absolutely! And also talking to myself in the third person. I remember doing that and I still do it.

INTERVIEWER

I understand your father was also a great admirer of Sherlock Holmes.

MORTIMER

Well, I think everybody enjoys Sherlock Holmes. I suppose there are people who don’t enjoy detective stories. But Sherlock Holmes is a great part of my childhood. My father was absolutely besotted with him. We used to take long walks together during which my father would recite the whole of a Holmes story.

INTERVIEWER

Your father had an extraordinary memory. Do you think your own memory is similarly excellent?

MORTIMER

I don’t know. It developed gradually. I think it’s a great pity that nowadays nobody ever learns poetry in school, because the poetry you learn in school you never forget in your entire life. And of course I learned a lot of Shakespeare because I used to perform the plays for my father. Then, if you’re a courtroom lawyer, it’s like playing bridge; you do have to remember the evidence, you have to remember what people have said day-to-day. You have to be able to think on your feet.

INTERVIEWER

This well-trained memory must serve you well as a writer.

MORTIMER

Absolutely. But of course there are areas where my memory is not so good. I have a very bad memory for people’s names, for instance.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that you have made allusions to Sherlock Holmes in the Rumpole stories. Are these ideas that sprang to mind from your memory of the Holmes canon?

MORTIMER

Rumpole is terribly founded on the Sherlock Holmes stories. The structure of the Rumpole stories is very Sherlockian. And there are lots of quotations from Sherlock Holmes in Rumpole. When Rumpole pretends to die in order to get an adjournment of a case in “The Last Resort,” it’s taken from Doyle’s “The Dying Detective.”

INTERVIEWER

What is, for you, the particular appeal of the Holmes stories?

MORTIMER

They’re a whole way of looking at life, aren’t they? I’ve always enjoyed crime fiction. I think that much of the best writing being done today is in crime novels. The plot and discipline essential to a crime novel save it from the terrible traps of being sensitive and stream of consciousness and all of that stuff. You do need that discipline, I think, and plot! Life happens in plots all the time; life is absolutely composed of plots!

INTERVIEWER

That’s the truth of life, I think.

MORTIMER

Yes. And coincidences. All of these things happen in life. And suspense. I think that the writer Ruth Rendell said the most important thing is suspense. Whatever it is, whatever story you are telling, unless it’s got suspense it won’t keep people wondering what’s going to happen next.

INTERVIEWER

Did you learn this lesson early in your career? Tell us about your early days in writing, leading to the publication of your first novel.

MORTIMER

Well, the war started. And you can’t divorce people in war; it doesn’t look good. So I entered a thing called the Crown Film Unit which was making documentary films about the war; and I went into quite a new world, the world of film technicians, of cameramen, of prop men and actors and actresses, and it was all a wonderful world to me. But I was a fourth assistant director in this film unit. The scriptwriter was a wonderful writer named Laurie Lee to whom I owe a great deal. As a fourth assistant director I found that the only job I was asked to do was to make tea for the director and to say, “Quiet please,” at the beginning of every shot. And so I used to say, “Quiet please,” in a very nervous and timid voice—being very nervous and timid as I am to this day. And when I said, “Quiet please,” everybody on the set went on sawing wood, hammering nails, making love, playing pontoon, and they took absolutely no notice of me at all. So one day I lost my patience with them all and I yelled, “quiet please, you bastards!” and they all threatened to strike. So then they decided I’d do a lot less harm being a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Was Laurie Lee a significant influence upon you? Was he a mentor?

MORTIMER

Well, this was part of the documentary movement that had started before the war. There was a man called John Grierson, who was a Scot, and he was a major force in the documentary idea. One of our precepts was that you didn’t use actors; you used the actual people. You did write stories and you did write scenes but they were played by real farmers or aircraft pilots.

INTERVIEWER

But since you weren’t a farmer or pilot yourself, how did you know what to write?

MORTIMER

You had them say “Roger!” a lot. But no, you did research. I went down in a mine, for instance. It’s a funny trick that you learn, writing documentaries, or being a barrister, for that matter. You can prepare yourself to cross-examine a doctor on the vagal nerve. You don’t really know all about it but you know how to put it so that a jury can understand it.

INTERVIEWER

Or, in film, an audience; or in prose, the reader.

MORTIMER

That’s right.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote about your experience in the Crown Film Unit in Charade, your first novel, originally published in 1947. The novel was published in its first American edition by Viking in 1986. How was Charade received when it was first published?

MORTIMER

It was quite a success. The first notice I got—and I don’t like notices, they make me very frightened—was by a man called Daniel George who wrote in The Daily Express, “Not for fifteen years have I found so certain a touch.” Now if I got that nowadays I would be absolutely delighted. But when I got that when I was twenty-three I was absolutely furious. I thought, Who is this swine whom he read fifteen years ago who had such wonderful writing?

INTERVIEWER

But in any case you were encouraged enough by the critical response to write more novels, even after you returned to the legal profession?

MORTIMER

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

Would you have continued to write novels, even if the reviews had not been so favorable?

MORTIMER

Well, novels were the only thing to write in those days, really. That was 1947. There wasn’t any television, for a start. The theater was given over to revivals. Of course, T. S. Eliot was writing plays, but those were verse plays. It wasn’t really until Look Back In Anger, in the mid-fifties, that new serious writers came into the British theater. So nobody thought of writing plays, and a novel was the only thing to write. And you know, Charade was turned down by a few publishers before it was accepted, and I’d written one unpublished novel before that. So I don’t think bad reviews would have stopped me, however much they might have depressed me.

INTERVIEWER

How did your service in the Crown Film Unit come to an end?

MORTIMER

Well, it all did come to an end. All the husbands came back from the forces and life took on a grimmer hue. And I didn’t really know what I would do. I could have gone on writing films for the Rank Organization. But all of the films of the Rank Organization featured Margaret Lockwood dressed in Regency costumes and flourishing a riding whip. I thought that was rather a distasteful thing to have to write, so I went back to divorcing people.

INTERVIEWER

Would you comment on how your work as a barrister influenced your literary career, even before you created Rumpole?

MORTIMER

There are a lot of similarities between writing and the law, particularly in the way in which I did the law, which was by being an advocate. If you’re a defense person, you don’t usually open cases. But if you do open cases, which you do in civil cases if you’re the plaintiff, you have to tell the story to the jury or to the judge, very, very simply, and you must tell them in a narrative that is going to make them listen. That’s very good narrative training, I think. You may have to assemble the facts of some very, very complicated cases and narrate them in a way that will arrest them. So that’s good training for a writer. And there’s the fact that you’ve got to get up and make a final speech; there’s no way you can say you want to go out for a walk or make a cup of tea or you’ve got writer’s block. You’ve got to stand up and do it.

INTERVIEWER

Right then and there.

MORTIMER

Do it then and there! And provide a joke if necessary. It makes you able to think quickly.

INTERVIEWER

Are there ways in which work in the law is not helpful to the writer?

MORTIMER

In the law you can bore judges into submission, you know, by going on until they scream for mercy—whereas you can’t bore your readers into submission!

INTERVIEWER

In the quotation that I mentioned earlier, you said that as a barrister and writer you felt “stretched between two opposite extremes,” but you say you enjoyed the double life. Was this, then, a comfortable balance for you?

MORTIMER

Well, looking back on it, I probably did the barristering for too long. And I got too good at it for my own good. You know, I was too successful. And I think if I’d stopped it earlier I should have written more. But on the other hand, I don’t regret it at all, because without that career I wouldn’t have written the things that I’ve written; I wouldn’t know about the things that I do; I wouldn’t have ever met a murderer. And, you know, that seems a great privilege, to have met a few murderers in my life.

INTERVIEWER

You have said before that you handled the question of defending the person “who dunnit” by leaving the burden of deciding upon innocence or guilt to the judge and jury. You said, “The thing you, as the defending lawyer, are concentrating on is trying to convince the jury that guilt hasn’t been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Guilt isn’t a question you have to decide, really, and you can get quite used to suspending your judgment about that, suspending your disbelief.”

MORTIMER

That’s right. Really, you’re suspending your disbelief, which is what Catholics do all the time. So my belief remained hanging in the hall.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us, please, some anecdotes from courtroom life that were useful to you as a writer. I don’t mean simply anecdotes that you have used in plotting Rumpole episodes, but rather, memorable moments that opened your eyes to character, language, and other aspects of writing.

MORTIMER

I learned a lot about literature divorcing people, because nothing equips you more for a life in letters than a career in the divorce court. I learned first of all a very important lesson about English dialogue. I learned the importance of the sporting metaphor in English life, and I remember very well the case in which I learned that. I was appearing for an admiral. And this admiral had a very unhappy married life because he’d fallen desperately in love with a skating instructress at the Queensway Baths. And this skating instructress was a beautiful little blonde lady who used to pirouette around on the ice in her little white tutu and her little white skating boots. My admiral sat on the corner of the ice rink and he fell so passionately in love with her that he skated across to embrace her. But he was so passionate that he forgot to remove the leather guards from his skates. So the admiral attended the conference in my chambers in a wheelchair. But in those days in divorce law you had to ask your client when he’d last made love to his wife. It was very embarrassing, but you had to ask. And there was I, about a twenty-five-year-old divorce barrister, and I said, “Admiral, could you just tell me please—it’s very embarrassing to have to ask you this—but when did you last make love to your wife?” It was then that I learned the importance of the sporting metaphor to the English. Because I’ll never forget his reply. He said, “Well, we batted on for the first three years,” he said, “but then we drew stumps.” I also learned as a divorce lawyer the importance of learning when to end the dialogue, when to cut the scene. And I learned that when I was doing a rural divorce case. I can just give you a little passage from that case that will show you the importance of knowing when to stop. If I may just fill in the facts of the case, I had a client who was accused of committing adultery with a young girl in the middle of the Seven Acre Barley Field. And the only witness to this appalling act was Farmer Brown, who had been standing at the time at the edge of the Seven Acre Barley Field and had seen it all happen. And so I got up and I cross-examined Farmer Brown with my usual aplomb, and I said, “Farmer Brown, perhaps on some occasions during your younger years you might have taken a girl into the middle of the Seven Acre Barley Field.” And he said “Ooh ah,” or some such rustic reply. And I said, “You might even have sat down in the barley field next to this girl.” And he said, “Ooh ah ah.” And I said, “Perhaps you sat very close to her.” He said, “Ooh ah.” And I said, “Perhaps you kissed her.” And he said, “Ooh ah.” And I said, “Maybe you even laid down beside her, Farmer Brown.” He said, “Ooh ah.” And that was the point, for all students of English literature, for all students of law, at which any decent writer, any sensible barrister, would have cut the dialogue, sat down, ended the scene. But I had to ask the final, fatal question. “So, Farmer Brown,” I said, “any witness standing on the edge of the Seven Acre Barley Field at that time might have come to the conclusion that you were committing adultery.” “Ooh ah,” he said, “and he’d be damn right, too.” So it is desperately important to remember when enough is enough, when you’ve finished the scene.

INTERVIEWER

Have you anecdotes to share from your career in criminal law?

MORTIMER

I took to crime rather late in life. But I learned in all the courts many very, very important lessons about the English language. One of the most important lessons, of course, is that there isn’t one English language: there are about a hundred English languages that are spoken on this island. And the language spoken by judges and the language spoken by clients are totally different. And by and large each is totally unable to understand the other at all. I used to end divorce cases and the judge used to give a most reasoned, brilliant little summary. But at the end of it all, the sort of fifty-year-old lady you represented had absolutely no idea whether she’d been condemned to death, or offered huge sums of damages, or been sent for long-term imprisonment. And when one had to explain that she was probably still married to the rather boring person to whom she had been married for the last fifty years, a sort of look of puzzled bewilderment used to come right onto her face. I never really got to the whole beauty of the difference between judgespeak and clientspeak until I went to the Old Bailey and I met a wonderful judge called Judge Maude. And I would like just for a moment to remember Judge Maude with you. This Old Bailey judge had a gorgeous profile; he had beautiful little gray sideburns; he wore exquisite little golden half-glasses; he used to adjourn the court at eleven-thirty every morning for his glass of cold chablis and a little nibble of cheese. And Judge Maude had the onerous duty of sentencing a totally drunk Irish laborer who had been rightly convicted of urinating down the stairs of Leicester Square tube station, indecent exposure, using indecent language, assaulting the police, everything you can think of! And Judge Maude looked over his beautiful little gold glasses and he said, “I am going to take a most unusual course, a most merciful course, with you my man.” And this man said, “Oh, God bless Your Royal Highness for your charity.” “I’m going to place you upon probation.” And the man said, “Ah, Your Holiness, this is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard.” The judge said, “But I place you on probation upon one condition, and one condition only.” And the man said, “Oh, I’ll do anything for Your Reverence, anything.” The judge paused and said, “Well, the condition is that you must never touch another drop of alcohol for the rest of your natural life.” And the man said, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” And the judge paused and he said, “Look, by nothing, I mean really nothing. Not even the teeniest, weeniest little dry sherry before your dinner.” So there is a sort of gap, a sort of language gap, between the judges and the judged.

INTERVIEWER

What inspired you to try your hand at drama?

MORTIMER

I’d written about five or six novels and I found writing novels rather a lonely business. You very rarely actually catch anyone reading them. I’ve heard of a novelist who got onto the tube at Picadilly Circus for the purpose of getting out at Green Park, a distance of one stop. And as he got onto the tube he found himself sitting next to a girl who was in fact reading one of his novels. And he knew that two hundred pages further on there was a joke. So he sat on till Cockfosters, the end of the line, in the faint hope of hearing a laugh, which never came. But somewhere after my fifth or sixth novel, I found it such a lonely occupation, and Nesta Pain, whom I knew and admired as one of the most distinguished of radio producers, asked me to write a play for the radio. At that time I considered myself a novelist, although it is true that during a lonely childhood I quite often acted out Hamlet and Macbeth, duelling with myself and pretending I was mad for hours at a time.

INTERVIEWER

And, of course, you had the documentary film experience. In the introduction to the 1958 edition of The Dock Brief, you note that “documentary films bear as little relation to art as they do to life, existing uninterestingly between the two like the instructions you get with do-it-yourself garden furniture.”

MORTIMER

Yes! Yes, so at first I procrastinated about writing a radio drama. But when I got the idea for The Dock Brief, I remembered Nesta’s request. So I wrote the play. It was about an old barrister and an unsuccessful criminal in a cell, and by a wonderful stroke of luck the barrister was played by Michael Hordern, who later played in the television dramatization of Paradise Postponed.

INTERVIEWER

How extraordinary! He played the rector, Simeon Simcox, I believe.

MORTIMER

That’s right. And there he is, on the cover of the paperback of Paradise Postponed, to this day. And with The Dock Brief, for the first time I actually heard dialogue that I’d written being said by actors and I became intoxicated with the idea of that, and the idea of theater, and the idea of dramatic scenes. And the writing of radio plays is a wonderful exercise because they entirely depend upon the imagination of the audience. The Dock Brief was rather successful for me. And if you are successful, if you write a play about two old men in a cell, the moguls of Hollywood immediately think you’re absolutely the right man to write The Decline and Fall of Genghis Khan! So off I went to Hollywood from time to time and wrote for the movies. And so there I was, barristering, writing, doing all of these things.

INTERVIEWER

And you were heading a large family. How did you fit your writing in between working as a barrister and leading a busy family life? When did you find the time to write?

MORTIMER

It was very difficult. I used to get up very early in the morning, and when I became Queen’s Counsel, a criminal lawyer, it was much easier because I would do a big case, then have a gap, then do another big case. And by the end I was only doing about five cases a year.

INTERVIEWER

Was it helpful having another novelist in the family? Did you provide support for one another in literary matters?

MORTIMER

No. I don’t think writers being married to each other is very helpful.

INTERVIEWER

You can both sit home brewing tea, stumped for words.

MORTIMER

Or else you sit listening to the other person’s typewriter rattling and it drives you mad. Also, you share common experiences, so you only have the same thing to write about. We did write a travel book together: With Love and Lizards.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel a sense of competition?

MORTIMER

Yes. I think the problem was Penelope used to type, so I could always hear the typewriter clacking, but I always write by hand.

INTERVIEWER

You must have had a number of literary friends. Was that a major part of your life, being involved with other writers?

MORTIMER

Not really. I think that English writers tend to avoid other writers. When I was young there were pubs you could go to and find other writers. And when I was at Oxford you could find Dylan Thomas at a pub, and Stephen Spender, and that was really exciting. That’s all totally gone now. When I used to live with Penelope we knew a few writers. Now I see Peter Nichols and John Osborne, but not regularly. And we don’t always talk about writing. I don’t think the society of other writers is all that significant to my actual work in writing.

INTERVIEWER

To get back to a character whom you created both for the screen and the printed page, would you comment on the genesis of Horace Rumpole?

MORTIMER

Well, somewhere around the mid-seventies, about twelve years ago, I thought I needed a character to keep me alive in my old age and I remembered all of the rather underpaid barristers I’d known, trudging around some very unsympathetic courts, and I thought of my father’s uniform, the sort of Winston Churchill set with the black jacket and striped trousers and cigar ash down the watch chain. And I thought of all the barristers I’d known who called the judges “Old Darling.” So I thought of Rumpole, and he’s been a great comfort to me. You might say he’s taken me around the world.

INTERVIEWER

Are there ways in which Rumpole reflects the barrister, John Mortimer?

MORTIMER

Well, I mean, Rumpole says the things that I think. But if I say them, they sound rather sort of trendy and progressive; if he says them they sound rather crusty and conservative and nice.

INTERVIEWER

What about some of the other characters. “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” for instance?

MORTIMER

“She-who-must-be-obeyed” isn’t like anyone, really. You can put any scene that happens in marriage into the Rumpole marriage. My wife is not at all like “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” but any scene that happens with my wife could be used in Rumpole.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have a particular sensitivity to and flair for portraying older, rather eccentric men, and bringing humor to their portraits.

MORTIMER

Oh, yes. Old men are my specialty, rather! And in my latest novel, Summer’s Lease, I’ve had rather a good time with another older character; so I’m still at it, portraying old men.

INTERVIEWER

In working on your adaptation of Brideshead Revisited for television, you must have found the portrayal of Charles Ryder’s father natural territory for your talent. It would seem that your own father and Ryder’s were kindred spirits. It must have been delightful working on those scenes.

MORTIMER

Yes, absolutely. I mean the father character is very much like my father.

INTERVIEWER

The Oxford scene must also have seemed designed for you since you grew up near Oxford and went to university there.

MORTIMER

Well, I was in Oxford during the war, during the blitz, and the blackout, and rationing, and a period of austerity. Although there were relics of the old Evelyn Waugh period, my Oxford was very different. I was very pleased to do Brideshead, which I remember reading at the time that it came out. In the forties everyone liked it because it took them away from the austerity, and it talked of a past, vanished age and wonderful golden youth and all that. And so it’s popular now, when there’s another age of austerity in Britain.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think accounts for its huge popularity in the U.S.?

MORTIMER

As to the popularity of it with the American audience, there’s a letter from Evelyn Waugh saying he never thought that more than eight Americans would like Brideshead. And now they have Lord Sebastian look-alike contests in the streets of San Francisco! I’m not sure it hasn’t done a terrible disservice to the world, with all of these young men being frightfully right wing and carrying teddy bears!

INTERVIEWER

I don’t believe you shared many values with Evelyn Waugh. Did this in any way cause difficulties for you in writing the adapation?

MORTIMER

Well, he was a great Catholic reactionary, and I’m a sort of an atheist and an inactive socialist. But on the whole I like the book and I love writing about religion. I mean I love writing about it, but I don’t have any religion.

INTERVIEWER

Did you therefore find it difficult to identify with Charles Ryder’s eventual religious awakening?

MORTIMER

No, I found that very easy. The difficulty I had with the character was his political stance, his behavior during the General Strike, which I could hardly bear to write about. And there’s also a scene in which he takes Rex out to dinner, in which he feels terribly superior because Rex chooses the wrong sort of food and the wrong glass. This I find unbelievably snobbish. I don’t mind his religion, but I do mind his snobbery. And he’s a difficult character because he’s the most boring character in the whole thing—and all the other characters are so good.

INTERVIEWER

I read that the actor, Jeremy Irons, hesitated to take the part for this reason.

MORTIMER

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

But I’m so glad he did. His enunciation of the narrated sections—

MORTIMER

Was beautiful, just beautiful. Yes. But I did share with Evelyn Waugh the fact that both of our backgrounds are very middle-class. I mean, I went to Harrow and there met upper-class people. And Oxford was an extraordinary part of that English upper-class education. What happened was you went to a prep school or a public school in which your life was incredibly circumscribed. I mean, I never met a girl; I never met a member of the working class except the girl who came to make the bed, you know, in Harrow. One really lived in a sort of monastic, one-class world in which everything you did had rules attached. And then you suddenly got to Oxford and you were treated like a grown-up person—and you could even get drunk!

INTERVIEWER

Well, that’s certainly similar to Ryder’s experience! Your latest television series was adapted from your own novel Paradise Postponed. What inspired you to return to the novel after so many years?

MORTIMER

Well, about two or three years ago I went to defend an opposition MP in Singapore. So I flew out of England on Boxing Day to defend this man. I arrived jet-lagged, hung over, with no particular idea of what the case was all about. In short, I was in the usual position of a defending Queen’s Counsel in the beginning of an important trial. And I staggered into the Singapore Central Court. There was this robing room, which looked to me exactly like every robing room from Snaresbrook to Bodmin to the Old Bailey to Hong Kong. It was a huge, dirty room with the floor lined with torn-up newspaper. There were barristers lying on benches in their stocking feet, sleeping off their hangovers. There were other barristers ringing up their wives in the vain attempt to explain where they were the night before. And the whole of this familiar environment was presided over by an eighty-four-year-old Chinese woman who was making Nescafe and pouring out Chinese cough mixture for barristers with sore throats. And so I went into there and she looked at me and she said, “Ah, there you are. Lumpore of the Bailey.” And I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being called Lumpore of the Bailey, so I decided to give it up, for the time at least. Then what happened was that I was having lunch with Bryan Cowgill, who heads Thames Television, and he said, “When are you going to write a story about England since the war?” At first I thought I didn’t want to write a story about England since the war. And then I thought maybe I could. And then I thought, well, I’d adapted Brideshead for television and it’s a long novel. I thought, “Well, I don’t want to adapt anybody else’s novel so I’ll write a novel and then adapt it.” So I wrote down the idea for it on a piece of paper in handwriting, and I never even typed it out. I sold it to the television company and to the publisher. I think they bought it and paid lots of money for it because they never could read the handwriting. So then I set about it and I wrote them both at the same time.

INTERVIEWER

The novel reads very much like a Victorian novel, with its episodic nature, its plot centering around a question of money and a debatable will. It calls to mind Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens. Did you have the Victorian novel in mind when you began Paradise Postponed?

MORTIMER

I knew that I wanted to write a long novel, as much like a long Victorian novel as possible. I think that Victorian novelists and television writers have got a lot in common because, after all, they have a big audience and their work comes out in parts. I knew it had to have one strong plot which would keep people reading it from beginning to end. Immediately I thought of Bleak House. I thought, if you asked anybody what the plot to Bleak House was, they would never really be able to tell you, but they would be able to tell you all about the funny little things that happened along the way. But if Bleak House didn’t have a central plot, they wouldn’t have gone on reading it and discovered those things along the way.

INTERVIEWER

The fact that Paradise Postponed revolves around the central mystery of the rector’s will ties it in with your first novel, written almost four decades earlier. Charade, too, centered around a crucial mystery. In much of your longer fiction you’ve set out to resolve central questions in the plot as well as to discover the truth of character.

MORTIMER

The detective story comes, really, into everything, I think. And the detective story is hard, much harder to write, than a sensitive novel of adultery in Hampstead-on-Hill. Plots are terribly important. I think they must be important because I find them terribly difficult. Plots are the hardest thing for me. But you’ve got to have that plot in which you find out in the end, as you point out, the truth of the characters. And so the whole detective story reading is the important thing, to my mind. I think it’s the hard thing and the important thing; it’s the surprise, the suspense.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have your surprise all planned out when you embarked upon writing Paradise Postponed? Are you the sort of writer who has to know where everything is going before you start?

MORTIMER

No, not at all. No, I don’t believe in that at all. I only know where everything is going about halfway through.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean to say that while writing the beginning of Paradise Postponed you did not know that Charlie was the illegitimate daughter?

MORTIMER

Yes. I never have a plan. I know vaguely what’s ahead but I never write any plan down because I think that unless the characters come to life and do it for themselves, you’re lost. You know, that’s the great thing: they’ve got to do their own living; they’ve got to be free to do what they feel they ought to do.

INTERVIEWER

That’s fascinating. Many authors of fiction will say that they hope for the characters to take on lives of their own, but to add to that the dimension of the characters having an inward compulsion to behave in a certain way is rather different.

MORTIMER

Yes. I was reading E. M. Forster who was writing about plot, and he said the awful thing is you create these wonderful characters and then they won’t do anything; they won’t be bothered to get involved in a plot!

INTERVIEWER

Lazy characters! Was that in Aspects of the Novel?

MORTIMER

Yes, it was.

INTERVIEWER

So you see the characters through their own eyes. Did you find that any one character was more fun for you to write than the others?

MORTIMER

Not really. I mean some characters are nearer to me. You’re always writing yourself in a novel. The author is always talking. Of course my strong point is old men. Simeon was easy for me because he was just sort of my father. But I enjoyed writing about Leslie Titmuss because he does appalling things. And Henry and Fred I thought of as two sides of my nature. Fred was the nice, decent, quiet, professional person and Henry was the show-off writer.

INTERVIEWER

You are far more personable and likeable than Henry!

MORTIMER

I’m glad to hear it!

INTERVIEWER

In Simeon, here again you’re writing about a character driven by religion.

MORTIMER

I don’t know about Simeon’s religion. The great thing about Simeon and Dorothy is that they don’t want to be vulgar. There’s a great key line when she says that she wants the working classes to rule the world but she doesn’t want to have them to tea. And Simeon would think that the sort of conventional idea of heaven would be frightfully vulgar and a bit down-market. So we can’t have that! Simeon is one of those people who probably mistakes Jesus for being the Labour member of parliament.

INTERVIEWER

But what about you? How do you, with atheistic views, understand the Simeon character?

MORTIMER

There are two things I think about. I mean, I find it very difficult to believe in God. But apart from that I would believe in everything else to do with the Christian religion. If you reject the idea of God, still the importance of the individual, and freedom, and all those traditions that are a part of Christianity are very valuable and we cannot throw them out.

INTERVIEWER

In discussing crime writing and the author’s attitude toward death, P. D. James told me that she felt one could have doubts about some essentials of Christianity but still lead a religious life.

MORTIMER

I think so, too. I just did an interview with Graham Greene. And his Catholicism is so near atheism that it’s practically the same thing. There’s a very good poem that he quoted that says you either have faith interspersed with doubt or doubt interspersed with faith.

INTERVIEWER

This sounds like a description of English weather! Sunny intervals with cloudy periods or—

MORTIMER

—cloudy intervals with sunny periods! That’s right! Well, I have doubt interspersed with faith.

INTERVIEWER

In Paradise Postponed, you used doctors and the clergy as main characters. Did you do so in part because they would have access to an inside view of the community and because, somewhat like barristers, they minister to people’s needs?

MORTIMER

Yes. Exactly. There’s that, and also the fact that the British professional middle class is my territory. I was looking at the decline of those professional values that aren’t to do with money. Whereas the Titmuss world or the whole Thatcher world is all to do with money—the only thing that matters is money. So I wanted to write about the professional middle classes whose idea is not to make money but to perform some kind of duty.

INTERVIEWER

Your female characters are also a particularly strong aspect of Paradise Postponed. Perhaps here they are more strongly portrayed than in any of your earlier work.

MORTIMER

I think the women in Paradise Postponed are stronger in a way than the men. Certainly Dorothy is stronger than Simeon. In my other work, in Rumpole, Hilda is stronger; Miss Phillida Trant is much stronger than her husband.

INTERVIEWER

Strong or not, most of the women in Paradise Postponed, along with some of the men, are ultimately frustrated with life. Can you comment on this?

MORTIMER

I think everybody is frustrated. Everybody fails himself in a way. The interesting thing about writing, to me, is the gap between what characters wish to be and the reality of what they become.

INTERVIEWER

And whether or not the characters can accept that reality.

MORTIMER

Yes. Or if they can’t, what that produces! The women are brighter. They realize much more. And Agnes is incredibly strong. I think the women are much more realistic than the men. I think men really lead a much richer fantasy life than women.

INTERVIEWER

In Paradise Postponed you develop, more so than in some of your other work, a sense of place. There is more description of setting. Was this a challenge that you set for yourself in writing this novel?

MORTIMER

Yes. Places are important to me. I have to know exactly where the action goes on—but I don’t like to spend too much time on being atmospheric.

INTERVIEWER

Descriptive writing, of course, would be one aspect used in the novel but not in the television version. How else was writing for the two media different?

MORTIMER

If you’re writing for television you’re always thinking of little scenes, whereas novels are all about the long flow of life, so to speak. I had to cure myself of writing like television in the novel. Television writing is all to do with scenes of two or three people in conversation at dramatic points in their lives. Most people’s lives aren’t great dramatic points. Most people’s lives are what happens to them when they’re sitting at the top of buses, lying in the bath, waiting for the doctor in surgery, thinking to themselves. That’s what novels are. It was a great effort to get back into the way of writing a novel. I did it and now I can’t think of anything I want to do more than write novels. And I’ve also published a book of interviews, my second book of interviews, called In Character.

INTERVIEWER

Earlier we were talking about Paradise Postponed as it related to Victorian literature. It also reminds me of the Victorian novel in the sense that individuals and their impact upon one another are regarded as essential. The individuals are regarded as significant.

MORTIMER

Yes, I’m glad you noticed that.

INTERVIEWER

A perfect example of this is the incident where the rector dresses up as Father Christmas in order to deliver the Christmas stocking to the sleeping child. And when Fred later asks him what was the point of dressing up if the child was likely to be asleep anyway, the rector replies, “I don’t think it matters in the least whether she saw it or not. Even if she saw absolutely nothing, I have played my part.” I thought that was wonderful.

MORTIMER

Well, you’re very kind. In a way, too, that incident is a metaphor for these progressive beliefs in human progress. It doesn’t matter whether they’re true or not; really, it doesn’t matter that they’ll never be achieved. What matters is that you do your best and defend those values, isn’t it?

INTERVIEWER

And similarly, the whole question about the validity of the rector’s will is also a question about these values, isn’t it?

MORTIMER

That’s right. Again it has a sort of symbolic, metaphorical application because the question is whether somebody who believed in an optimistic view of the future of mankind is a lunatic or not!

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of the future, are there new works that your readers can look forward to?

MORTIMER

Well, I’ve done a radio play entitled Glasnost, which is about three English writers in Moscow and people’s attitudes toward Russia. People either fall in love with Russia, or they hate it. The middle classes love it, whereas the working classes tend to hate it. And I’ve written a new lot of Rumpoles called Rumpole and the Age of Miracles. These will eventually be televised. I am also working on a television script for Summer’s Lease, which will be done probably in four episodes.

INTERVIEWER

It would seem that you have accelerated your writing pace rather than slowing down over the years. You always seem to have a whole range of ideas for the future.

MORTIMER

Yes, and the other thing is that I’m about to start a novel using one of the Paradise Postponed characters, to be called Titmuss Regained.

INTERVIEWER

Really? This makes me think about the end of Paradise Postponed where several of the characters come to accept great disappointment in life. And yet at least for some there is a sense of a new beginning and new possibilities ahead. Are you yourself an optimist?

MORTIMER

About my own life? Yes. I mean if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have a four-year-old daughter, a girl called Rosamund. Yes, I’m optimistic. But I think, on the whole, pessimism is the best basis for a happy life.

INTERVIEWER

I like the way you say that while laughing, though!

MORTIMER

’Tis all a great cycle, isn’t it? And you think everybody was different, that earlier generations were different, that your parents were different. Well, not at all. But I always think about my baby and how she’s got to find out all about The Magic Flute and all those wonderful things. And it’s all rather wonderful, really, isn’t it?