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John Clifford Mortimer, barrister, playwright and author

Born 21 April 1923, Died 16 January 2009


by Edward Cazalet


The media and press have been bursting with eulogies about John – ranging from lauding his genius as a writer to recognising him as one of the all-time greats as a life enhancer. I will not try to paraphrase or repeat the glorious tributes which demonstrate the quite extraordinary breadth and diversity of John’s talents and achievements. However, I was lucky enough to touch directly upon two of the multitudinous facets of John’s unique life. These were Wodehouse and the law.


John was an encyclopaedic Wodehousian. He never missed an opportunity of referring to “The Master”, as he called Plum when speaking to me, in terms of the highest admiration. He wrote a thorough and scholarly assessment of Wodehouse in The Best of Wodehouse (an Everyman Anthology), starting with the theme that “It is a serious fault in our approach to literature, that we do not take comedy seriously”. Then, taking comedy seriously, he went on to rank Wodehouse as one of the best writers of the first half of the 20th century.


When in 1998 we held the inaugural biennial dinner of the reconstituted PG Wodehouse Society, John was the obvious person to be the lead speaker. Having accepted our invitation, he then telephoned me nearer the time to tell me that, with the best will in the world, he would not be able to wear the prescribed dinner jacket. I had the temerity to answer by saying, “When Jeeves hears of this he will leap back like a startled Mustang”. The problem was that John was going to have to drive back all the way from a day in Court in Leeds to the dinner in London that evening and would simply not have the time or the necessary facilities to change. Notwithstanding this excuse, John appeared in full dinner regalia. Explaining how he had achieved this feat, given the constraints, he told us in his speech of how, just before he had left home for Leeds that morning, a Jeevesian voice had whispered in his ear “Sir, you should take your dinner jacket. I can only suggest, Sir, that you make full use of the Disabled Toilets in the Milton Keynes Service Area”, and, continued John, “That is exactly what I did”.


John Mortimer speaking at the Society's Biennial Dinner in October 2006 (photograph by Ginni Beard)


In his speech John considered the task of writing humourous prose. He said, “Anyone on a wet Tuesday afternoon can write a tragedy; it is easy to write about troubled adolescence in distant Australia, or broken marriages in Islington. To write great comedy is difficult as I found when working with Dicky Briers ... The great gift of Plum was to depict ordinary people and get them into extraordinary situations. Here was a writer who was highly educated, who could write a joke in the style of Euripides or Shakespeare, and you get from him an insight into the whole of our cultures.”


That delightful quotation indicates the many similarities John and Plum adopted in their approaches to the written word. Both knew their Shakespeare from “soup to nuts”, and a discussion or Mastermind competition between them about Shakespeare would have been fascinating. Both were supporters of the underdog, often pricking gently the bubble of authority and bringing the culprit down to earth with, at the least, a modest bump. To appreciate this you have only to compare the pugnacious Hilda Rumpole (“She who must be obeyed”), with any of Plum’s many aunts. Hilda would have made a splendid aunt. Also, each has created fictional characters who are likely to stand the test of time by achieving immortality, with Rumpole and Bertie already having been spoken of in this category in more than one of John’s obituaries.


Another memory I have of John is of when we were both appearing for different defendants in a probate case in the High Court. The issue was whether the deceased testator, when he had made his last Will, had been of sound mind, memory and understanding (or whether he was “as nutty as a fruit cake”, as Rumpole or Bertie might have said). Both John and I, although we were each appearing for different defendants, were trying to establish that the deceased, although perhaps a bit eccentric, was fully in command of his wits when he made his Will, notwithstanding that some of the provisions were a bit odd! As you can imagine, this case might have been made for John – and, in the end, the defendants were successful. John was absolutely brilliant in charming admissions out of the witnesses – even, on occasions, making the Judge laugh – and somehow bringing the deceased to life as a real and competent person, despite some of his odd foibles. However, the law on this particular topic was not wholly clear, and I shall always remember how struck I was when John came to make his formal submissions on the law. He seemed to change in character. Easy wit and dry humour were gone and I saw how at the core John was a very serious and top-class lawyer – a fact fully confirmed by his contemporaries and also by his many other skilled performances in court. He was at his best in cases involving freedom of speech, or when appearing for the under-privileged or for those who were being put upon by authority.


I also remember John going round with a Road Show, which included the wonderful Joanna David, giving readings from some of the great pieces of English literature. This particular performance took place in Burnham Market Church in Norfolk. Before a packed congregation, it suddenly became apparent to John that perhaps a moment’s levity was necessary as a short release from the somewhat heavy prose that was being read. So, seated only a few yards in front of the altar, John suddenly took two pulls from a glass of champagne which had conveniently appeared by his side, and told two of the most risqué stories that you can imagine. However, because it was John and because he did it with the utmost innocence and charm, not even one of the devout old ladies present turned a blue-rinsed hair, and the ensuing laughter must have caused the aging rafters of the old church to quiver.


John was appointed a CBE in 1986 and he was Knighted in 1998. Much of his continuing happiness was inspired by his sweet, intelligent and dependable Penny and the immense pleasure which he derived from the successful careers of his children.


Only three months ago in October John came to the most recent PG Wodehouse Society Dinner. When, at the end of the dinner, a toast was given to John, the 150 present rose spontaneously and gave him a standing ovation which went on and on and on. There must be many multitudes of us who would relish further opportunities to do the same again and again.