The world has lost a wise, humorous, and prolific writer, an amusing raconteur, and a member of a particularly rare endangered species, the liberal who actually has a taste for liberty rather than just for policing other people’s behavior.
John Mortimer, 85, barrister, playwright, novelist, screen-writer, and creator of the world’s most lovable literary lawyer, Horace Rumpole, died Friday at his home in Oxfordshire after a long illness. He’s arguing before the Very Highest Court now. Mortimer was never pious. But he was respectful of Christianity. And as God is merciful, I like Mortimer’s chances.
Before Mortimer published his first collection of Rumpole stories in 1975 he’d already published plays and novels and was known as a skilled advocate who’d shepherded countless divorces through the courts, defended various people charged with murder, and appeared in several high-profile free speech and human rights cases, often defending the salacious or raunchy against would-be censors.
“Testing the frontiers of tolerance,” Mortimer called his work on behalf of his belief that Englishmen (and women) ought to be able to publish and/or read whatever they wanted to. Mortimer often spoke of liberty as “allowing people to do things you disapprove of.” Try getting that past the New Puritans of today’s Left.
Had Mortimer never written the first Rumpole story he could have still enjoyed his modest literary reputation based on several amusing plays and novels as well as some successful screenplays, the most conspicuous among them being the much-acclaimed 1981 television adaption of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (a version much truer to Waugh’s novel than the current execrable movie) and a 1999 collaboration with Franco Zeffirelli that produced the very watchable Tea With Mussolini, starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.
But Horace Rumpole, one of the most delightful characters in all of English literature, is Mortimer’s triumph and his vehicle for commenting on the events of the world and the state of English law and culture. “Rumpole of the Bailey” in 1975 was the beginning of almost a hundred Rumpole stories in 12 collections and three short Rumpole novels.
Americans had the opportunity (which many took) to become acquainted with Mortimer’s short, stout, cigar-smoking, poetry-spouting, claret-soaked advocate through the PBS “Mystery” television series, also called Rumpole of the Bailey. The series, very true to the stories, produced 44 episodes between 1978 and 1992. The show was anchored by the incomparable Leo McKern as Rumpole. Sadly, McKern went to his reward in 2002.
In the stories and episodes we see Rumpole down the old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) confusing and upsetting judges with the hearts of prosecutors and prosecutors with the hearts of hangmen. He gives witnesses, including bent coppers, incompetent “expert” witnesses, and various interested parties something close to judicial whiplash with his sharp questioning, his clever court-room tactics, and his just-short-of-contempt brashness.
Back at his chambers at 3 Equity Court, Rumpole is surrounded by an ensemble cast of off-plumb characters, foils that allow him through ingenious subplots to comment on current cultural silliness. And at home, to which he returns reluctantly of an evening after unwinding in Pommeroy’s Wine Bar, he’s again in an adversarial relationship, this time with his formidable wife, Hilda, known to Rumpole as She Who Must Be Obeyed. His won-lost record is much better in court than at home.
All of this is witty and great fun. It’s done in the name of protecting Rumpole’s clients and the presumption of innocence, which Rumpole takes to be the central principle of British justice. Magna Carta is safe with our Horace. He deals with the insolence of office in the most amusing way, which is what the show and the stories are about. Mortimer’s Rumpole books are sold in the mystery section of bookstores. And there is the element of determining who’s committed the crimes, as it’s clear that it’s not Rumpole’s client. But far after readers or viewers have forgotten whodunit they will remember, with delight, how Horace Rumpole engages the world.
And here is where some confusion creeps in for some readers and viewers. Some have slandered Rumpole by describing him as a liberal because he always appears for the defense, shows little respect for authority figures, and was created by a lifetime leftist who has had some disagreeable things to say about Margaret Thatcher.
To set things straight, it’s not crime that Rumpole defends, but the presumption of innocence, a concept vital to any free society and one all conservatives should be prepared to defend. And the judges and prosecutors Rumpole torments hardly deserve respect. Rumpole isn’t so much anti-authority as anti-abuse of authority.
As for Mortimer the leftist, he was a leftie with a difference. A truly open-minded man who treasured liberty above all else, and who had a well-developed BS immune system. Through his alter-ego, Rumpole, Mortimer and his readers have had great fun at the expense of turbo-feminists, enviro-whack jobs, food Nazis, animal rights activists, anti-smoking zealots, and PC enforcers of all stripes and degrees. All these groups are protectorates of the cultural left, but fair game for the comic spirit of Mortimer.
Mortimer commented on the seeming contradiction, saying, “When I say some of these things they come out sounding trendy and left-wing. When Rumpole says them, they sound crusty and conservative.”
Rumpole is also a defender of the English language, uses it eloquently in his defenses, and is merciless to those who abuse it. His speeches to the jury soar, and the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth have never sounded better than when recited fortissimo by McKern in his rich baritone. His speech is free of neologisms and the various barbarisms that have crept into our discourse over the past few decades.
There’s a particularly funny failure of communication in “”Rumpole and the Primrose Path,” when 3 Equity Court hires a director of marketing. This young woman is a fount of corporate jargon and neo-speak, making her almost impossible for Rumpole, whose favorite bedside reading is The Oxford Book of English Verse, to understand.
Most of Mortimer’s books are still in print, especially the Rumpole series. Mortimer has gone on, and this is sad. Rumpole will argue no new cases. But what Mortimer has left behind is a treasure. A treasure I commend to TAS readers.
R.I.P. John Mortimer, and thanks for the many enjoyable hours spent with Rumpole of the Bailey.