Study Guide

John Mortimer

John Mortimer Biography

Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Clifford Mortimer was born on April 21, 1923, in Hampstead, London, to Clifford and Kathleen May Smith Mortimer. His father was a barrister who went blind when Mortimer was still young but continued to practice law. Mortimer studied at Harrow School in Middlesex from 1937 to 1940, and at Brasenose College, Oxford, from 1940 to 1942. Because of his poor eyesight, he was exempted from military service during World War II and worked as an assistant director and scriptwriter with the Crown Film Units. He was called to the bar in 1948, and in the years since has practiced law in London while writing for radio, television, the theater, film, and newspapers. He became Queen’s Counsel in 1966 and Master of the Bench, Inner Temple, London, in 1975. As a barrister, he has been a leading figure in freedom of speech and press cases; in part as a result of his efforts, the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship authority was abolished with the passage of the Theatre Act of 1968, which—according to Mortimer—raised the status of playwrights “to the most carefully protected of all public performers.” Mortimer married Penelope Fletcher (a novelist, known first as Penelope Dimont and then as Penelope Mortimer) in 1949. They were divorced in 1972, and Mortimer remarried in the same year, to Penelope Gollop.

A regular contributor to The Times of London, Mortimer entered the intellectual world from four directions at once: As a barrister, he held forth in...

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John Mortimer Biography (Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

John Clifford Mortimer was born in London on April 23, 1923, the only child of Kathleen May Smith Mortimer and Clifford Mortimer, a barrister, and was educated at Harrow and Brasenose College, Oxford. Because of weak eyesight, he was exempt from World War II military service and instead made documentaries and training films with the Crown Film Unit. His first novel, Charade (1947), is based on this experience.

In 1948, Mortimer began practicing law in London as a barrister in divorce cases. The following year he married novelist Penelope Fletcher; they divorced in 1972, and he married Penelope Gollop. He has two children from each marriage. After becoming Queen’s Counsel in 1966, he specialized in criminal law, often arguing for the defense in censorship cases, and partly through his efforts, the Lord Chamberlain’s authority to censor plays was abolished in 1968. Mortimer pursued two careers, law and literary, until he retired from the former in 1986 to write full time.

Having written six novels by 1954, the next year he turned to a different genre, the radio play, adapting his 1953 novel Like Men Betrayed. His first original drama for radio, The Dock Brief (1957), won the Italia Prize in 1958, the year he debuted as a stage dramatist with a double bill including a revised The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline?, his first original stage play. Over the next two decades, he wrote radio...

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John Mortimer Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Clifford Mortimer was born in London, England, on April 21, 1923, the only child of Kathleen May Smith Mortimer and Clifford Mortimer, a barrister. Reared in London and at his parents’ country home in Oxfordshire, young Mortimer was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, Harrow in Middlesex, and Brasenose College, Oxford. His weak eyesight exempted him from military service during World War II. Instead, he worked as an assistant director and scriptwriter with the Crown Film Unit, which made documentaries and training films. His first novel, Charade (1947), is based on this wartime experience.

In 1948, he began practicing law in London as a barrister in divorce cases. The following year he married novelist Penelope Fletcher. When they were divorced in 1972, he wed Penelope Gollop. He had two children from each marriage, and in 2004 acknowledged a son, raised as Ross Bentley, by actress Wendy Craig. After becoming Queen’s Counsel in 1966, he dealt mainly in criminal law, often arguing for the defense in censorship cases, and partly through his efforts the Lord Chamberlain’s authority to censor plays was abolished by the Theatre Act of 1968. Made master of the bench, Inner Temple, London, in 1975, Mortimer pursued two careers, one in law and the other in literature, until he retired from the former in 1986 to write full time.

Having written five novels by 1954, the next year he turned to a different genre, the radio play, adapting his novel Like Men Betrayed (1953). Mortimer’s first original drama for radio, The Dock Brief (1957), won the Italia Prize in 1958, the same year he debuted as a stage dramatist with a double bill consisting of a revised version of The Dock Brief (pb. 1958) and What Shall We Tell Caroline? (pb. 1958), the first play he wrote specifically for the theater. Over the next two decades, he not only wrote radio plays but also created original scripts and adaptations for motion pictures and television. He did his most important work, however, for the stage, primarily comedies of manners and sex farces, a number of them one-act plays in the manner of Anton Chekhov. The autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father (pr. 1963, radio play, 1970, staged, pb. 1971) is his major play, and he adapted it for television in 1982. A year earlier, his multiepisode television...

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John Mortimer Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

During a time of revolution in English drama, John Mortimer was more a traditionalist than an innovator. Nevertheless, he made two enduring contributions to the stage: Demonstrating the artistic and commercial viability of the one-act comedy and writing a memory play that stands as a landmark work of the period. As a novelist, he wrote family chronicles in the Victorian manner for late twentieth century readers. Further, inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle, he created in Horace Rumpole a detective whose international popularity rivals that of Sherlock Holmes. Finally, his television scripts have enhanced the stature of the genre.

John Mortimer Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Clifford Mortimer first attracted attention on the English stage in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s as a writer of one-act and full-length comedies of manners and farces that traced what he called “the tottering course of British middle-class attitudes in decline.” He gained his widest audience, however, on television, notably with an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited and with the teleplays he fashioned from his own Rumpole of the Bailey stories, his novels Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained, and his autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father.{$S[A]Lincoln, Geoffrey;Mortimer, John}

He was the only child of Clifford and Kathleen Mortimer. His father was a barrister who wrote a standard reference work on probate law and who continued to practice long after he went blind. In the play A Voyage Round My Father and in his autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage, Mortimer wrote of his relationship with his quick-tempered father. His experiences from 1937 to 1940 at Harrow School in Middlesex and from 1940 to 1942 at Brasenose College, Oxford, are reflected in the play as well and treated in detail in the autobiography. During this period, he developed his left-wing sympathies, his dislike for the English upper classes, and his generally anti-establishment views, all of which are central to Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained.

Because of his bad eyesight, Mortimer did no military service in World War II; instead he worked as an assistant director and scriptwriter with the Crown Film Units. In 1948 he was called to the bar; he became Queen’s Counsel in 1966 and Master of the Bench, Inner Temple, London, in 1975. Until 1983 he practiced law while writing novels, film scripts, plays, and journalistic pieces. Though much of his early legal work involved divorce litigation, he later became a leading figure in freedom of speech and press cases; partly through his efforts, for example, the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship powers were abolished in 1968, and in 1970 he successfully defended Oz magazine against charges of pornography. He married Penelope Fletcher (a novelist known first as Penelope Dimont and then as Penelope Mortimer) in 1949. After their divorce in 1972, he married Penelope Gollop.

Perhaps because of his early success with radio dramas, Mortimer’s first works for the theater were one-act plays, and he continued to write them into the 1980’s, demonstrating both their commercial and artistic viability. Though his short farces such as Mill Hill and Marble Arch are mere whimsies, The Dock Brief is a Chekhovian one-act play of enduring merit that he originally wrote for radio and then adapted for the stage in 1958....

(The entire section is 1152 words.)