WhatsOnStage Logo
Theatre News

Dramatist & Author John Mortimer Dies, Aged 85

WhatsOnStage logo
Sir John Mortimer (pictured), whose prolific writing career encompassed literary as well as stage and screen works, has died aged 85 after battling a long illness.

Mortimer was probably best known as the author of the Rumpole series of novels, but he started out as a playwright, combining his writing work with his career as a barrister. His debut play The Dock Brief was heard on BBC radio before premiering at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958 and subsequently transferring to the West End (in a double bill with What Shall We Tell Caroline?). The Dock Brief was revived in the West End last year when it was presented in a double bill with Edwin at the Savoy Theatre, entitled Legal Fictions.

His most well known stage work, the autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father, was also first heard as a radio broadcast, before becoming a success firstly at the Greenwich Theatre in 1970 and then at the Theatre Royal Haymarket where it starred Alec Guinness. It was most recently seen in the West End in 2006, when Derek Jacobi starred in Thea Sharrock's Donmar production, which subsequently transferred to Wyndham's theatre.

His work at the National Theatre included the English version of The Captain of Kopenick (1971), starring Paul Scofield, and highly successful translations of Feydeau farces A Flea in Her Ear (1966), The Lady from Maxim’s (1977) and A Little Hotel on the Side (1984). He also wrote a version of A Christmas Carol for the RSC in 1994.

Mortimer's many screenwriting credits include adaptations of A Voyage Round My Father and his Rumpole series. He was credited as the screenwriter for Granada's hugely popular 1981 series Brideshead Revisited, though a 2005 biography attributed the majority of writing to the producer and director. He also wrote the screenplay for the film Tea With Mussolini in 1999 which starred Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Mortimer will be portrayed on screen by Hugh Bonneville in the forthcoming film Hippie Hippie Shake, which tells of the infamous 1971 Oz trial in which he acted as the defence lawyer.

Whatsonstage.com chief critic Michael Coveney said today: "Mortimer was a rising star of the West End stage in 1958 when The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? were premiered. Friendship, adultery, family relationships and free speech were prominent themes, and the warmth, humour and flawed humanity of his writing were always apparent. Among his film scripts, Tea With Mussolini, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was charming and civilised, just like its perennially engaging and popular author, a proud witness to the life-enhancing properties of a dedication to champagne, female company and a good lunch.”

A representative from the author's publisher Penguin said that he died early this morning at his cottage in Turville Heath, near Henley, with his second wife, Penny, and his two younger daughters Emily and Rosie at his side.

- by Theo Bosanquet


Tagged in this Story