"Champagne for everyone!"

The effervescent wit and politics of John Mortimer


Scott Rosenberg
April 7, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

Horace Rumpole: the very name of John Mortimer's popular creation conjures wrinkled clothing and the hearty consumption of alcohol. A wigged barrister with a passion for cheap wine ("Chateau Thames Embankment") and a dedication to the criminal defense, Rumpole has achieved the greatest popularity in his television incarnation, solving droll mysteries with barely a twitch of his stiff upper lip. But his purest embodiment is in the collections of tales Mortimer has been regularly producing for many years. The tenth and newest is "Rumpole and the Angel of Death."

Mortimer, a barrister himself for most of his life, has written television plays (like "Brideshead Revisited"), novels (like "Paradise Postponed") and screenplays. In the drama "A Voyage Round My Father" and again in "Clinging to the Wreckage," a sharply entertaining autobiography, he painted complex portraits of his stern barrister father. The fictional Rumpole, it's clear, draws on real-life traits of both father and son.

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Now in his 70s, Mortimer could no doubt retire with honor from writing as he has from legal practice. But he remains a dedicated early-morning writer, applying pen to paper from 5 a.m. most days, even when he is on a speaking tour -- as when we talked to him recently in San Francisco. By midday, though, the diligence typically gives way to drinking, Mortimer volunteers with a smile.

Rumpole has been around since 1975. How has he changed over the years?

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I don't think he's changed at all. He's like Sherlock Holmes -- he doesn't seem to age. He stays the same. But then I'm not a great believer that people change. People who write Hollywood scripts always think that characters have to learn things and change and develop. I think nobody learns anything. I think they make the same mistakes throughout their lives till they drop dead.

But the kinds of issues Rumpole confronts in his cases keep changing.

That really keeps it alive for me. The best way for me to comment about the world is by doing a Rumpole story -- like for instance, children being put in the care of people who are believed to be devil-worshippers, which happened in England and I think happened in America. That was in the last book. In this one there's one about euthanasia, and there's fox-hunting -- which is what the English are most interested in, apart from mad cows.

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In one new story, you wrote from the point of view of Rumpole's wife, Hilda, "She Who Must Be Obeyed."

What gave me the idea is, I found a Jeeves story where the story is told by Jeeves instead of Bertie Wooster. Not a terribly good one, but it's a rather interesting idea. And we can get Hilda's view of Rumpole, which is more or less disillusioned. I like that she solves the mystery much quicker than he does, really.

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She also shows us that he gets a little bit jealous, which you don't imagine he'd tell us himself.

He certainly wouldn't. The thing about Rumpole and Hilda is that they give each other absolute hell, but I don't think they could live without each other. I think they depend on each other and I think they really love each other, in a peculiar way. I always found in divorce cases that people will go through awful times rather than be alone. At least it's eventful!

When you first created Rumpole, did you have any idea he would have this kind of longevity and appeal?

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Absolutely not. I was asked to write a play for the BBC, and I thought of this character. It was a one-act play, "Rumpole and the Younger Generation." And then Leo McKern thought it would be a good idea to go on with the character, but the BBC was a bit slow about it, so we went off to Thames Television. Then I heard that it was being shown in Boston, and I thought that just meant the people in Boston would see it, but it turned out that was the whole PBS.

I think that there are more loyal Rumpole fans in America than there are in England. America's much bigger, of course, and there are many more lawyers -- practically every third person's a lawyer. I've had constant offers to Americanize Rumpole -- to do what they did to "Till Death Us Do Part," which became Archie Bunker. Though they've offered me large sums of money, I've always thought it's ridiculous.

What with the torrent of Rumpole stories, the Titmuss novels and your journalism, you've been incredibly prolific over the last decade.

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I stopped being a barrister about 12 years ago, and I haven't had anything else to do. So I have written quite a lot. I just have to do something to keep myself from dying of boredom.

I remember the line from "Clinging to the Wreckage" where your father says you should become a lawyer "because it gets you out of the house."

Yes, he said writers' wives have such horrible lives because the writer is always hanging around the house, stumped for words, in a bad mood, making tea and not getting drunk. That is true. But I do a lot of things that get me out of the house. I perform quite a lot -- I do a sort of one-man show, and that makes up for not talking to juries. And if I do badly, no one gets sent to prison for 14 years, so that's a relief. But it's true, you can get terribly isolated, writing -- it's very cold. Your circulation stops.

A lot of your legal practice was devoted to freedom of speech and censorship cases.

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It was, for a while. They don't have any of those cases any more -- nothing gets prosecuted now. When Mrs. Thatcher came into power, you'd think she would have censored everything, but not at all. They've really given up. I suppose in America, everything goes, right?

Well, censorship has made a comeback recently on the Internet.

But that can come from all over the world, so you can't really stop it, can you? And now in America you are getting this thing (the V-chip) that keeps the children from watching violent scenes on television, right? That will make them so much more interested in the violent scenes than if they saw them. They will imagine that they are missing such wonderful things.

When you forbid something --

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It becomes much more entertaining, doesn't it?

In Britain, it's just laziness, really. There's an enormous amount of not prosecuting going on in England. They just can't afford it. I don't know if it's the same in America, but in England people are prosecuted only for about seven percent of crimes that are committed. And some of those, if they think they're going to lose the case, they just don't bother. So you can do the most horrible things to those people who actually get convicted, but as hardly anyone gets convicted, it doesn't matter what you do to them. And all this being tough on crime is a sham.

The Titmuss novels -- "Paradise Postponed" and "Titmuss Regained" -- focused a lot on the Thatcher years. What kind of era is Britain in now?

It's rather the same as in America, I think. The Left gets drawn to the Right because it wants to win an election, doesn't it? And there's really hardly any difference between a sort of reasonable conservative and a new Labor person. And they try and take slogans from the Right, like being tough on crime. So you get into a sort of Clinton world, don't you, like that. There are right-wing conservatives, but they're very ineffective. The main conservatives, they'll just say anything to win the election.

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Here's the most cheerful thing I heard recently: I was saying that the Labor party will probably win the election, but do you think it'll be any different? And someone else said, it will only be an inch of difference, but that inch will make a terrific difference! A real inch.

When people talk about your political views, the phrase "Champagne socialism" always seems to pop up. And your response to that is --

Champagne for everyone!

Why do you think there's this notion that conservatives have fun, while socialists are ascetics?

It's quite a good conservative ploy. I mean, the idea is that you can't have left-wing ideas and have any fun at all, can you? You've got to be a vegetarian, and wear an anorak, and eat muesli. I think that the basic conservative thought behind it is that they don't want anyone to speak up for the poor except the poor. The idea that people with education, vocal people will speak up for poor and abandoned sections of society is very abhorrent to them. So therefore a very good attack is to say, well, you're so well off, you should just shut up and be a conservative. You were making so much money under Mrs. Thatcher, how can you not love her? I think it's a sort of defense mechanism.

Really, all revolutions have been caused by middle-class people. They're not caused by workers, who are rather conservative. Social progress is usually achieved by middle-class people who do drink a bit of champagne -- and go on the rampage.

In the U.S. politicians across the spectrum want to be associated with "family values."

Every family story from Greek drama to Hamlet to Cinderella is the story of the miseries which people inflict on each other in family life. Families are the scene of most murders, really. I've seen torture in family life. And if you make divorce difficult, it doesn't mean you force people to stay together -- they just leave each other and don't get a divorce. "Family values" is a sinister thing, really; all dictators, like Franco and Hitler, always talked about family values. Because it's the paternalistic state saying, you must do what you're told.

And bring up young soldiers.

Exactly.

Yet in Rumpole's case you have a character who most American readers would understand as someone who does, maybe a little grumpily, have "values."

Oh, absolutely, he does. And I have quite conservative feelings about lots of things, too. But it's a great mistake for politicians to talk about this, I think. Major did that. The conservatives suddenly started a great campaign about family values. And from then on, once a week, some conservative MP was found in bed with his secretary, or with three in a bed, or there was one man who was found sleeping with a male doctor on holiday -- he said he was saving money, they only had to hire one room, there was a big row about that. Every week another minister had to resign for having an illegitimate child. And then they shut up about family values. Politicians are absolutely never the right people to talk about family values.

I can't let you go without asking about the mad-cow disease situation. It's all we're hearing about from England.

That's another great big error on the part of the government. Three years go they said there's absolutely no possibility that there's any danger of the mad cow getting into human beings. And three years ago the farm minister actually fed his little girl, on television, a beef burger. Now every time he pops up, all the newspaper men are running after him with a hamburger, saying, "Eat this!" So now of course nobody believes a word the government says about this matter.

Is it going to be a case for Rumpole?

He just might do the mad cows, yes.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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