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Americans probably know barrister/playwright Mortimer best as the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, one of British television's most endearing recent exports. And, through much of this varied, episodic memoir, the man behind Rumpole is just as droll and companionably downbeat as fans would expect him to be. The first, best chapters focus on Mortimer's father--a probate/divorce expert whose blindness was a taboo subject around the house (cf. Mortimer's play Voyage Round My Father); like Rumpole, he muttered chunks of Shakespeare at odd moments; and he urged young John on to a law career. (""That's the great thing about the law, it gets you out of the house."") After prep school, then, it was on to Oxford--with the now-familiar, matter-of-fact British approach to shifting sexuality. But though Mortimer would all too soon become a drone at the bar (via a bread-and-butter practice of undefended divorce cases and a ""distressingly flamboyant"" courtroom style), he was constantly moonlighting--as novelist, as would-be WW II documentary-writer. And despite the need to make a sizable living (having quickly acquired wife, stepchildren, and children), he found his way to a profitable literary/show-biz career--starting with radio plays, then on to stage and screen work. Thus, he can now boast, ""with no particular vanity, of being the best playwright ever to have defended a murderer at the Central Criminal Court."" Other distinctions: observing Wole Soyinka's trial in Nigeria; becoming known as a leading free-speech defender in ""dirty-book cases""; learning about farce (as translator of Feydeau) from both Kenneth Tynan and Jacques Charon. Mortimer's more personal material in later years--his divorce from writer Penelope, the violent fate of an old chum--comes across far less well here: he seems to want to bare his soul yet remain drily reticent at the same time. But, with a genial array of anecdotes (the law cases as amusing as the movie mishaps), this is a charming, occasionally touching diversion--and though Rumpole admirers won't hear much about that series, they will learn (if they don't already know) the derivation of ""She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin