Actors, politicians and royalty pay respects to Sir John Mortimer
Celebration of Rumpole creator’s life at Southwark Cathedral one year after lawyer and playwright’s death
Memorial Service for Sir John Mortimer
Detail from the order of service at the memorial service for Sir John Mortimer at Southwark Cathedral.
For a man who did not believe in God, only a cathedral was big enough to accommodate Sir John Mortimer’s many friends and admirers for a memorial service today.
Actually, the event at Southwark Cathedral in London was billed as a celebration of the life of the lawyer, author, playwright, entertainer and wit, who died last January at the age of 85, and that turned out to be more appropriate than a service. The thing about the Church of England is that you don’t have to be religious to get your day in church.
It made for a good house as the performer in him would undoubtedly have acknowledged and, if God was not entirely absent from the proceedings, the biblical readings, prayers, psalms and hymns were outnumbered by readings from the canon of Mortimer himself, declaimed in the most actorly of ways by the likes of Edward Fox, Derek Jacobi and Patricia Hodge. Topping up the bill were Joss Ackland, with a concessionary reading from Ecclesiastes and Jeremy Irons reciting the Thomas Hardy poem Afterwards.
Mortimer was well-known for his defences of artistic free speech as a barrister in court, admired as the playwright of semi-autobiographical works such as A Voyage Round My Father, even more famous as the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey on television and then in novels and latterly celebrated as a raconteur in an indefatigable one-man show – albeit one in which he was invariably accompanied by glamorous women actors. He would have loved the show in the cathedral.
Among the audience – a more appropriate term than congregation – were Mortimer’s widow Penny and children, including daughters Emily and Rosie, both of whom are expecting babies around the anniversary of his death in the new year, the Duchess of Cornwall, and such figures as Tom Stoppard and Peter Hall, Melvyn Bragg, Anna Ford and Peter O’Toole. The former Tory leader Michael Howard came to pay his respects to the old socialist and fellow barrister and there was even a retired bishop, Lord Harries, formerly of the Oxford diocese, in the pews. Lord Kinnock, another old friend and holiday companion, gave the address and Lord Mandelson materialised beside the royal party.
As the service started, wintry sunlight flooded the cathedral, which soon echoed also with music evocative of Mortimer’s lifelong south Oxfordshire home, around the village of Turville Heath. As for the cathedral itself, even that was appropriate, Canon Andrew Nunn said, as it sits just south of the Thames, out of the grasp of the censorious authorities of the City of London and hence surrounded historically by theatres and pleasure grounds, the louche haunt of lawyers and writers out on a spree and the whores who serviced them, known as Winchester geese after the bishop whose writ once ran across the area.
“Please make sure your mobile telephones are turned off and please save any applause for the end of the service,” Nunn added as the performance began. As if to get his retaliation in first he added: “Jesus had more to say about lawyers than any other group in society. He could not stand them, though he may have had a bit more time for Sir John Mortimer.”
Kinnock told the audience that Mortimer had always been a devout unbeliever: “He was in his own words an atheist certainly, but an atheist for Jesus – he liked to say a character without contradictions is like an egg without salt.”
He praised him as a valorous champion for liberty, an opponent of bigotry and a “splendid fulminator”, a friend and admirer of women even though in his own words he had a face like a bag of spanners, and a doting father, including of the son, Ross, who he discovered in his 80s he had conceived 40 years earlier with the actor Wendy Craig.
“He was a day-star of his age,” said Kinnock. “He illuminated our lives, he lit up our times. Rejoice in him and be thankful. The defence rests but his soul goes strolling on.”
Afterwards, the cathedral rang with applause as the service ended, before the more favoured of them filed out to a marquee and to what Mortimer himself described as the unwavering attraction of cold champagne.
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
‘To him this must have been a familiar sight.’
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’
If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’?
And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
‘He hears it not now, but used to notice such things’?