Mr. Mortimer is known best in this country for creating the Rumpole character, an endearing and enduring relic of the British legal system who became a television hero of the courtroom comedy.
But as a barrister in Britain, Mr. Mortimer came to be known in the 1960s as a defender of free speech and human rights for taking up cases that he said were “alleged to be testing the frontiers of tolerance.” He became a Queen’s Counsel just in time to tackle some of the civil rights cases that arose in Britain in that decade, all the while writing fiction, nonfiction, drama and comedy.
And why not? Rumpole, especially as embodied by Leo McKern in the many BBC television dramatizations, is a character of almost Dickensian lovableness. He’s disheveled, grumpy, henpecked (forever in thrall to the dread Hilda, “She Who Must Be Obeyed”), an enthusiastic quaffer of plonk (his favorite tipple is Château Thames Embankment) — a disreputable mess, in short, until he cross-examines a witness or addresses a jury and turns into an adversary of surpassing slyness. His legal cleverness may owe something to Mr. Mortimer’s father, a famous divorce lawyer, who once established adultery with no more evidence than a pair of footprints upside down on the dashboard of an Austin Seven.