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In Character by John Mortimer
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In Character

by John Mortimer

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I found this in a bargain box: it's a lovely reminder of the late John Mortimer at the height of his powers, in a series of interviews, done mostly for the Sunday Times, with the great and the good of the early 1980s. We don't necessarily learn a great deal about the subjects in an objective sense, although Mortimer does have a little checklist with "parents' occupations; education; religion; etc." that he mostly remembers to work through. What we do get is Mortimer trying to dissect his own reaction to the subject. With Lord Denning it's Mortimer the lawyer who's doing the talking; with Simenon it's Mortimer the lover of women; with Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Runcie it's Mortimer the humanist. The Mortimer technique (which evidently has something of a Rumpole cross-examination about it) seems to work best with politicians and priests: Mortimer obviously needs someone who is prepared to argue with him. Some of the actors and entertainers come across as rather dull in comparison.

Mortimer can't resist a little tease from time to time: the Denning interview is written in the style of a Denning judgement, whilst passages "in the style of" also creep into the interviews with Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth and Dick Francis, amongst others. But he's never brutal: Gielgud is teased about his famous unworldliness, but his even more famous cottaging conviction is never mentioned. Even the people with whom Mortimer really doesn't manage to establish a rapport get a serious attempt to understand what drives them (most notably policeman James Anderton and computer whizz-kid Robb Wilmot).

You probably won't get very much out of this unless you were around in the UK in the early 80s and remember who these assorted celebrities were, but given that caveat, it's certainly worth 50p of anyone's money. ( )
  thorold | May 15, 2009 |
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