Mortified 

19 January 2009 tbs.pm/1005

“Here comes counsel for the picaninny.”

You wouldn’t get away with such language today. Not even a public servant – and even the most obnoxious guard of the cells below the esteemed courts of the Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, counts as a public servant – could use racist language today without sanction.

I wonder what John Mortimer would have thought of that. BBC Four this evening showed a series of programmes dedicated to the late author and barrister, kicking off with the original Play for Today that introduced Rumpole of the Bailey to television audiences. Mr Mortimer’s most famous creation is instantly recognizable to all those who grew up with Rumpole on ITV, thanks to Thames Television, which developed the pilot into a full-fledged series that ran for well over a decade.

After Rumpole came a portrait of the man, a programme recorded last year and employing modern production values, meaning it fell well short of its potential, especially to a BBC Four audience. It was long on froth and short on substance, ignoring the chronology of Mr Mortimer’s life and instead organizing the programme around different themes. It was basically a rag-bag of comments from the same dozen or so people, spliced together in a way that would not challenge anyone with short attention spans. Anyone who has seen modern talking-heads-type documentaries will know the score.

It was nonetheless interesting and revealing, perhaps unintentionally. It featured excerpts from a televised debate on pornography at Cambridge University, which pitted Mr Mortimer against Mary Whitehouse and Michael Howard, a future Home Secretary. Mr Mortimer was shown using his undoubted skill with words and his ability to argue a brief to attack the notion that anybody was at risk from exposure to pornography. A woman interviewed last year for the programme disparaged Mr Mortimer’s apparent views on the subject, pointing out that some people can be affected by indecent images. Laissez-faire in society can be just as harmful as some people argue – an argument that recent events would suggest has some validity – it is in finance and economics.

Mr Mortimer said that causing offence is good: it helps push back the boundaries. You should cause offence quite frequently. He certainly put his money where his mouth was: he courageously took up the cudgels on behalf of the publishers of Oz magazine, a cause célèbre that tested the new liberties that followed the snapping of the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil, and, if I recall correctly, smoothed the way for a notorious record cover: Never mind the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols. It is perhaps a tenuous link, but you could probably draw a line between Mr Mortimer’s activities and the Ross/Brand affair. I am not sure if his opinion of that sad episode in the BBC’s history is on record, nor of the Race Relations Act and other laws that effectively outlawed causing offence on racial grounds. With apologies to Voltaire, I will defend your right to say things of which I passionately disapprove, but I bloody well wish you would not exercise that right so liberally.

In a sense, Rumpole alluded to the almost amoral nature of a defending counsel. His job is to argue a brief. The facts are irrelevant; if his client instructs him a certain way, that is his brief. Mr Mortimer said that the likes of Rumpole help maintain the liberties of the citizen and of the defendant. The defence counsel is not employed by and answerable to the state; he helps maintain the right of jury trial and the rights that the press and the establishment like, peu à peu, to chip away at. Carved in a prominent place in the masonry of the Old Bailey is the sentence: Defend the children of the poor, and punish the wrongdoer.

Overall, the documentary left me scratching my head. To an extent, Mr Mortimer reminds me a bit of Harold Pinter: a brilliant writer, but in some respects a bit of an odd-ball.