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‘He did not believe in life after death’
Published 02/02/09



MOURNERS gathered in their hundreds for the funeral of Sir John Mortimer, barrister, author and champion of freedom of expression.

Grey clouds made way for crisp, winter sunlight last Thursday afternoon for the service at The Church of St Mary the Virgin in Turville, where his parents are buried.

Sir John, 85, died at his home in Turville Heath on January 16 surrounded by his family.

The service was presided over by Rev Mieke Gaynor, who made no effort to avoid Sir John’s atheist views.

She said: “He emphatically did not believe in life after death and was quite determined to live as long as possible and make the most of it. He certainly did that. My hope is that he has had a wonderful surprise.”


Sir John’s widow Penny led the funeral procession with his daughters Emily, 37, and Rosie, 23, and Sally and Jeremy, the children from his first marriage to Penelope Fletcher, who died in 1999.

Also present was his long- lost son Ross Bentley, who was born following an affair with Wendy Craig in the sixties. Sir John was delighted to discover four years ago that he had another son.

The actress was among the famous mourners and friends, including Bob Geldof, Lord Bragg, Lord Kinnock, Jeremy Paxman, author Kathy Lette and actor Tom Hollander.

A reading of Byron’s We’ll Go No More A Roving was given by Emily and Rosie, while Ross read the lyrics to the Ira Gershwin song Shall We Dance. Jeremy read the “Hollow Crown” passage from Richard II.

Emily’s husband Alessandro Nivola and Rosie’s fiancé George Vjestica gave a stripped-down acoustic guitar performance of Silver Wings by Merle Haggard.

The service was imbued with Sir John’s humour and personality and mourners’ tears were often replaced with laughter.

Speaking after the service, Rev Gaynor said: “People couldn’t help but laugh when they thought of John. That was the sort of man he was.Sir John’s voice was played giving a reading of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey with accompanying music by Jon Lord of Deep Purple, an old friend.

Rev Gaynor said: “It was a very special moment. His voice just came through the church. It was suddenly as if he was there among us.”

In his appreciation, Sir Richard Eyre described Sir John as a champagne socialist but added: “He loved champagne more than socialism.”

At the end of the service Lord performed the theme tune from the TV series and Sir John’s most famous creation, Rumpole Of The Bailey.

As the procession followed the coffin out of the church, a clearly emotional Lady Mortimer was supported by Mr Nivola and Mr Vjestica.

The emerging crowd wiped tears from smiling faces, sharing anecdotes of a man who chose never to stop working, writing and, above all, entertaining.

Born in Hampstead and schooled at the Dragon School, Harrow, and Brasenose College, Oxford, Sir John took the Bar at the age of 25. He took silk in 1966 and made a move into criminal law.

He developed a taste for trials based on freedom of expression, taking many cases relating to charges of obscenity, including the defence of Virgin Records in 1977 for the use of the Sex Pistols’ album title Never Mind The B*****ks.

He fed his experience at the bar into the character of Rumpole, the shambolic barrister who fought for liberty. He also wrote more than 50 books, plays and scripts. One of his last legal jobs was trying to stop the closure of Turville’s Church of England School.

Although this was unsuccessful, he was instrumental in creating the Turville School holiday trust, which provides troubled children in the area with a five-week holiday.

Sir John and Lady Mortimer would often have the children at their home for a barbeque and a swim. The author was very popular with them and was often mobbed on their arrival.

Throughout his life, Sir John refused to retire into old age, starting each day with a glass of champagne before breakfast.

He was a long-time smoker and after giving up, took up the habit again in defiance of the smoking ban.

He received a CBE in 1986 and was knighted in 1998.

Following the funeral, Sir John was cremated in Oxford.

Published 02/02/09

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