Watching John Mortimer gradually make his way onto the stage at the King's Head last Thursday I was reminded of a phrase Martin Amis uses to describe his father falling over in his memoirs: it was an act of "colossal administration". John Mortimer is 78 and to say he's no spring chicken doesn't begin to do him justice. He's like some wonderful old building--a national monument--that's on the verge of becoming a ruin. His physical infirmities were well documented in The Summer of a Dormouse, the final volume of his autobiography, but it's still a shock to see him in the flesh. This is a man that even the most callow youth would give his seat up for on the tube. Yet the septuagenarian author is performing in what is virtually a one-man show every day of the week except Mondays and twice on Saturdays and Sundays. The sheer physical courage required is mind-boggling.
Luckily, once he's taken his seat at the centre of the stage, Mortimer's Miscellany doesn't require a great deal of effort. It's essentially just John Mortimer telling stories. He's occasionally assisted in this task by two attractive actresses--they take turns to play different roles--but their main function is simply to dote on him. They smile indulgently as he embarks on one anecdote after another, polished to perfection at the bar of the Garrick, and then roar with laughter when he gets to the punch lines. These are the kind of wives that every raconteur would love to have. In reality, no doubt, Mrs Mortimer rolls her eyes and groans with boredom whenever her husband starts in on one of these stories, but the enthusiasm of the two handmaidens is infectious. The audience I saw Mortimer's Miscellany with absolutely loved it.
Some of the anecdotes are very funny, particularly those about his father. Mortimer's father, who was an eminent divorce lawyer, is the source of all his best material in one way or another. I particularly liked the one about his father's fondness for quoting a line from King John: "Rush forth and bind the boy." This was addressed to the bewildered form of John Mortimer aged five and was used as a catch-all term for describing firms of solicitors whose names he couldn't remember. "Aha!" he'd say, on being approached by some lawyer whose provenance was a little hazy. "You must be from Rush Forth and Bind the Boy."
The stories the audience liked the best were the ones about the legal profession, presumably because most of them were lawyers. John Mortimer has been on tour with this show all over the country and local solicitors turn up in droves wherever he appears. The theatre car parks are always packed with Ford Mondeos. The reason I know this is because I interviewed Mortimer for Loose Ends last Saturday and afterwards, in the BBC pub, I had a chat with his guitarist, Simon James. In addition to the two actresses, Mortimer is joined on stage by a troupe of musicians and they accompany him on tour.
The question I kept asking myself last Thursday was: Why on earth does he put himself through it? True, he does have a book out--Rumpole Rests His Case, the latest in a 10-volume series--but there must be less exhausting ways of promoting a book than this. In any case, I would have thought the Rumpole books sell themselves. It can't be for the money, either. What with all the actresses and musicians on stage, Mortimer's Miscellany can't make much of a profit. At a guess, I'd say he doesn't pay himself anything.
The answer must be because he loves performing. Everyone in the bar of the Garrick has heard these anecdotes so many times the only way he can tell them is if he rounds up a group of total strangers. I can't fault him for this. I love telling stories, too, and since my wife has banned me from telling any of them ever again--at least, not if she's within a five-mile radius--I have considerable sympathy for him. I kept thinking: What a great wheeze! Maybe I should try something like this. Of course, no one would pay to hear my anecdotes, not even my fellow journalists (particularly not them). But even if I was as famous as John Mortimer I expect my wife would stop me doing something so flagrantly self-indulgent. Mortimer's Miscellany is the ultimate fantasy of the club bore.
Having said that, though, there's something almost heroic about such a frail old gentleman going to these extraordinary lengths for the sake of wheeling out a few ancient anecdotes. Watching him up there on stage, I couldn't decide whether he was a national treasure or a shameless egomaniac. The answer is probably both.
Toby Young's account of the five years he spent in New York, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, has just been published by Little Brown.