Skip to main content

Mr Wylie realised I was allergic to any form of sport...

Mr Wylie realised I was allergic to any form of sport or games so he used to send me, with a bar of chocolate, to the Oxford Repertory Theatre instead

My father didn't have a very high opinion of teachers. When I was nine and sent away to board at the Dragon School, in Oxford, he informed me that for the next four or five years I would be rubbing up against second-rate minds. "At a pinch," he said, "you can take their word for equilateral triangles and the Latin word for parsley, but life is a closed book to schoolteachers."

I think that was a bit harsh. Perhaps teachers in general don't know much about life, but the Dragon was a terribly good school and I remember the masters there with gratitude because they taught me to work hard.

The school produced great academic results but was quite liberal in many ways. We were allowed to bicycle round the town, and every year put on a Shakespeare play and a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. And, we had girls there, including (the historical author) Antonia Fraser, who became captain of rugby football.

The teacher I remember best is Francis Wylie, who taught English. He was a handsome man who was very pleased to listen to himself reciting poetry and, as I was also terribly pleased to hear myself reciting poetry, we got on well. I needed no encouragement. I was a shy child, but not shy about acting. I used to act many of Shakespeare's plays for my dad, taking all the parts because I didn't have brothers or sisters.

Mr Wylie would recite in a John Gielgud voice and was, I think, a frustrated actor. He realised that I was allergic to any form of sport or games so he used to send me, with a bar of chocolate, to the Oxford Repertory Theatre, which was then near the Dragon school. Instead of playing sport, I sat in the matinees eating chocolate and enjoying Bernard Shaw plays. I think everyone was pleased I missed games. I once played cricket and every time they said "Over" I moved further away. I sat in the long grass reading Henrik Ibsen.

I was completely stagestruck and my one ambition when I was in my final year at the Dragon was to play the leading role in the school production of Richard II. It was a very democratic school and the pupils voted for who got what part. There was one boy who was very handsome, and I think he came from an acting family, so he was a dead cert for Richard II. But when we went back after the summer holidays, the voting had swung, and I was to play the lead. I left in a blaze of glory and a notice in the school magazine which said, "He threw away his life with that careless elegance which becomes a king." One of the girl pupils played the queen and was the first girl I got to cuddle.

These productions were put on by another English master whose real name I can't now remember, but whom we called Cheese. Most of the masters - with the exception of Francis Wylie - were known by a nickname. There was Tubby (Mr Haigh) whose speciality was hurling books. He had shrapnel lodged in him from fighting in the First World War, which made him slightly dodgy. He hurled books at random and if he hit you he would be sorry afterwards and give you money. I made a fair bit of pocket money.

The headmaster, Mr Hum, a sweet man with long white hair, used to summon us to supper by ringing bells. He so enjoyed ringing those bells that he went on doing it long after supper had finished. Mr Hum was always changing his mind. For example, one week he told us all we should wear boots, not shoes, and the next week (after we'd sent home for boots) he said the reason we had weak ankles was because we were wearing boots and we should all wear shoes.

I didn't like Harrow, where I went next, but I enjoyed my time at the Dragon. English was my best subject. I was also good at history, but I had a problem with maths. I never understood why people had to learn geometry and trigonometry, and never got to grips with equilateral triangles.

Barrister and author Sir John Mortimer was talking to Pamela Coleman

Portrait by Les Wilson

The story so far

1923 Born Hampstead, London

1932-39 Dragon School, Oxford; Harrow

1939 Studies law at Oxford University

1947 Publication of first novel, Charade

1948 Called to the Bar

1969 Autobiographical play, A Voyage Round My Father, broadcast by the BBC

1971 Acts as defence counsel in Oz magazine obscenity trial

1975 First Rumpole of the Bailey stories published. Adapted for TV and broadcast in BBC's Play for Today slot. Turned into series for Thames TV which runs from 1978-1992

1981 Writes script for ITV version of Brideshead Revisited

2004 Publication of biography, A Voyage Round John Mortimer, by Valerie Grove.

October 7: publication of Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (Viking, pound;16.99)

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you