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     Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers: John Mortimer’s Characters of 1986


Character Parts – John Mortimer (Viking, 1986): collected interviews published in the Sunday Times newspaper.


How quickly and harshly, sometimes, famous people become Yesterday’s Men – or Yesterday’s Women?


Exactly thirty years ago, in 1986, Viking published a collection of John Mortimer’s interviews with leading personalities of the decade. JM (subsequently Sir JM – he was knighted in 1998) was a skilled and shrewd interviewer, mixing sensitivity with sarcasm as he sought to show Sunday Times readers the real person behind the well-known name.


But how many of JM’s subjects have any significance today? Lord Scarman, anyone? Lord Shinwell? (They respectively were working class boys made good in the top corridors of the Law Society and Parliament). The Bishop of Durham and the Bishop of London? – would anyone nowadays remember who they were and what they said or did that was newsworthy? (Dr David Jenkins and Dr Graham Leonard).




Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister, ranks as the most high-status politician that JM interviewed for the Character Parts book. Mr Heath too had been a working class boy – born in Ramsgate the son of a carpenter and a maid. Shades of the Ty Hardin pop song If I Were a Carpenter … and you were a maid! - in fact, much of JM’s interview with Edward Heath covered the topic of music and musicians, but on a loftier scale: Beethoven, Horowitz, Rachmaninov and Rossini.


With the controversy and scars of the EU Referendum of 2016 fresh in our minds, let us be reminded of Edward Heath’s reply when JM asked him what he would most like to be remembered by. “Taking the UK into the Common Market, of course.”


Having earlier agreed with JM that it had come as a huge shock when he had lost the Conservative Party leadership to Margaret Thatcher in 1975, Mr Heath went on to exhibit his well-known bile and bitterness towards that lady. “After the vote, I took a week’s holiday and then I campaigned in the EEC Referendum. I spoke at more than eighty meetings up and down the country in favour of Europe. Thatcher made one speech; it was all she could bring herself to do.”


The parade of politicians in JM’s Character Parts of thirty years ago included several heavyweights and ‘nearly’ men: Lord Hailsham a.k.a. Quentin Hogg (defeated, or, as he knew, stitched up by Sir Alec Douglas-Hume in the 1963 party leadership election); Neil Kinnock (narrowly missed 10 Downing Street so became a European politician instead); Norman Tebbit (not quite a Yesterday’s Man; not yet: for even in 2016 the media still wheel him out for an occasional barbed swipe at a current controversy in Westminster).


Of course, in 1986 the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union was still three years away and was quite unthinkable. JM interviewed Sir John Cooper of the Ministry of Defence and reported his opinion that: “It’s very important that Europe has a strong NATO Alliance and a strong Warsaw Pact. That’s what leads to stability. We need to understand that if we are to avoid a (nuclear) catastrophe, Russia has to feel secure, and safe from attack. And East and West have to keep talking.”


Thirty years on, those words have returned to significance? And thirty years ago JM was reporting Ronald Reagan’s expectation that the USA “faced a deadly conspiracy of terrorists backed by Iran, North Korea, Libya, Cuba and Nicaragua.”




With all due respect to Dr Graham Leonard, the Bishop of London, if anyone in the 1980s had mentioned the name Graham in context of religion, most of the British population would likely have thought immediately of the American evangelist Billy Graham. JM attended one of Billy Graham’s rallies and reported with thinly-disguised incredulity the Bible Basher’s charismatic ability to attract 31,000 souls to the Aston Villa football club stadium and to raise around Ł15,000 “dropped into plastic buckets, with a sound like thunder.” But overall in his interview with the 65-year old “cardinal … with the suntan of a movie star or professional golfer” JM allowed sensitivity to outweigh sarcasm. He made room for several charmingly honest and almost self-deprecatory anecdotes from the son of a dairy farmer whose path to God had included several stumbles caused by doubt and weakness.


JM found it harder to rein in his cynicism when he met the spiritualist medium Doris Stokes. Reading between the lines of his interview he was irritated by her too easy and too pat answers to his gentle challenges of eccentricity or quackery. But if Ms Stokes was to be believed in 1986 the late writer George Orwell and the late guitarist Jimi Hendrix were not Yesterday’s Men, for she had recently conversed with them both.


Pop Stars


If you say the name Raquel Welch the chances are that a million males will think instantly of fur skins and the movie One Million Years BC. The world of entertainment was widely represented in JM’s Character Parts and he interviewed the voluptuous Ms Welch along with other now-faded luminaries such as Sir Geraint Evans, André Previn and Hal Prince.


Do we learn from JM’s interviews of thirty years ago that it is best bet to become a pop star if you don’t want your fame to fade? He interviewed Boy George at a time when the colourful Culture Club was all the rage in the UK pop and fashion charts; he interviewed Toyah Willcox when, “between the early David Bowie period and the Sex Pistols” she was the Queen of the King’s Road. “Her records turn over about a million pounds a year … her hair has sunk from bright orange with black roots to a kind of discreet and reddish mahogany.”


After a busy career in music and theatre Toyah nowadays enjoys rural retirement and is rarely in the public eye any more. Not so the enduring and endearing Boy George whose recent resurgence on BBC television’s The Voice has added another new string to his versatile bow. As a 1980s fashion icon he was unstoppable; he is still rampaging now: let’s give him the last word and be reminded that he too, like Toyah, first dyed his hair orange, but then …


“Punk was just coming in. People were wearing plastic bin liners and put toothbrushes in their ears. [Toyah wore a loo-chain round her neck when she went outdoors.] Then I wore polka dot dungarees, long white gloves, a white face, hats, the lot. My girlfriend Myra had a shaven head and wore fox furs. We went to junk shops, Oxfam shops, found old theatrical costumiers who were selling up. We wore tricornes … we were witches from Macbeth … bits of modern … anything outrageous!”


Jerry Dowlen

July 2016


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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