Witty crime writer John Mortimer is coming to the artsdepot to entertain with anecdotes, readings, jokes and music. ALEX KASRIEL catches up with the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey

It would take most people a lifetime to write a book. But Rumpole of the Bailey creator John Mortimer has fitted in eight around his not undemanding career as a barrister.

"I used to get up at four in the morning and write," he explains, half-proud, half-casual. "I wrote my first novel before I became a barrister, at 24. Then I became a QC. That gives you more time. You're only called in to do big cases.

"I used to go into Hollywood to meet a director and come back to London to meet a judge. Most of the Rumpole TV programmes were aired when I was still a barrister. I would breakfast with a murderer, lunch with a judge and have dinner with an actor. But I always thought of myself as a writer who did barristry, not a barrister who wrote."

Naturally, it was Mortimer's experience as a barrister which gave him the material to write his celebrated Rumpole of the Bailey stories, aired on ITV between 1972 and 1992.

"It was assumed that I would be a barrister because my father a barrister went blind in the middle of his career and somebody sent letters saying, I have got to get John out of school as quickly as possible so he could take over the chambers.' "As a matter of fact, I am very grateful for it. I thought that if you were a writer you have to do another job. I thought you probably had to become a school teacher, which is boring. Barristry is one of the best things you can do. You see everybody at critical points in in their lives. You find out how people behave after they have done murders.

"I never wrote my own cases into the Rumpole stories. If I hadn't been a barrister, I wouldn't know about life in chambers.

"The point of Rumpole stories is to make something about our legal profession. I did end up being a barrister probably a bit longer than I needed to, but I got rather interested in it. The thing about it is it's very exciting, but you're never saying what you think. You're always saying what you have to say. Whereas if you're writing, it's better."

Horace Rumpole's personality a wine drinking liberalist is, obviously, based on Mortimer, who himself has outspoken views on law and politics. At the time of writing, Home Secretary David Blunkett had just publicised his intention to restrict trials by jury.

"Blunkett makes me vomit," he says unapologetically. "Trial without jury that is tin pot dictatorship of a majority. You're entitled to a trial by jury, a right struggled for throughout the ages. You shouldn't be sent to prison by experts, but by people. It's all a victory for terrorists.

"They think that is the way of winning the general election but it underestimates the intelligence of the British population. They're absolutely wrong. It is the role of the proscecutor to explain what somebody is guilty of. I have never known a verdict that didn't have any rational basis. I may not have liked it, but I understood why it was made."

At 81, he no longer practises law, but writing has no age restriction. He says he now writes every day from his home in the Chilterns. His latest novel is Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, which came out in October.

"It tells the story of his first case, which launched his career and which he is always referring to. It's like Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumantra.

"He's writing his memoirs and he's remembering the Fifties when he got trapped into marriage by She who must be Obeyed' Hilda, his wife."

Of course, not all of Mortimer's stories are about crime. Other novels include Summer's Lease, Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained; all of which have been adapted for television.

His film scripts include Franco Zeffirelli's Tea with Mussolini and an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

During the war he worked with the Crown Film Unit and published a number of novels before turning to the theatre world, which is where his Rumpole stories were born.

He met actress Wendy Craig when she was appearing in one of his first plays, The Wrong Side of the Park, at the Cambridge Theatre in London. He had an affair with her while married to his first wife, the writer Penelope Fletcher. Craig was also married at the time. Ironically, they were in a play about a marriage in crisis. It was only last September that Mortimer learned that he had a son by Craig.

"I was just amazed that everybody was so interested in it. Forget about war in Iraq and starvation," he says. It is hard to believe he does not see the news value in a famous author and his love child.

"Now we get on very well. He's met all his half brothers and sisters who are all very welcoming to him. It's been great," said Mortimer.

Mortimer met his second wife, Penelope Gollop (who already had four children), at a New Year's Eve party at a model agency and they are still happily married. Mortimer will be reading poetry at the artsdepot, in Nether Street, North Finchley, tonight. He will be joined by two actresses and two musicians. "It's all the things I like and there's a lot of jokes," he says.

Tickets to see Mortimer's Miscellany: Life, Love and the Law are priced at £15 and £12.

Call the box office on 020 8369 5454.