The Dock Brief (play)

The Dock Brief is a play by John Mortimer. It is a two-hander play that has been adapted many times.

It was the first piece he wrote for actors although he had written several novels previously.



The play was originally devised for radio. Mortimer was a barrister and got the idea for the play from the real-life practice of the Dock Brief, where criminals could pick a barrister to defend them. Mortimer wrote "I wanted to say something about the lawyer's almost pathetic dependence on the criminal classes, without whom he would be unemployed, and I wanted to find a criminal who would be sorrier for his luckless advocate than he was for himself."[1]

Mortimer enjoyed writing the play for actors "at a new level of reality, one that was two feet above the ground."[2] Mortimer said he had no trouble writing for the barrister but struggled writing the criminal until the director Nesta Pain said the criminal was the sort of person who would "never use one word when six could do".[3]

The play was first performed as a radio play on the BBC on 16 May 1957 for the Third Programme. Michael Hordern played Morganhall and David Kossoff played Fowle.[4]

The play was well received. Mortimer says the BBC awarded him a bonus of £20.[5]

1957 BBC television versionEdit

Following on from the success of the radio adaptation, the BBC produced a version for television. It aired in September 1957 and again featured Hordern as Morganhall.[6][7]

The Manchester Guardian called it "a masterpiece".[8]

1958 Stage playEdit

A stage play version was performed in 1958 on a double bill with another Mortimer play, What Shall We Tell Caroline?.[9] The play was popular; it did not have a long run but it launched Mortimer as a playwright and led to offers to write screenplays.[10]

It was performed on Broadway in 1961.[11]

Later adaptationsEdit

1960 Australian TV versionEdit

The play was adapted for Australian TV in 1960.

1962 feature filmEdit

The play was turned into a feature film in 1962 starring Peter Sellars.


  1. ^ Mortimer p 168
  2. ^ Mortimer p 168
  3. ^ Mortimer p 169
  4. ^ "BBC Programme Index".
  5. ^ Mortimer p 169-170
  6. ^ "Dock Brief – If Men Played Cards as Women Do Notes". The Actors Company Theater. Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  7. ^ BROADCASTING PROGRAMMES: RADIO EIREANN The Irish Times 16 May 1957: 8.
  8. ^ CRIME N AND THE LAW: TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN Moving theme of a masterly play: Moving theme of a masterly play B.B.C. Television. By Bernard Levin. The Manchester Guardian 21 Sep 1957: 3.
  9. ^ The Working Hypothesis Tynan, Kenneth. The Observer 13 Apr 1958: 15.
  10. ^ Mortimer p 172
  11. ^ 'What Shall We Tell Caroline?' and 'The Dock Brief' Arrive Funke, Lewis. New York Times 22 Nov 1961: 24.


  • Mortimer, John. Clinging to the Wreckage. Penguin.