A Voyage Round My Father is John Mortimer’s autobiographical play turned made-for-television movie in which nothing—and everything—happens. The story itself bounced back and forth—first as a radio play, then a stage play, a TV movie (this production, 1982), and a stage revival.
It is the tale of a family—father, mother, son—that begins when the son is a young boy. The father (Clifford Mortimer, portrayed by Laurence Olivier) is a contrary person, often disagreeable, cantankerous, and stubborn. In fact, he is so stubborn that when he is blinded, he will not acknowledge it, and the family never refers to his blindness. The son, John, is sent off to a school run by a peculiar headmaster (Michael Aldridge), but take heart, there are no negative consequences or traumatizing events.
Clifford Mortimer is a barrister, and blindness does not end his career. His wife assists him, going to trials, taking notes, and writing letters. His practice is divorce law, and in letters to his son he includes salacious details of his cases. The son grows up, thinks about writing, works as an assistant director, becomes a lawyer, marries a divorcée with children, becomes a playwright, and it appears they all live together in the family home (A Voyage Round My Father was filmed at the Mortimer family’s estate in Oxfordshire, an English country house surrounded by gardens).
Alan Bates appears as John Mortimer, and the casting is awry. Bates was a bit long in the tooth in 1982, especially for scenes in which John Mortimer is a young adult (Bates was 48). Having a middle-aged man act the part of a young man is distracting and confusing. Also unsettling were scenes that follow previous scenes by many years, but we have no clue how many. It’s obvious when a scene shows John as a young boy, and he’s Alan Bates in the next scene. Since this is a period piece, it would be good to know what period we’re in at any given time. This is actually relevant to the son only; we’re watching and thinking, “Is he a 50-year-old man who’s just become a law clerk and is thinking about getting married? Or is he a 50-ish man playing a fellow in his early 20s?” In one scene, a couple has two children. In the next there are more, hinting (by the age of the children) that years have passed, but how many?