Changing of the Guard
Although it continues on radio and in books, this six-disk box set marks the end of the TV career of the much-loved Horace Rumpole. Portrayed over 17 years by that fine actor Leo McKern, Rumpole was little less than God’s Own Barrister, and when the seven series run was finally canceled, it felt like the end of an era. Not just because we would never see the increasingly rumpled Rumpole again, but also because it seemed as if British TV had moved on from the comfortable yet subversively intelligent middle-aged, middle-class humor he (and the likes of Yes, Minister) represented, towards the supposedly hipper and younger brand typified by This Life and Coupling.
Rumpole’s creator, John Mortimer, once described him as a “freelance freedom fighter”, but in his novelisation of the first episode of the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series, he allowed Rumpole to introduce himself as follows:
I, Horace Rumpole, barrister at law, 68 next birthday, Old Bailey Hack, husband to Mrs. Hilda Rumpole (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed); I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes and memorable fragments of the Oxford Book Of English Verse (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s edition) together with a dependable knowledge of bloodstains, blood groups, finger prints, and forgery by typewriter; I, who am now the oldest member of my Chambers, take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business (there’s not much crime about, all the best villains seem to be off on holiday on the Costa Brava)... hoping thereby to turn a bob or two that won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman… and perhaps give some sort of entertainment to those who, like myself, have found in British justice a life-long subject of harmless fun.
There you have him. A Dickens-Wodehouse cross, Horace Rumpole was not made for these times. And these times are all the poorer for that.
In Rumpole’s world, men are perennially silly, weak, and vain, while women are strong, smart, focused, and frequently daunting. Familiar running jokes are repeated regularly and welcomed like old friends. Life exists on three parallel planes: the current case, events in Chambers, and married life. Three realities perpetually linked by theme. For example, in the opening episode of this DVD set (“Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation”) when Rumpole is defending a newspaper editor against a libel action, his particularly ineffectual colleague Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry) has also been falsely accused in the same newspaper of spending his afternoons in Soho strip clubs. Consequently, much to Rumpole’s chagrin, Claude is lodging with the Rumpoles until someone can establish his innocence to the satisfaction of Mrs Erskine-Brown. Of course, it’s Rumpole who pulls Claude’s bacon out of the fire, obtaining a front page apology as his price for contriving a typically neat resolution to his case.
In Rumpole’s world, symmetry, morality, ethics and a certain wry humor are all. Stripping away all the fripperies of plot, law and whodunwhat, Rumpole’s world is all about friendship and a good-natured acceptance of human shortcomings.
Some might say that Rumpole overstayed his welcome, that Mortimer’s plots became formulaic and obvious over the years. But that’s an argument that completely misses the point. The Rumpole plots had always been as obvious and inevitable as an episode of Columbo. They were primarily an outlet for Mortimer’s humor, morality, and social viewpoint. In “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation”, for example, Mortimer expresses some of his feelings about the British press. In subsequent episodes, he also gets to vent on subjects such as the City (“Rumpole and the Barrow Boy,” which features a very early appearance by Elizabeth Hurley), and the Church (“Rumpole and the Age of Miracles”).
The most interesting chapter from this volume of the Rumpole canon is “Rumpole For The Prosecution”. Rumpole has many rules of life—never go shopping with She Who Must Be Obeyed and never trust a vegetarian are just the first to leap to mind. But Rumpole’s legal practice is defined by two sacred principles: never plead guilty, and never prosecute. In “Rumpole for the Prosecution”, our unlikely hero is persuaded by flattery to bring a private prosecution for murder. However, during the trial, he first uncovers a conspiracy against the accused and then contrives to expose the holes in his own case in order to prevent an imminent miscarriage of justice. Atypically typical Rumpole.
In the final episode, “Rumpole On Trial”, a deeply jaded Rumpole is himself accused, falsely, of a serious breach in the rules of legal procedure and, more fairly, of unusually virulent judge abuse, and threatened with disbarment. Having barely scraped into his profession in the first place with “a dubious third in Law”, Rumpole has always had a clear distaste for the law, other lawyers and—most especially—judges. Nonetheless, he has only ever seemed entirely happy in the courts. Now, however, he appears so utterly disenchanted with his calling that he refuses to defend himself or apologize until, at the very last minute, he allows himself to be persuaded that anything would be better than a life spent carrying the groceries home for She Who Must Be Obeyed.
Consequently, the episode and series ends with a Chambers party that brings back all the leading cast members from the past 17 years. Rumpole cannot let this occasion pass without ruffling a few feathers by proposing a lengthy toast to the Timson clan, an industrious family of South London villains who had provided Rumpole with a regular source of income over the years. Rumpole’s point was that the legal professions live off the proceeds of crime and they should stop being so very precious about it.
Rumpole’s final hurrah was hardly the newest or most revolutionary of ideas, but it was nicely done and therefore wholly representative of both the series and this box set. Comfortable and charming, Rumpole of the Bailey remains an eternal pleasure. Pour yourself a nice cheap red wine, sit back and savour the bouquet of Mortimer’s fine scripts and the outstanding comic caricature performances from his cast.