Reviews

Rumpole of the Bailey - Set 3, Series 5-7

Roger Holland

Rumpole plots were primarily an outlet for Mortimer's humor, morality, and social viewpoint.


Rumpole of the Bailey - Set 3, Series 5-7

Cast: Leo McKern, Julian Curry, Peter Blythe, Marion Mathie, Abigail McKern
MPAA rating: Not rated
Network: A&E; Home Video
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-07-26
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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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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