RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY

British Legal/Mystery Comedy

Rumpole of the Bailey, a mix of British courtroom comedy and drama, aired on Thames Television in 1978. The program made a successful transatlantic voyage and is popular on the American Public Broadcasting Service as part of the Mystery! anthology series.

All episodes feature the court cases of Horace Rumpole (Leo McKern), a short, round, perennially exasperating, shrewd but lovable defense barrister. His clients are often caught in contemporary social conflicts: a father accused of devil worshipping; the Gay News Ltd. sued for blasphemous libel; a forger of Victorian photographs who briefly fooled the National Portrait Gallery; a pornographic publisher. His deep commitment for justice leads him to wholeheartedly defend hopeless cases and the spirit of the law, as opposed to his fellow barristers who stubbornly defend the letter -of the law. Rumpole is given to frequent oratorical outbursts from the Oxford Book of English Verse and manages to aim the elegant passages at upper-class hypocritical trumpeters, buffoons and other barristers, and prosecution inspiring justices. He comments on the phenomenon of "judgitis [pomposity] which, like piles, is an occupational hazard on the bench." His suggested cure is "banishment to the golf course."

Rumpole is married to Hilda (played at various times by Joyce Heron, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, and Marion Mathie), to whom he refers as "She Who Must Be Obeyed." Even though Hilda--whose father was head of chambers--aspires for a more prestigious position for her husband and a bit more luxurious life-style for herself, she continues to support her husband's brand of justice rather than that sought by egotistical or social climbing royal counsels. Rumpole revels in lampooning his fellow colleagues whom he believes to be a group of twits. They include the dithery and pompous Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry), the full of himself Samuel Ballard (Peter Blythe), and the variety of dour judges who preside in court--the bumbling Justice Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles), the blustering "mad bull" Justice Bullingham (Bill Fraser), the serious and heartless Justice Graves (Robin Bailey), and the almost kindly Justice "Ollie" Oliphant (James Grout). Among Rumpole's colleagues he favors the savvy and stylish Phillida Neetrant Erskine-Brown (Patricia Hodge)--one feminist voice of the series who is married to Claude--and the endearing Uncle Tom (Richard Murdoch), an octogenarian waiting to have the good sense to retire--who, in the meantime, practices his putting in chambers.

John Mortimer, the creator of the Rumpole stories, has exclusive rights in writing the television series. Mortimer draws upon both his 36 years of experiences as Queen's Counsel and his life with his father, a blind divorce lawyer. Much like Rumpole, Mortimer adores good food, enjoys a bottle of claret before dinner, loves Dickens, and fights for liberal causes.

His series, then, in addition to the quick witted dialogue among characters, is distinguished by its social commentary. Specifically, the program is a cleverly entertaining vehicle for tweaking the legal profession and the general state of British mores and manners. In chambers and during court cases, Rumpole provides viewers with grumbling commentaries and under-the-breath critiques of pomposity and the all-too-frequent soulless application of strict legalism. Yet, even though these comments on various social issues such as gay rights, censorship, and the treatment of children in court are quite serious, Mortimer never allows the issues to get in the way of the story. Meticulous attention to detail, well-written scripts, and top-notch actors are the factors that contribute to fine television without the formula-driven action/adventure genres typically associated with drama programming.

All these aspects of the program's charm are enhanced by the superb casting of Leo McKern. Each actress and actor appears uniquely qualified for a specific role, but McKern is the very embodiment of the fictional Rumpole. Robert Goldberg, a television critic from The Wall Street Journal, compares this match with other strokes of casting genius: "every once in a while a character and an actor fit together so precisely that is becomes hard to imagine one without the other (Sean Connery and James Bond, Jeremy Brett and Sherlock Holmes)." McKern's jowls, bulbous nose, the erratic eyebrows were made to fit the eccentric, irrepressibly snide barrister who is, in Goldberg's words, as "lovable as a grumpy old panda.".

Rumpole of the Bailey is a cherished series in U.S. television. According to WGBH's senior producer Steven Ashley, Rumpole has solid ratings and continues to be regarded as one of the most popular titles in the Mystery schedule despite stiff competition from commercial networks for the Thursday night 9:00 P.M. time slot. Approximately 300 public television stations carry the Rumpole series on an ongoing basis, representing 95% of all PBS stations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, some of the shows more active fans have formed the "Rumpole Society" with over 450 members: they feature principal actors/actresses or John Mortimer as guest speakers at their annual fete, and have visited the Rumpole studios in London.

-Lynn Lovdahl

 


Rumpole of the Bailey
Photo courtesy of DLT Entertainment Ltd.

CAST

Horace Rumpole .........................................Leo Mckern
Guthrie Featherstone
.................................Peter Bowles
Erskine-Brown
............................................Julian Curry
Phyllida
..................................................Patricia Hodge
George Frobisher....................................
Moray Watson
Uncle Tom
..........................................Richard Murdoch
Hilda Rumpole
...........................................Joyce Heron
.....................................................Peggy Thorpe-Bates
...............................................................Marion Mathie
Justice Bullingham
........................................Bill Fraser
Fiona Allways
........................................Rosalyn Landor
Henry
.......................................................Jonathan Coy
Diane
.............................................Maureen Derbyshire
Marigold Featherstone.................
Joanna Van Gysegham
Nick Rumpole
..........................................David Yelland
Liz Probert
............................................Abigail McKern
Judge Graves
............................................Robin Bailey
Samuel Ballard..........................................
Peter Blythe

PRODUCERS Irene Shubik, Jacqueline Davies

PROGRAMMING HISTORY  44 Episodes

BBC1
As an installment of Play for Today      16 December 1975

Thames

April 1978-May 1978                                     6 Episodes
May 1979-June 1979                                     6 Episodes
December 1980                      Special: Rumpole's Return
October 1983-November 1983                        6 Episodes
January 1987-February 1987                          6 Episodes
November 1988-December 1988                     6 Episodes
October 1991-December 1991                        6 Episodes
October 1992-December 1992                        6 Episodes

FURTHER READING

Gussow, Mel. "The Man Who Put Rumpole on the Case." The New York Times, 13 April 1995.

Mortimer, John Clifford. The First Rumpole Omnibus. Harmondsworth, U.K.; New York: Penguin: 1983.

_______________. The Best of Rumpole (Short Stories). New York: Viking, 1993.

 

See also British Programming; McKern, Leo