With the recent death of character actor Leo McKern, there will be a resurgence of interest in video editions of his wonderful "Rumpole of the Bailey" series so dear to the hearts of Mystery Theatre watchers on PBS. In fact, HBO is reissuing all of the tapes onto DVD format and they will be available starting in in the Fall of 2002. So it was with great pleasure that I saw listed in the Audio Partners catalogue of books on tape, "Rumpole on Trial" ((61267). The set holds 6 cassettes with a running time of 8 hours and 7 minutes.
The reader is British actor Timothy West, whose voice is the next best thing to the gravel-throated chortle of McKern. Here he reads seven complete Rumpole tales: "Rumpole and the Children of Evil," "...the Eternal Triangle," "...the Miscarriage of Justice," "...the Family Pride," "...the Soothsayer," "...the Reform of Joby Jonson," and (to break the pattern) "Rumpole on Trial." All of these have been televised and all of them are a good deal of fun.
John Mortimer's custom was to create around the case Rumpole is handling a framing plot that has thematic likenesses or is antithetical to the main plot. So, for instance, all the while Rumpole is worried about being disbarred, his draconian wife, Hilda ("She Who Must Be Obeyed" as he calls her) is plotting to have him made a judge.
The army of minor characters are a joy in themselves. The pompous Head of Chambers "Soapy" Sam Ballard, the unhappily married clerk Henry, the pro-labor and pro-women barrister Liz Probert, the opera-loving snake in the grass Claude Erskine-Brown, the foot-in-his-mouth Guthrie Featherstone, and above all the (in)Justices Olliphant and Graves who love the prosecution and cannot see any humor in Rumpole's reminding them a trial should be fair.
Timothy West does all the voices, of course, but does not try to emulate the women as other readers do on (say) the Jeeves tapes. That would have been an error, since the tales are always told first-person from Rumpole's point of view.
For the most part, I think I clocked in about one good laugh per minute while listening to these tapes on long car trips; and I can highly recommend this set.