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Old Bailey Hack
on 26 April 2006
'Rumpole of the Bailey' is one of my favourite book series, and is also one of my favourite television series of all time. Spanning well over a decade, Thames television produced over 40 episodes of the crusty old barrister's tales, penned both for book and screen by John Mortimer, who used to take delight in highlighting silliness in judicial judgements by putting those decisions into the guise of his own judges, perhaps most especially judge Bullingham.
Leo McKern, a well-known British character actor perhaps most famous internationally for 'A Man for All Seasons' and 'Shoes of the Fisherman', found this great role late in life, and became the quintessential image for Rumpole. He performed the role through all the episodes (presented in the UK originally starting in 1978, and continuing with a few gaps through 1992, and presented in the USA via the PBS Mystery series approximately the same time), joined by two different actresses portraying Hilda Rumpole (Peggy Thorpe-Bates and Marion Mathie), affectionately referred to as 'She Who Must Be Obeyed'. Rumpole's mannerisms and penchant for the less genteel things in life are done by McKern in a perfect contrast to the others in Chambers, be they Guthrie Featherstone (played by Peter Bowles as an upper-middle, Conservative-Labour MP QC) or 'Soapy Sam' Ballard (Peter Blythe), Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry) or Phyllida Erskine-Brown ne Trant (Patricia Hodge).
There are set pieces about these episodes, but they are far from formulaic. Unlike some American counterparts with which one might hazard a comparison, Rumpole does not always win the case, although he almost always solves the mystery. Rarely do cases turn on points of law (indeed, Phyllida Erskine-Brown, the 'Portia' of Chambers once remarked that Rumpole knew nothing of law, but did know how to win over a jury), but the cases usually involve issues of eccentricity, both among those in the legal profession as well as among those who have need of the legal profession. Most shows involve several subplots, and the line between victory and defeat is often blurry. However, there will always be an England, at least in certain ways: As Rumpole said once during a defence, the English nation when it is long gone will be remembered for three things -- the English breakfast, the Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch Edition), and the presumption of innocence - this is Rumpole's mantra, and his statement of faith.
Rumpole is always for the defense - even in the later story of 'Rumpole for the Prosecution', in which Rumpole is hired to conduct a private prosecution, he manages to provide through his searching for the truth the best defence for the defendant. Rumpole, it seems, will never be anything but the champion for the defence.
This set includes the episodes from each series as well as the two-hour telefilm, 'Rumpole's Return', a re-introduction to Rumpole after the early run of shows which ended with Rumpole nearing retirement. The disc with 'Rumpole's Return' includes several other bonus features, including a brief biography of John Mortimer, a brief history of the Old Bailey, and a list of executioners of the Old Bailey neighbouring Newgate Prison, the last of whom performed his final duty in 1902.
This is a great set piece that fans of mystery, fans of legal drama (with more than a small hint of wit and, occasionally, the ridiculous) and fans of British television generally will find a joy to view. Sit back with your favourite glass of red wine (Chateau Fleet Street comes highly recommended) and wander into a London which is a blend of the thoroughly modern and practically medieval.