Few British TV shows are as endearingly popular as Rumpole of the Bailey, which aired as part of PBS's Mystery series across 44 episodes produced between 1978 and 1992. The popularity of its main character, an "old Bailey hack" of a barrister, Horace Rumpole (Leo McKern), soon spread to best-selling short story collections and audio books, usually read by McKern himself. VHS tapes of the series proved popular as well, and last August the first two seasons of Rumpole of the Bailey were released to enthusiastic fans on DVD.
The very first appearance of Horace Rumpole, however, has been unavailable until now. A 65-minute drama produced in 1975 as part of the BBC's anthology program Play for Today, Rumpole of the Bailey has been released by Acorn Media with the subtitle The Lost Episode – Rumpole and the Confession of Guilt.
In this show, Rumpole (McKern) comes to the aide of a black youth accused of stabbing a white man at a bus stop, apparently at random. The case seems hopeless. The youth has signed a written confession, though its archaic use of language, "straight out of the pages of Edgar Wallace" with Artful Dodger-like flourishes, seems fishy to Rumpole's ears.
For fans of the subsequent series this stand-alone show may evoke a sense of deja vu. That's because the story has since been adapted as a book-on-tape, and also included in the short story anthology Rumpole for the Defence.
What's most impressive about this first Rumpole of the Bailey is how writer John Mortimer and star McKern hit the ground running. The show and its characters effortlessly seem to hit just the right notes, and blends seamlessly with the series that would soon follow it.
Rumpole, for those not familiar with the character, is like a distant cousin of Agatha Christie's Sir Wilfred Robarts (as played by Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution) – keenly intelligent yet unpretentious. He's a man who clearly relishes the performance aspect of his profession. But where Sir Wilfred is respected by the ruling class, Rumpole is an outsider, an anarchist even, alone in a sea of bowler-hatted, pin-striped respectability. He quotes – loudly – Wordsworth to no one in particular (is it his love of literature or simply to hear himself talk?), is rude to the stiff-necked justices when he needs to be, smokes smelly cheroots and consumes vast quantities of cheap claret.
Both Sir Wilfred and Rumpole bury themselves in their work – in Rumpole's case it's because he has little else. Wife Hilda can't understand why her husband always represents London's lowliest of lowlife, instead of taking on more respectable civil cases and campaigning for a much-coveted Q.C. (In this stand alone show, however, Hilda is surprisingly sympathetic to Rumpole.) Like the majority of shows to follow, Rumpole of the Bailey parallels Rumpole's present case with events in his own life, and like those best shows, he learns some sad truth about his own life. Where the troubled black youth had been neglected by his parents, Rumpole confidently sees himself as a loving father, only to learn just how neglected son Nick really feels. And indeed, as entertaining as Rumpole is in the courtroom, he really isn't much of a father, preferring to regale Nick with old stories rather than deal with unresolved problems in their own relationship.
It's no accident that Rumpole comes across as something of a bore. He tells the same stories over and over again, especially about his big win in the Case of the Penge Bungalow Murder ("I was alone and without a leader . . ."), and absorbs himself so deeply in his cases he only rarely sees the general unhappiness in his own life. As the series' popularity swelled, and Rumpole became more and more a caricature of himself (as old people often do), the more melancholy aspects of the stories dropped in favor of Rumpole's admittedly amusing battles with stuffy and imperious rivals like Judge "Mad Bull" Bullingham.
From this first episode, Mortimer (who based Rumpole on his own experiences as a barrister) establishes the conundrums of the British legal system, the racism of members of its police force, their fabricated confessions, and so forth. Conversely, Rumpole's client is hardly idealized, either; he's an unpleasant, unlikable youth who in one sense hardly seems worth defending. The show also does an excellent job depicting, with great authenticity, the day-to-day, mundane aspects of a barrister's life. Though this sort of thing would become standard practice for primetime dramas like Law & Order, in 1975 was almost revolutionary.
From his very first scene, McKern is never less than mesmerizing in the role with which he would be most fondly remembered. David Yelland is excellent as Rumpole's son, Nick, a role he'd reprise on the series. Rumpole's wife, Hilda, "she who must be obeyed," is played here by Joyce Heron. Though she would be replaced by Peggy Thorpe-Bates for the series, Heron gives an equally fine, slightly less abrasive portrait of Rumpole's long-suffering wife. Noel Willman (Kiss of the Vampire) is well cast as Justice Bates, the first of Rumpole's grumpy judges. ("There he is," Rumpole narrates, "giving me a look of vague disgust, like Queen Victoria with a bad period.") Rumpole of the Bailey steers clear of his chambers altogether; in so doing, popular supporting characters like Claude Erskine-Brown and Uncle Tom do not appear at all.
Video & Audio
Like many British shows of the period, Rumpole of the Bailey was shot with a combination of tape and film – 16mm for exteriors with studio interiors shot on video. The show looks about as well as one might expect. The tape sequences look as good as 1975 technology would allow, while the filmed material, ultimately transferred to tape as well for the show's master, looks grainy and dirty. Overall, it's about par with the Rumpole episodes made three years later. The mono sound is fine; no subtitles are offered.
The DVD is light on extras, but what's there isn't bad. They include a brief history of the episode; "Rumpole's World," a glossary of British legal terminology; and a better-than-average filmography for the show's main cast.
Horace Rumpole is one of television's great characters. And the irreplaceable Leo McKern embodied the part to perfection, so much so that it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Fans of the TV series and the many Rumpole books will want to seek out Rumpole and the Confession of Guilt, a drama as good as the series' best episodes.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes
The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune
. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.