This delightful show is not easy to describe. It was broadcast in America on PBS as part of its Mystery line-up, though Rumpole of the Bailey rarely did shows that fit the conventions of that genre. The show partly is a comedy satirizing the pretentiousness, politicization, and occasional ineptitude of the British legal system and its practitioners. And yet it similarly takes a harsh and often seriously bleak view of the consequences of these same failings.
At the center of it all is barrister Horace Rumpole, played to perfection by Leo McKern. Rumpole is the bane of his fellow barristers at No. 3 Equity Court, the chambers (law offices) presided over by sanctimonious and image-conscious Sam Ballard (Peter Blythe) and whose ranks include Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry), a twit always on the prowl for beautiful women to obsess over; Uncle Tom (Richard Murdoch), a genial but doddering old man forever practicing his putting in the clerk's room; and Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles), the former head of chambers who early in the series leaves to become a singularly wishy-washy judge, unhappily upwardly mobile thanks to his shrewish wife, Marigold (Joanna Van Gyseghem).
Where Rumpole's fellow barristers fret over annual Q.C. (Queen's Counsel) lists, judgeship appointments, and attracting big-money cases, Rumpole happily spends his days defending - never prosecuting - small-time criminals on legal aide, accused sex offenders and alleged murderers, much to his chamber-mates' consternation and embarrassment.
Rumpole prefers his work to life at home with wife Hilda (Peggy Thorpe-Bates during seasons 1-3, Marion Mathie thereafter), whom Rumpole, with his penchant for literary quotations and allusions, long ago nicknamed "She Who Must Be Obeyed" (after H. Rider Haggard's She). Like Marigold, Hilda once had great plans for her husband, but his stubborn lack of ambition and slovenly manner is the source of endless frustration and disappointment.
Rumpole of the Bailey is the creation of John Mortimer (A Voyage Round My Father), the son of a barrister and himself a trial attorney for three decades. His witty scripts bring enormous authenticity to the courtroom scenes, as well as the politicking behind closed doors. The high point of most Rumpole episodes are its courtroom scenes and Rumpole's cross-examination of various witnesses, partly because these tend to involve hostile, pro-prosecution judges, and Rumpole's sparring with these colorful characters, particularly Judges Roger "The Mad Bull" Bullingham (Bill Fraser), Gerald Graves (Robin Bailey) and, from the North Country, Oliver "Ollie" Oliphant (James Grout), is often hilarious.
Although the series is mostly light entertainment, Mortimer (who penned each and every script) clearly enjoys criticizing a British legal system that favors the rich and privileged and is quick to condemn the poor and their families on highly questionable evidence (often finagled by corrupt police). Even more intriguingly, it explores the moral dilemmas Rumpole faces as he defends the occasionally reprehensible client, and the strict ethical code he unshakably adheres to.
Watching the entire series in broadcast order offers another benefit, the evolution of various supporting characters. Though only 42 episodes were produced (about two seasons worth by present American television standards), the 14 years in which they cover offer striking character arcs of various supporting players, especially Phyllida Trant (Patricia Hodge), who evolves from Rumpole's naive pupil to learned Q.C. (and unhappy wife to Claude) to High Court Justice. (The first season actually follows Rumpole's back story a bit, on cases dating back to the 1960s.)
The entire cast is excellent, especially Leo McKern (1920-2002), who was so magnificent as Rumpole that it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else ever filling the late actor's shoes. It's one of those marriages of actor to role that fit so perfectly that the viewing public came to regard McKern and Rumpole as one and the same. Already one of Britain's finest character actors ever when the series began, he reportedly grew weary of the part in its last seasons, but still managed fine work in films and television dramas concurrent with and after the show's run. (He gave one his best late-career performances in the 1993 drama A Foreign Field, also out on DVD.)
Video & Audio
As was standard for British series of the time, the early seasons of Rumpole of the Bailey shot interiors on videotape at the studio with location work filmed in 16mm. Later episodes use videotape entirely and all of the full frame episodes look about as good as they ever will - watchable but far from exceptional. What is still quite impressive, however, is the show's early use of Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, which impressively directional, even for some dialogue scenes. The shows are uncut and not time-compressed, though the nature of British commercial breaks meant deleting "bumpers" that result in bits of music heard cutting off abruptly at the start of certain scenes. (This is much less distracting than it sounds.) Each episode is preceded by spoiler-filled and generally useless and static introductions by the author which regrettably aren't given their own chapter stop. The show has no subtitles options, an unfortunate omission.
The supplements on this set are pretty modest; most are limited text essays, such as the John Mortimer Biography and Official Executioners of Newgate Prison. Spot the Barrister likewise is a limited extra pointing out Mortimer's Hitchcockian cameos throughout the series.
The one real surprise is McKern's Memories, a leisurely and very charming interview with Abigail McKern, Leo's actress daughter who also played feminist barrister Liz Probert during the show's final seasons. Her memories about both the show and her father are touching and informative.
Few shows are as rewarding as Rumpole of the Bailey and it's one that holds up extremely well to multiple viewings. For its biting, witty assessment of a British legal system whose barristers and justices too put their own careers ahead of their clients' needs, the warm and funny characters of No. 3 Equity Court, and especially its unforgettable leading performance by the irreplaceable Leo McKern, the Rumpole of the Bailey Megaset is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.