"Knowing the law has almost nothing to do with being a lawyer."
"Will he ever learn?"
After decades of watching British TV...I finally get to meet Horace Rumpole. For the second or third time, A&E has repackaged Rumpole of the Bailey: The Complete Series, this time in an attractive (and entirely affordable) Union Jack-wrapped slimcase 14-disc megaset containing all 42 episodes (minus, unfortunately, the pilot teleplay) of the John Mortimer-written series that ran in the U.K. from 1978 to 1992, starring the irrepressible Leo McKern. No new extras here; however, the space-saving slimcase packaging is a plus, along with that heavily-reduced price (at one point, this set was down to forty dollars on Amazon)―both perfect incentives to put this on your "must have" list for 2011.
Just a little bit of background on the story, for those (like myself) who may be coming to the series new. Grumpy, aging London defense barrister Horace Rumpole (Leo McKern) lives, apparently, for only one thing: the courtroom. Yes, of course he gets corporeal pleasures from his stinky, inexpensive cheroots and his cheap red wine, or the feeling of his crushed, battered fedora on his head. But these rather humble staples of life are offset by the truculent waspishness of his (mostly) disapproving wife, Hilda (Peggy Thorpe-Bates and Marion Mathie), who has been secretly dubbed by the fearful Rumpole with the H. Rider Haggard moniker, "She Who Must Be Obeyed." Eternally disappointed in Horace's failure to either "take the silk" (become a senior "Queen's Council"), or become a judge or even merely Head of Chambers, a position held by Hilda's beloved, now-passed "Daddy," Hilda splits her snappish frustrations between Rumpole's lack of ambition and his deliberately provocative behavior. A "character" in the best sense of the word, with a simple credo ("Never plead guilty!"), Rumpole has zero respect for judges who hand down verdicts in their minds before their cases are even heard, or coppers who fabricate evidence, or even some of his clients, who attempt to use the wily defense barrister for their own convoluted scams.
Those that work with Rumpole aren't spared his deflating sarcasm, either. Vain ladder-climber Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles) has decidedly mixed feelings for the snarky old charmer, preferring to have the superiorly-skilled Rumpole out of Chambers altogether, rather than suffer his withering, patronizing digs at Featherstone career-hops to QC and finally, the High Court as a judge. Hapless Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry) feels no great love for Rumpole, either, since Rumpole continuously shows up Erskine-Brown as a clueless womanizer and worse, an inept barrister. Phyllida Trant (Patricia Hodge) observes Rumpole with a mixture of irritation and amusement, but she's more intent on cheating on her cheating husband, Claude Erskine-Brown, as well as leap-frogging Claude to the judges' High Court. Pious stuffed shirt "Soapy" Samuel Ballard (Peter Blythe), Head of Chambers, actively tries to get rid of the "embarrassing" Rumpole on numerous occasions, objecting to his clothes, his insolent manner, and Rumpole's penchant for low-brow cases of theft and murder, all usually done for (a late-paid) Legal Aid fee. However, no amount of pushing from his colleagues, or insults from his wife, can keep this "Old Bailey hack" away from what he truly loves: holding a jury rapt, as he raps the knuckles of a willful judge.
Even though I feel like I've spent my entire life in front of the tube, there are going to be shows that I've missed over the years (logistics alone would demand that), regardless of how good or popular or essential those shows were. Now, I certainly heard about Rumpole of the Bailey when I was a kid, and over the years, as it showed up on PBS' Mystery!, I'd read about it, or hear a friend or relative discuss it. Somehow, though, for whatever reasons, it never made it to my remote...which is a shame, because after watching these 35+ hours, I found Rumpole of the Bailey to be an absolute delight, and one of my favorite "new" shows, old dear.
Since Rumpole of the Bailey has been an international favorite for decades now, I doubt I'll be writing here to very many new fans of the show. My impression of the series has always been that it was a comedy, and certainly, by the later seasons, the sophisticated, satirical elements of Mortimer's scripting dominates. However, I was a little surprised at the more dramatic (and frankly, sad and depressing) aspects of that first series ("season" in Brit-TV language). McKern, narrating a mournful voice-over, admits to all manner of introspective melancholy, particularly when it involves his marriage ("hard, back-breaking work," without a hint of sarcastic humor) and his career (in Rumpole and the Learned Friends, Rumpole cops to the deepest existential angst, wondering who "he" really is). In Rumpole and the Married Lady, Rumpole discovers at the end of the episode that he seems to have very little reason to remain married to Hilda (and she, as well, to him), preferring a "war together than a lonely peace," a verdict on their marriage that's quite sad...and one that you won't see in later seasons, when their bickering takes on a more classically farcical tone. As for his work, there are quite a number of episodes where clients take on the aging barrister in an effort to have him lose their case on purpose―plans that usually backfire comically on the defendants. But in Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade, McKern plays this first deception by a defendant as an act of personal betrayal that seemingly shakes him to his core (they also cruelly throw in that they picked him because he was old). As well, when the series begins, and Mortimer immediately fades out the Nick character (David Yelland), the son that's especially close to Rumpole and who seems to understand his eccentricities without judgment, the feeling early on in the series is that Rumpole is largely alone in the world, without too many sympathetic supporters.
And that aesthetic would be valid, if the series had stayed in this rather gloomy vein (there's a way someone could re-boot the character now: go darker). Happily, Mortimer lifts the character's spirits noticeably after the first series, and we're treated to snappish satires of the British legal system, as well as a farcical examination of the treacherous waters known as the Rumpole marriage. I know Rumpole's supposed politics have been discussed in other reviews and articles I've read on the series, but aside from some rather obvious statements about helping the downtrodden and screwing with the rich and powerful, Rumpole comes off to me at least as a total absurdist, best exemplified in his exchange with the dim-witted Erskine-Brown: "Please, this is not a joking matter," a desperate Claude implores Horace, to which Rumpole replies, with a hint of both fatalism and delight, "Everything, in my humble opinion, Claude, is a joking matter." That's hardly the credo of a committed ideologue of any stripe. Everything is fair game for Rumpole's cynical observations, regardless of politics, philosophy, or morality. If one insists that Rumpole cross-examines to the Left, Mortimer is careful to let Rumpole skewer anything that smacks of pretense or opportunism in the name of convenient morality/politics. Indeed, it would make for a fascinating thesis to compare the "liberal" Rumpole and his personal politics of the 70s and 80s, with the nanny-state restrictions of England today (a direction the series seems to be going towards, with the clashes between Rumpole and Probert); I have a feeling he'd be marked tout de suite for re-education...if he survived all the P.C. lawsuits filed against him.
No, what I suspect people find continually inviting about the series aren't its politics or sociology, but the high-gloss verbal wit continually on display, and the appeal of the Rumpole character himself, forever welded to Leo McKern's absolutely cuddly (my wife's verdict) turn as the perpetually put-upon barrister. Having grown up on generally infallible TV lawyers like Perry Mason or my long-lost favorite, Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law (when is someone going to release that on DVD?), it's quite fun to see a wild-and-wooly barrister like Rumpole who freely admits he knows very little of "actual" law. Lying continually to potential clients about his level of knowledge concerning specific case law, Rumpole relies on logic, deduction, argument, and perhaps most of all, florid, peevish performances in the courtroom to sway juries...while verbally smacking judges on the their snouts just for the sport of it. Of course, such a character could very well turn broad if unleashed without care, but the Jedi-like iciness of Mortimer's British humor here insures that Rumpole remains always in check, restricted even more by Mortimer's unsentimental, reliable plot machination of having Rumpole's co-workers continually trying to oust him from Chambers. We love Rumpole, but his co-workers―even the ones who maintain a grudging respect or limited affection for him―would like to see the back-end of him at every turn. It's an effective technique to get the viewer on Rumpole's side, cheering him on to craftily win out over his lying clients, bullying judges, and devious co-workers.
As for McKern...what can one write about his turn as Rumpole that hasn't already been written? With a rubbery face that looks like it's melting under hot lights, and one roving eye that more than makes up for the other eerily placid false one, the overall effect is highly comical, until that rolling, buttery/rasping voice stentoriously blasts out, silencing his tormentors. I understand that other actors have since played Rumpole, but like other great actor/character match-ups (Gable and Butler, or Leigh and O'Hara, for that matter), I can't conceive of watching someone else portray the Old Bailey hack, without running a continuous comparison track to McKern in my head. With the help of Mortimer's subtext of a deeply melancholic Rumpole who literally only has his love of practicing in the courtroom to sustain him, McKern can explore various layers of the character beside the more obvious comic one, including the most poignant of these: the frustrated Romantic Rumpole (there are a few episodes that show Rumpole getting his heart broken when offers of young, spirited, poetic love are shown, in the end, to be ruses). Luckily, though, Mortimer, and through his delivery, McKern, keep the laughs coming at a remarkable rate (there are a plethora of quotable lines throughout the series; my favorite from Rumpole: "Oh, Hilda doesn't look for happiness...she looks for responsibilities of command."). It's difficult to choose a favorite or representational moment out of so many episodes (obsequious Featherstone―brilliantly played by one of my favorites, Peter Bowles―trying and failing to throw a golf game is hilarious, as is any scene with blustery, bored Bill Fraser as Rumpole's chief nemesis at the Queen's Court, Judge Roger Bullingham). However, if I had to pick, I'd say Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade, where everyone at Chambers becomes obsessed with Rumpole's disheveled appearance, contains a perfect distillation of the various comedic techniques Mortimer utilizes, including a remarkable bit of farce where a preoccupied judge keeps gesturing to an incredulous, thrown Rumpole to fix his tie (it's really a joy to watch McKern in action). Spread out over fourteen years, Mortimer's and McKern's efforts here in Rumpole of the Bailey remained astonishingly consistent...and consistently hilarious.
Here are the 42 episodes of the 14-disc set, Rumpole of the Bailey: The Complete Series, as described on the discs' slimcases:
SEASON ONE, DISC 1
Rumpole and the Younger Generation
Rumpole and the Alternative Society
Rumpole and the Honorable Member
Rumpole and the Married Lady
SEASON ONE, DISC 2
Rumpole and the Learned Friends
Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade
Rumpole and the Man of God
SEASON TWO, DISC 3
Rumpole and the Case of Identity
Rumpole and the Show Folk
Rumpole and the Fascist Beast
SEASON TWO, DISC 4
Rumpole and the Course of True Love
Rumpole and the Age of Retirement
SEASON THREE, DISC 5
Rumpole and the Genuine Article
Rumpole and the Golden Thread
Rumpole and the Old Boy Net
SEASON THREE, DISC 6
Rumpole and the Female of the Species
Rumpole and the Sporting Life
Rumpole and the Last Resort
SEASON FOUR, DISC 7
Rumpole and the Old, Old Story
Rumpole and the Blind Tasting
Rumpole and the Official Secret
SEASON FOUR, DISC 8
Rumpole and the Judge's Elbow
Rumpole and the Bright Seraphim
Rumpole's Last Case
SEASON FIVE, DISC 9
Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation
Rumpole and the Barrow Boy
Rumpole and the Age of Miracles
SEASON FIVE, DISC 10
Rumpole and the Tap End
Rumpole and Portia
Rumpole and the Quality of Life
SEASON SIX, DISC 11
Rumpole a la Carte
Rumpole and the Summer of Discontent
Rumpole and the Right to Silence
SEASON SIX, DISC 12
Rumpole at Sea
Rumpole and the Quacks
Rumpole for the Prosecution
SEASON SEVEN, DISC 13
Rumpole and the Children of the Devil
Rumpole and the Miscarriage of Justice
Rumpole and the Eternal Triangle
SEASON SEVEN, DISC 14
Rumpole and the Reform of Joby Jonson
Rumpole and the Family Pride
Rumpole on Trial
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for Rumpole of the Bailey: The Complete Series is exactly what you'd expect from a British TV series from the 70s, 80s and 90s: the videography looks fairly primitive in the earlier seasons, with flaring, video noise and muddy colors, while the last years' efforts improve markedly. Fans of this type of show, though, won't care at all (in fact...we like that impoverished British look).
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.