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Rumpole of the Bailey

HBO // Unrated // August 27, 2002
List Price: $69.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by D.K. Holm | posted November 7, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Horace Rumpole is the best series detective character since Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, I would argue that the stories featuring Horace Rumpole, barrister in the courts of the Old Bailey, are better than those featuring Holmes, if for no other reason than that Rumpole-creator John Mortimer truly likes his hero and the numerous recurrent subsidiary characters surrounding him much more than the contentious Doyle liked Holmes and his villains. Doyle seemed to view Holmes as an interfering irritant as he sped the globe looking for validation of his views on the afterlife. Mortimer, in the course of 11 original books (the most recent, Rumpole Rests His Case, came out in November 2002) and some 60 short stories (and one novel) featuring the irascible barrister, has made Rumpole's world internally consistent and filled it with a host of endearing characters whose interactions are sculpted with great subtlety. After a dose of both writers, one would gladly trade the deerstalker, the pipe, the violin, and the cocaine, for Rumpole's musty wig, steady (and alleged) quotations from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse (though just try to find one of Rumpole's many poetic flights in that volume), his stubby and stinky short cigars, his weakness for damsels in distress, and his fondness for bad wine which he tends to call Chateau Thames Embankment, apparently only available at Pommeroy's Wine Bar on Fleet Street.

Holmes is a superman, viewed from a distance, and sometimes askance, by his Boswell, Dr John Watson. Rumpole, however, recounts his own tales while in the twilight of his life (it is always twilight in Rumpole's life). Rumpole is also an Everyman, moved by the same thirst for justice and turn of an ankle that moves the rest of us, and his occasional defeats are as recognizable as his small triumphs are gratifying.

Mortimer is as cunning as his creation. The author erects a clever three-tiered structure for the stories (which come in packets of six or seven per book) from which he never deviates, yet which are never boring. The three areas of concern are Rumpole's home life, his life in chambers, and the case or cases Rumpole is conducting. In each tier, something is going on that reflects on the activities in the other two tiers. This fun house mirroring allows us to enjoy an amused view of Rumpole's domestic life (with his wife Hilda, otherwise known as She Who Must Be Obeyed), as well as the office politics of chambers, which are where Rumpole's real triumphs are anonymously recorded.

The genesis of the stories is rather mysterious. Based on equal parts himself, his father (a blind and cantankerous lawyer described in Mortimer's memoir A Voyage Round My Father, also filmed), and various acquaintances, Rumpole is a character who seems to have started as a creation of TV and then leapt to the page, where Mortimer turned the scripts of the shows into more fully fleshed out short story collections. When Mortimer does this is unclear. Before, during, or after the scripts? It doesn't matter now, with the great Leo McKern, who embodied Rumpole the way Alec Guinness embodied George Smiley, now dead. It is only to be hoped that Mortimer will continue to write the Rumpole stories as text only artifacts, as he has done so far with three post series volumes, and that the extant episodes will continue to enjoy release on DVD.

For the record this set contains the first two seasons of Rumpole and a special event between seasons two and three. Disc one contains Series One's first four episodes. Introducing the character and his cast is "Rumpole and the Younger Generation," first broadcast on 3 April 1978. This is followed by 2: "Rumpole and the Alternative Society" (10 April 1978), 3: "Rumpole and the Honourable Member" (17 April 1978), and, 4: Rumpole and the Married Lady 24 April 1978.

Side two has episode 5: "Rumpole and the Learned Friends" (1 May 1978), and then 6: "Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade" (15 May 1978). The side continues with the start of Series Two, shows 7: "Rumpole and the Man of God" (29 May 1979) and 8: "Rumpole and the Case of Identity" (5 June 1979).

Disc three contains episode 9: "Rumpole and the Showfolk" (12 June 1979), 10: "Rumpole and the Fascist Beast" (19 June 1979), 11: "Rumpole and the Course of True Love" (26 June 1979), and the ominous sounding episode 12: "Rumpole and the Age for Retirement" (3 July 1979).

As a bonus comes Rumpole's Return from 30 December 1980 (and Rumpole in one way or another is always "returning" from the brink of one departure or another, as Uncle Tom points out in the show). At one hour and 43 minutes (with 16 chapter scene selection) it is the only feature length Rumpole tale. In it, Rumpole is called upon to take the case of a shy young accountant accused of stabbing an aristocrat in a subway station. Rumpole is soon able to crack the silence of the scared accountant because Rumpole has just escaped an early retirement to Florida where the sun-damaged legal eagle was approached by the same cult members of a group called Children of the Sun who lured on the young man. Mortimer manages to insert the usual array of subplots, among them the temporary appearance in chambers of a young leftie named Cracknell. He turns out to be a younger but less successful version of Rumpole, flirting with the girls (Cracknell goes for Phillida, the "Portia of our chambers"), and trying to manipulate chambers in order subtlety to get what he wants.

Rumpole ran from April of 1978 through December of 1992, comprising seven "seasons" or series, of six episodes each. Thus after this set, there are 30 episodes broadcast over five seasons that are left to put on disc. That will take about eight sides to release, so one assumes that there will be two more issuings of Rumpole episodes. For some, they cannot arrive soon enough.



HBO Home Video distributes a straightforward presentation of the show, which has a soft video look, with some ghosting. The series always looked "bad," and in that regard, this is an accurate recreation of what it was like to watch the series on PBS in the late '70s. In chapter nine of Rumpole's Return, a small square with tiger stripes appears in the upper right hand corner.


Rumpole of the Bailey comes in an adequate mono. There are no subtitles, but there is close captioning.


The animated, musical menus do not inundate the viewer with too many pyrotechnics, and also serve to reiterate the charming Rumpole theme by Joseph Horovitz, which is reminiscent of the music Hitchcock used to announce his presence.


The folding digipak keep-case, constructed in the shape of a book, comes festooned with images of McKern as Rumpole. Each of the four discs bears a different still of Rumpole in action at the Bailey.


With 13 episodes offering 728 minutes (or 12 hours) of Rumpole time, any extras are a lagniappe. This set contains four "extras," all text. "Rumbling About Rumpole" is nine screens' worth of background info on the characters. "The British Legal System—Q & A" is a brief seven screen FAQ about some of the terms and settings that pop up in all Rumpole episodes. "Sir John Mortimer Bio" is four screens of background on the author of the stories. "Leo McKern Bio" is a five screen profile of the late Australian-born actor, who also played Number 2 on The Prisoner along with seven "seasons" of Rumpole, who died in July of 2002.

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