New Zealand Law Society - Rumpole of the Bailey: Where defiance is a virtue

Rumpole of the Bailey: Where defiance is a virtue

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Rumpole of the Bailey was created by British writer (and former barrister and QC) John Mortimer as a defiant criminal lawyer. He first made a television appearance in the week before Christmas 1975 but wouldn’t become a familiar face on British and New Zealand screens until the 1980s.

Rumpole of the Bailey
Rumpole of the Bailey

The initial sighting was part of the BBC’s much-lauded Play for Today series but it was the Beeb’s rival ITV that picked up the rights to a series which began three years later with Australian actor Leo McKern as the heavyweight (in more ways than one) English barrister.

The first episode of the Rumpole of the Bailey series aired in 1978 on Thames Television, the ITV regional subsidiary for London, but which was transmitted in the Scottish Highlands, Derry, and down to the Channel Islands.

There were six episodes in the first series and the same number in the second series that aired in 1979 with an extended one-off special just before New Year 1980. Thereafter it became a semi-regular project re-appearing in 1983 with six new episodes and again in 1987 with six more episodes, a further half dozen shows in 1988 and then a break till 1991 and 1992 with 12 episodes over those sixth and seventh seasons.

Every one of the 44 episodes in their various forms from 1975 onwards began with ‘Rumpole’, so the episodes would be called Rumpole and the Married Lady, Rumpole and the Fascist Beast and Rumpole and the Quacks, and so on.

Never a prosecutor

Horace Rumpole’s forte was in defending; he never prosecuted. His core values were the presumption of innocence. He would never plead guilty on behalf of his clients, even if the defendant has confessed because “there is no piece of evidence more unreliable than a confession”.

Asked why he refused to prosecute, he replied that he didn’t believe prison was a suitable punishment: “I’m not going to use my skills, such as they are, to force some poor devil into a condemned Victorian slum where he can be banged up with a couple of psychopaths and his own chamber pot.”

The Rumpole stories, although veering towards the droll, also contained very pointed messages about access to justice. There is little of the sentimentality or quaintness that characterised that other British legal series, The Irish R.M.

Creator John Mortimer was a self-proclaimed anti-Establishment figure, famously defending the underground magazine Oz against obscenity charges in 1971. Another high profile case he was involved in was the apparently hopeless case of the punk band the Sex Pistols’ use of a word regarded as offensive for the title of their 1977 album, Never Mind the Bollocks. Mortimer won the case by proving the word had been used in common literature as far back as Chaucer.

Class prejudice

Mortimer, who died in 2009 aged 85, wrote numerous other novels and plays, some of which became popular movies, such as Tea with Mussolini starring Dame Judi Dench and The Ebony Tower with Laurence Olivier, but it was Rumpole that extended his imagination the most. He wrote every episode of the television series, and their subsequent novelisations.

Hypocrisy, class and racial prejudice, the irritating self-righteousness of the powerful, the holes in the legal system, the nature of justice – all were pierced by Mortimer’s wit. Surprisingly, the Americans liked it, or at least those who were able to view it.

Rumpole’s unhealthy personal habits, disdain for societal expectations, and sharp tongue earned him few marks among his peers, who largely regarded him as an embarrassment.

Although ostensibly mysteries, the cases he undertakes are unlike the standard whodunnit – in some cases, Rumpole’s task is merely to prove how his client didn’t commit the crime.

In one episode, Rumpole à la carte, Rumpole agrees to defend an elitist restaurateur whom he takes a dislike to when a live mouse jumps out from one of his gourmet meals, while in Rumpole and the Alternative Society, the barrister defends a hippie schoolteacher on a drugs charge and finds himself attracted to her lifestyle.

In the final episode, Rumpole on Trial, the barrister is charged with contempt of court and faces disbarment.

Rumpole was also a popular radio series on the BBC with an extensive series broadcast in 1980 – starring Maurice Denham as Rumpole – and several mini series from 2003, the year after McKern died, to this year with Timothy West, Benedict Cumberbatch and Julian Rhind-Tutt all taking on the larger-than-life role.

And in April this year The Times announced that Rumpole would return in a ‘modern’ TV series. The newspaper reported that Mortimer’s works are to be “reimagined” in the new TV series, with his family writing the scripts – actress Emily Mortimer is due to produce the show and write it with her younger sister and fellow actress Rosie.

The series has been released on DVD.

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