A&E // 2006 // 2300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // May 31st, 2006
"Tell the client to go...paint a picture. Let me do my work in peace." -- Horace Rumpole (Leo McKern, "Rumpole and the Genuine Article")
He might solve crimes in a graying wig, but what sort of a "detective" would you call Horace Rumpole, that righter of wrongs for a nominal fee? He certainly isn't a hard-boiled detective, not merely because his health wouldn't stand up to the beatings and ethical transgressions of the hard-boiled hero. There is nothing appreciably self-aware about the Rumpole series that might show it as a parody of the genre, a postmodern critique of detective/legal tales. No, for all its idiosyncrasies, Rumpole of the Bailey is -- and I think the Old Bailey hack himself would appreciate this -- decidedly classical. Many of Rumpole's cases turn out to be "whodunits," with our hero nabbing the real culprit or finding the crucial evidence that exonerates his client. In a handful of stories (Rumpole solves a missing person case aboard ship in "Rumpole At Sea," for instance), we are presented with more traditional mystery stories. And though Rumpole is not as visibly precise and proper as, say, Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, he is a quick wit whose personal habits are never more transgressive than a grumpy frustration with his wife and a bottle of very bad wine. His clients may not be squeaky clean (witness the petty criminality of the Timson clan), but Rumpole himself always upholds truth and justice with an almost righteous fervor. The law is his calling. It has to be: it certainly isn't paying him enough.
And yet, Rumpole is not a detective in the traditional sense. First off, he is a barrister, a courtroom Cicero whose job is to flummox the "old darling" judges with wordplay, wit, and occasional evidence with an eye toward rescuing his clients from the dock, even if, like the Timson clan, a little jail time is like a family rite. And second, the classical detective is usually a prosecutor of sorts, a figure that identifies villainy and eliminates it. Rumpole always (except in one late episode) acts for the defense.
If you have read this far, you probably know all about the adventures of Horace Rumpole, ably played by Leo McKern from 1978 to 1992 in John Mortimer's delightful legal series, Rumpole of the Bailey. If not, I direct you to Amanda DeWees's equally delightful review of the first two seasons of this British television classic. She says it better than I could hope to, introducing you to the Old Bailey hack's love of law and cheap red plonk, and his frustration at fussy colleagues, jittery clients, and his domineering wife, Hilda, or "She Who Must Be Obeyed." Described by one colleague (with a blithe touch of hypocrisy) as "an old soldier of the line," and by his own wife drolly as "a character," Horace Rumple is quite simply the best lawyer on television.
A&E's Rumpole of the Bailey Megaset is just that: the entire run of Rumpole. All seven seasons in one heavy box. Season Three kicks off with the elevation of stuffy Guthrie Featherstone to the judge's bench -- and Rumpole's frustrations at trying to argue a forgery case before his rival from chambers. Season Four (which appeared at the end of a four-year hiatus) sees the only substantial change in the recasting of the dreaded Hilda Rumpole ("She Who Must Be Obeyed") with the imposing Marion Mathie, replacing the frail (though always menacing on screen) Peggy Thorpe-Bates. Season Five introduces McKern's daughter Abigail as the feisty Liz Probert. Enjoy the weird scene in "Rumpole a la Carte" in which Hilda thinks Liz is having an affair with Rumpole.
The real charm of Rumpole is in the writing. John Mortimer combines the verbal play of P.G. Wodehouse with the grubby flavor of middle class comedy. Individual cases allow Mortimer the opportunity for some mild satire -- the art world in "Rumpole and the Genuine Article," wine snobbery in "Rumpole and the Blind Tasting," gourmet cuisine in "Rumpole a la Carte." But often, particularly in the show's long-running subplots about the soapy antics of Rumpole's professional colleagues (sanctimonious Sam Ballard, prissy Claude Erskine-Brown and his far shrewder wife Phyllida), the law itself is the most popular topic of Mortimer's winking eye. Many cases themselves examine the nature of British law. In "Rumpole and the Golden Thread," our hero confronts the complexities of the African legal system. In another story, Rumpole finds himself flustered by a professor who refuses to help in his own defense, testing the legal "right to silence," and throughout the series, the Bailey hack's running battles with fussy judges (including former colleague Guthrie Featherstone) reinforces the show's tongue-in-cheek approach to courtroom decorum. Mortimer certainly comes by his critical view of the law honestly: as a barrister, he was instrumental in defending his later publisher, Penguin Books, on an obscenity charge stemming from Lady Chatterley's Lover. Then, then fame and fortune as an author got in the way of lawyering, so Mortimer turned to writing full time. Indeed, even after Leo McKern's death, Mortimer still cranks out new Rumpole books in his 80s.
All episodes feature amiable introductions from John Mortimer and the same text features round out the last disc of the three sets: a brief biography of Mortimer, text background on the Old Bailey, and a list of Newgate executioners -- all pretty superfluous. Set Two throws in a quite recent interview with Mortimer (he even talks about his 2004 prequel novel, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders). Rumpole was developed for a television play as a character to "uphold the old traditions" with a colorful flair, someone like the old lawyers Mortimer knew who called the judges "old darling" but never called their wives that. The set's final disc includes a minute-long montage of Mortimer's cameos in the series, a half-minute (!) bit on what was really written on a prop newspaper Rumpole was reading in one episode, and -- most importantly -- an interview with Abigail McKern. She is an excellent choice: she can not only speak about her father's relationship with his most famous character, but she was a regular from Season Five on as Rumpole's de facto protégé Liz Probert, described by McKern as "irritating" and "feisty."
This bills itself as "The Complete Series," although in the spirit of full disclosure, this is missing the BBC television play that introduced Rumpole to British audiences in 1975. That is available from another company, however (billed as the "lost episode"). No matter. If you don't feel that 43 episodes (including the TV movie Rumpole's Return) is enough Rumpole for you, then you may need to consider counseling. For only about a hundred bucks (with Amazon's current discount; about $160 without), you can cuddle up with some greasy British food (Rumpole would recommend steak and kidney pudding), some fairly fishy claret, and enjoy the complete run of one of Britain's finest legal minds.
Review content copyright © 2006 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 2300 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* John Mortimer Introductions
* Interview with John Mortimer
* Interview with Abagail McKern
* Spot the Barrister
* Newspaper Evidence
* John Mortimer Biography
* About the Old Bailey
* Official Executioners of Newgate Prison
* DVD Verdict: Rumpole of the Bailey: The Complete Seasons One and Two