Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees celebrates the arrival in the DVD Verdict courtroom of the legendary poetry-quoting, cigar-smoking defense lawyer.
Our review of Rumpole Of The Bailey Megaset: The Complete Series, published May 31st, 2006, is also available.
"A person who is sick of crime is sick of life!"—Horace Rumpole
When author John Mortimer created his beloved character of Horace Rumpole in 1975, it was meant to be a one-shot television appearance. Fortunately, this was the beginning, not the end, of the rotund barrister's television career. Distinguished actor Leo McKern (A Man for All Seasons), the perfect physical embodiment of Mortimer's character, went on to star from 1978 to 1992 in the series Rumpole of the Bailey, which is now available once more on DVD. A powerful influence on the television courtroom dramas that followed, Rumpole of the Bailey is a unique combination of mystery, literate comedy, and often poignant drama—both in and out of the courtroom.
Facts of the Case
Horace Rumpole is proud to be what he calls an "Old Bailey hack," earning his bread and butter (and cheap red wine, of which he is fond) by serving as defense counsel in the famous London criminal court. Rumpole's colleagues don't altogether understand his enthusiasm for crime; suave head of chambers Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles, To the Manor Born) thinks that criminal cases lower the standard of the law practice, and fussy Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Brown, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) much prefers prosecution to taking the part of such low-lifes as safecrackers and shoplifters. His strong-willed wife, Hilda—to whom Rumpole has privately given the allusive sobriquet "She Who Must Be Obeyed" (Peggy Thorpe-Bates)—also badgers him to aspire to greater professional eminence and put such undistinguished cases behind him. But Rumpole loves his work, not least because it gives him a chance to speechify before juries, show off his encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and tease judges (he likes to address them as "old darling"). Of all his colleagues, only brisk young Phyllida Trant (Patricia Hodge) seems to understand, and share, his enjoyment of his work.
Even though he is approaching retirement age—a fact that his colleagues bring to his attention with increasing frequency—and even though some of his cases awaken bitterness and doubt about his chosen profession, Rumpole takes so much satisfaction in what he does that it's almost impossible for him to imagine giving it up. But when She Who Must Be Obeyed begins to conspire with their son Nick to push Rumpole toward retirement, he may find himself outmaneuvered.
Rumpole is probably one of the most beloved of twentieth-century British literary and television creations, an immediately recognizable character we love for both his talents and his flaws. There's something almost Dickensian about him: his short, stout figure, dressed in rumpled disarray; the jowly face that shows both kindness and shrewd intelligence; the characteristic flourishes like his oft-present cigar and his tendency to declaim literary quotations in round, resonant tones. His sense of humor is matched, even superseded, by his sense of justice, even though he seems just as happy unwinding with colleagues over a glass of cheap red plonk at Pommeroy's wine bar as he does when cannily working a jury. His home life is less than peaceful—he describes marriage warningly to a bachelor friend as "pleading guilty for an indefinite sentence without parole"—and he misses his son Nick (David Yelland), who moves to America early in the first season, so his job, as much as others may look down on it, is all the more valuable for the satisfaction it brings him. Rumpole is a figure of both comedy and pathos, and we feel his triumphs and disappointments with him.
This two-season set contains 12 episodes on four discs, each in a slim case, with the bonus features on Disc Four:
• Rumpole and the Younger Generation
• Rumpole and the Learned Friends
• Rumpole and the Case of Identity
• Rumpole and the Course of True Love
Each episode presents some unusual challenge for Rumpole either professionally or personally, often both. Although he approaches each case with an upbeat, even flippant air, sometimes his work does discourage him, and almost every episode ends on a note of poignancy as he confronts either professional or personal disappointment. In "Rumpole and the Alternative Society," for example, which is set in the 1960s, the middle-aged barrister falls more than a little in love with the pretty, Wordsworth-quoting schoolteacher he is defending on a drug charge, but the case eventually teaches him that, for better or worse, the law comes even before love in his life. And in "Rumpole and the Show Folk," the experience of defending an actress for murder awakens the disturbing recognition that the practice of law is built on deception just as much as is the theater. The writing in these episodes is particularly powerful, although the level of writing quality is quite strong throughout the series. In addition to offering witty dialogue and insightful character studies, the episodes are often structured around two plots that weave into each other to offer intriguing variations on a theme. In "Rumpole and the Younger Generation," for example, the first episode of the series, our hero is called upon to defend teenaged Jim Timson, the newest miscreant in a family of criminals, at the same time that his son Nick is deciding whether to follow his father's lead and go into law. The parallel plots, together with a scene in which Hilda visits her elderly father, create a kaleidoscopic portrait of the relationships between parents and children. In the final episode of Season Two, which serves as the perfect bookend, Rumpole must come to the rescue of the Timson family once again—this time defending old Percy Timson, some of whose younger relatives have decided to force him into retirement. Simultaneously, Hilda and Nick are maneuvering to do the same to Rumpole (although not by criminal means).
The cases Rumpole takes are themselves often thought-provoking and complex. In one particularly engrossing episode, "Rumpole and the Honourable Member," Rumpole defends a politician accused of rape. The case relies simply on the word of the politician against his accuser, and both characters are presented as being intriguingly flawed and somewhat enigmatic; the presence of the politician's ambitious, manipulative wife (played with perfect glacial implacability by Judy Parfitt of Poirot: Death on the Nile) adds another level of mystery to the proceedings. Not only must we draw our own conclusions about the true nature of what took place between the accuser and the accused, but we must also decide how we feel about the courtroom tactics adopted by Rumpole, who refuses to assume that the accusation itself is proof of a crime and interrogates the plaintiff forcefully to try to determine whether her charge is valid. Even though this episode is almost thirty years old and I suspect that much has changed in the interim regarding restrictions on the cross-examination of alleged rape victims, it excels because it deals with a troubling topic in all its complexity and offers no easy answers for the sake of a tidy ending.
Besides the excellent writing, by far the best reason to watch Rumpole of the Bailey is the late, great Leo McKern. Although the other regular cast members are fine, and there are some appearances by such distinguished guest actors as Judy Parfitt, Phyllida Law (Much Ado About Nothing), and Rosemary Leach (A Room with a View), McKern simply carries the series. He could perform these stories as monologues and they would still be richly satisfying entertainment. Nevertheless, Peggy Thorpe-Bates must also be singled out for special notice. As the commanding (not to say bossy) Hilda, she is Rumpole's perfect foil, and their relationship enhances our sympathy for the beleaguered barrister while also evoking surprising moments of sweetness when they are least expected. It's significant that when Guthrie Featherstone tries to bond with Rumpole by referring to Hilda as "She Who Must Be Obeyed," Rumpole rebukes him: Only he can call Hilda this; it's his privilege as husband to joke at her imperiousness, and no one else is allowed to.
The main extra for this set is the 1980 double-length episode "Rumpole's Return," which bridged Seasons Two and Three. We find that Rumpole has quit the bar in humiliation and retired with Hilda to Miami, Florida, where he has the dubious pleasure of hanging out with his flaky daughter-in-law and her flaky American friends. When Phyllida Trant writes to ask for his input on a difficult murder case, he seizes the opportunity to return to the old chambers and resume his legal career. And not a moment too soon—it's definitely wrong to see Rumpole wearing Hawaiian shirts and ogling bikini-clad beach bunnies. The other main bonus boasted by this set is the brief video introductions author John Mortimer provides for each episode. Running from around a minute to a minute and a half, these largely serve as previews for the coming episode, but occasionally Mortimer will vary his plot summaries with more insightful information on, for example, the particular legal conundrum that inspired him to write an episode. The remaining extras are brief textual features: a one-page biography of Mortimer; a bibliography of his writing for publication and television or film; a one-page and largely useless history of the Old Bailey; and a truly unnecessary listing of the executioners who worked at Newgate Prison.
Audiovisual quality for this release is uneven. As with many British television series of the era, interior scenes are shot on video, whereas most outdoor scenes were shot on film, and there are substantial discrepancies in quality between the two types of footage. The film sequences, including the opening credit sequence, are quite staggeringly dirty. I've never seen such numerous black specks, flakes, even threads, on a DVD release. The color in these segments is also a bit faded. The video segments fare better: Even though the color is still on the dingy side, it seems less faded, and the picture is far cleaner and clearer, with much crisper detail, than in the filmed portions. It's a pity that no restoration seems to have been done on the film segments. Audio betrays some weaknesses but is much better overall than the visual transfer; it's quite possible that some restoration went into this 2.0 stereo mix, since it's very clean. Rumpole's frequent voiceovers lack bright highs, but they are clear and strong, and the only main drawback to the audio in general is that the dialogue recorded on set (rather than looped in postproduction) is subject to echo, unevenness of volume, and background noise. In addition, the show sometimes goes for an effect of realism whereby we focus in on a few characters' conversation while other characters are speaking in the background, and this can be testing to one's powers of concentration, since there is often little difference in volume level between the two competing sources of dialogue. Volume for John Mortimer's introductory segments is lower than that of the episodes themselves, so be prepared to strain to hear his gentle voice or keep the volume control handy.
Fans of Rumpole who do not have the earlier DVD release of these two seasons will certainly rejoice at this new boxed set. Although the quality of the visual transfer and the extras is not all that one would hope for, the series itself has stood the test of time. Rumpole is a person whose company is endlessly rewarding; once you've made his acquaintance, you'll be delighted to know that even more of his cases are available on DVD.
The eloquent Rumpole has won his case and is free to continue his practice. The justice will now retire to Pommeroy's wine bar in hopes of sharing a bottle of plonk with this legend of the criminal courts.
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Scales of Justice
• "Rumpole's Return" Bonus Double-Length Episode (1980)
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