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Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-83, 87-92)

Courtesy of FremantleThames

Main image of Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-83, 87-92)
Thames Television for ITV, tx. 13/4/1978-3/12/1992
41x52 min episodes in 7 series, plus one special, colour
ProducersIrene Shubik
 Jacqueline Davis
Directors includeHerbert Wise
 Jim Goddard
WriterJohn Mortimer

Cast: Leo McKern (Horace Rumpole), Peggy Thorpe Bates/Marion Mathie (Hilda Rumpole), Peter Bowles (Sir Guthrie Featherstone MP), Patricia Hodge (Phyllida Trant), Julian Curry (Claude Erskine-Brown)

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The misadventures of Old Bailey defence barrister Horace Rumpole, who has to contend with politics in chambers, unhelpful judges in court and the continuing disapproval of his wife Hilda at home, while trying to do his best for his often ungrateful clients.

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'Rumpole of the Bailey' (tx. 16/12/1975) was first a Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) and was then developed into a series by producer Irene Shubik and author John Mortimer, although due to administrative problems at the BBC it was eventually produced by Thames Television for ITV.

The first series (after which Shubik departed), stands apart from the rest for its setting in the past, taking place between 1967 and 1977. Throughout its long run the episodes consistently eschew realism, functioning mainly as ironic tales on a theme with a twist at the end, and touching on such topics as pornography, religious cults, insider trading and ageism, as examined in court, in chambers and in Rumpole's own home. The series' huge success was mostly due to Leo McKern's magnificent portrayal of the crumpled, poetry-spouting barrister who even calls judges 'old darling'. Despite Rumpole's early success in the much-cited 'Penge Bungalow Murders', his lack of career advancement is a constant source of disappointment to his formidable wife Hilda ('She Who Must Be Obeyed'). Their funny yet melancholy scenes together bookend most episodes and are a testament to McKern's gift for comedy and pathos.

For the series, a broad range of comic characters were added to Rumpole's Chambers (the fictitious 'Number 3 Equity Court'), including its ambitious head Guthrie Featherstone, the unhappily married clerk, Henry, and the pompous Wagnerian, Claude Erskine-Brown. Rumpole's honesty, unwillingness to bow to the Establishment and championing of the underdog mean that he rarely makes much money, but these qualities do endear him to the junior female barristers in Chambers, most notably Phyllida Trant (who eventually marries Erskine-Brown and becomes a judge) and, later, Liz Probert (played by McKern's own daughter, Abigail).

Rumpole's most frequent customers are the large Timson family, villains who are not above framing one of their own, as in 'Rumpole and the Age of Retirement' (tx. 3/7/1979). Rumpole retires to Florida after losing ten cases in a row to his nemesis Judge 'Mad Bull' Bullingham, but soon returns to work and is once even tempted to work for the prosecution due to dire financial straights. Rumpole himself has to be defended in the final episode, 'Rumpole on Trial' (tx. 3/12/1992), when called to the disciplinary tribunal of the Bar Council.

Since the television series' end, Mortimer has continued Rumpole's adventures in print and on radio, where Maurice Denham and Timothy West have played him.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. The brief (3:37)
2. Trying the case (4:27)
3. Rumpole's defence (5:44)
Complete episode: 'Rumpole and the Honorable Member' (51:30)
John Mortimer: The Guardian Interview (1994)
Bowles, Peter (1936-)
McKern, Leo (1920-2002)
Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)
Legal Drama