Rumpole of the Bailey


I have sometimes been known to say, especially after a fairly crazy day in the law mines, yesterday was such a day, that I practice law mainly because of the amusement that it affords me.  As long as courts, judges, attorneys, and innocent and not so innocent clients exist, vaudeville will never be dead.  I rarely have found entertainment on television to match it in dramas or comedies regarding attorneys.  Most of them tend to be bloated soap operas, a la that wretched piece of tripe from the eighties, L.A. Law, but every now and then I do find a show that is a cut above, entertaining while relaying some truth about the legal system.

Perhaps the best I have come upon is the British show Rumpole of the Bailey, which ran from 1975-1992.  Written by John Mortimer, a playwright and noted Queen’s Counsel, (a rank given to British Barristers who are considered the top of their profession),  it follows the legal misadventures of Horace Rumpole.  Rumpole is a barrister, a British attorney who represents clients in court.  A self-described “Old Bailey Hack” (The “Old Bailey” being the London criminal court.),  both fame and fortune have eluded Horace.  No judgeship for him, not even the rank of Queen’s Counsel.  (Horace refers to them dismissively as Queer Customers.)  However, Horace is a happy man.  He realizes that he is a gifted trial attorney, and that knowledge is good enough for him.  The episodes usually revolve around one case, as we see Rumpole mostly prevailing, while illustrating both his own absurdities and those of the British legal system, his clients and society at large.  John Mortimer, at least in his younger days, was a political left winger, but there are no sacred cows in Rumpole land, no matter if they moo to the left or the right.  

Rumpole is portrayed by the late Leo McKern, (Readers of this blog may recall him as portraying Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons.) who manages the feat of making Rumpole a clown, a sympathetic character, and a formidable court room warrior.  The portrayal is a multi-dimensional tour de force.  Much of the humor of the show comes from the regular characters:  Hilda (She Who Must Be Obeyed!) Rumpole, the denizens of No. 10 Equity Court (the barristers who share office quarters with Rumpole), the judges who Rumpole jousts with  and Rumpole’s usually colorful clients, including the Timson clan, a family of middle class villians who have been engaged in crime since they were stealing sheep from the London Commons in the Middle Ages, and who have helped provide Rumpole steady employment throughout his career.

Anyone who has never seen Rumpole in action is missing a treat.  I close with some words of wisdom from my learned fictional colleague:

There’s no pleasure on earth that’s worth sacrificing for the sake of an extra five years in the geriatric ward of the Sunset Old People’s Home, Weston-Super-Mare.

I could win most of my cases if it weren’t for the clients. Clients have no tact, poor old darlings, no bloody sensitivity. They *will* waltz into the witness box and blurt out things that are far better left… unblurted.
“Fun”, Mr Winter? Do you call standing on your hind legs and pleading guilty for a Jamaican teenager who shoves a knife into the first person who crosses his path “fun”? Now what do I say to the judge? “Oh do understand, Your Honour. He’d just seen the West Indies drop a catch. Can I have a ten-bob fine and time to pay?”

The health-giving qualities of claret, of course, the presumption of innocence, and not having to clock into chambers in the morning.

There is not a court in Heaven or Earth, Tim, where Horace Rumpole is not ready and willing to appear. On the Day of Judgment I shall probably be up on my hind legs putting a few impertinent questions to the prosecutor.

The food here is like my jokes – not always in the best of taste.

A barrister, my dear sir, is a taxi plying for hire. That is the fine tradition of our trade.

Of course, I’ve been drinking at all. You don’t think I come out with these blinding flashes of deduction when I’m completely sober, do you?

Oh, don’t underestimate yourself, madam. You have bred three sons who have given a great deal of employment to the legal profession.

Mitigate? “My Lord, my client only went in to buy a seven-penny stamp. But as he was kept waiting by ten old ladies with pension books, he lost his patience and blew the safe.”
The flu is a disease with endless possibilities.

Judge Roger ‘The Mad Bull’ Bullingham: Mr Rumpole! With your alleged great knowledge of literature, I am sure you are aware of the quotation about “The Law’s delay”?
Horace Rumpole: Indeed, My Lord, I seem to recall it is next to the one about “The Impudence of Office”.

Judge Gerald Graves: Mr. Rumpole, may I ask where these questions are leading?
Horace Rumpole: I hope, my lord, to the truth.

Ohhh! His honor Judge Gerald Graves! Never a friend to Rumpole. He’s looking at me now as though I was a porridge sauceman that hasn’t washed up properly. No doubt he lives on a diet of organic bran, iced water, and colonic irrigation.

If you’re no good at the bar, they make you a blooming circus judge. I’m surprised Uncle Tom isn’t Lord Chancellor by now.

I’m not altogether sure I like cast-iron alibis. They’re the sort that sink quickest – to the bottom of the sea.

Ah, the Timsons, en famille, in all their glory. It’s like an old school reunion. I’ve never seen so many ex-clients at one go.

The crime was ridiculously ambitious. They’re not bank robbers. They should have stuck to thieving frozen fish from the cash-and-carry. It’s like two ends of a pantomime horse getting together to play Hamlet.


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  1. I’ve loved Rumpole for many a year… anyone who’s practiced crim law can empathize with his sotto voce courtroom observations, his nicknames for the various judges (“Death-head” is my favorite), and of course, his devotion to “she-who-must-be-obeyed.”

    My children often look at me oodly when I announce that the dinner wine will be a fine Chateau James River embankment.

  2. Re: “colonic irrigation.” That reminds me of a meeting last week
    with “stakeholders. I told one of my colleagues afterward. “I knew it would turn ot that way. I should have given myself an enema before we started.” We were ambushed (with the tried and true old eleventh hour memo) with a “twist” we could have answered had we received it two hours before the meeting. Now, it drags on . . . It’s their money.

    Plus, I refer to my wife as “the Warden.”

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