In The Spotlight: John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more iconic crime-fictional lawyers has been Horace Rumpole, made famous by Leo McKern.  Rumpole of the Bailey was a 7-series television show that began in 1975. Later, the show’s creator, John Mortimer, wrote a series of books and short stories based on the episodes. Let’s take a look at Rumpole today, and turn the spotlight on Rumpole of the Bailey, a collection of six Rumpole short stories.

Horace Rumpole is a barrister – a trial lawyer – whose main satisfaction comes from being in the courtroom, defending his clients. His wife Hilda (more about her shortly), and several of his friends and colleagues, believe he ought to have loftier ambitions, such as becoming a senior (Queen’s Counsel – QC) attorney, or even a judge. But Rumpole likes what he does.

This collection of stories tells of several of the trials in which he is involved. They include: Rumpole and the Younger Generation; Rumpole and the Alternative Society; Rumpole and the Honourable Member; Rumple and the Married Lady; Rumpole and the Learned Friends; and, Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade.

In most of these cases, Rumpole is called to defend clients who don’t have much money, who may even have prison records, and who are sometimes down and out, as the saying goes. He defends a young man from a family of thieves in Rumpole and the Younger Generation, a hippie with a possible drug conviction in Rumpole and the Alternative Society, a man with a record of break-ins in Rumpole and the Learned Friends, and a member of a very dubious, possibly Mob-related family in Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade. In Rumpole and the Married Lady, he takes the side of the wife in a hotly contested divorce case, and in Rumpole and the Honourable Member, he defends an up-and-coming MP against a rape charge.

All of these cases are a bit different, but through all of them, we see Rumpole’s character. His mantra is ‘Never Plead Guilty,’ and he is tireless in defending his clients. He has very clever strategies, too. I can’t say much about them without spoiling the stories, but he is skilled at questioning, at coming up with solid arguments, and at using the information he gets to his client’s benefit. And he does what is necessary to defend his clients. For instance, in Rumpole and the Honourable Member, Rumpole’s daughter-in-law, who is a feminist, gets very upset at his tactics. She sees what he’s doing as attacking the victim – the woman who said she was raped. For Rumpole’s part, his job is to defend his client. It doesn’t mean he takes a rape charge lightly or has no sympathy for someone who’s been attacked. But his first priority is his client.

That said, Mortimer also acknowledges that sometimes, winning a case isn’t the best outcome for a client. And losing a case, much as it stings, can sometimes be the best result for all. Readers who enjoy moral ambiguity will appreciate the fact that these cases aren’t all cut-and-dried. There are real questions of what the best result for everyone is.

This doesn’t mean the stories are dark. If you’ve ever seen the show, then you’ll already know that there’s a great deal of wit in these stories. Some of it comes from Rumpole’s courtroom repartee. And some of it is situational, and even self-deprecatory at times. For instance, in Rumpole and the Married Lady, Rumpole and his opposing counsel are waiting to hear whether their clients will proceed with a very acrimonious divorce or will try to reconcile. The judge in the matter has ordered the parties to try to resolve their issues:

‘Obedient to Mrs. Justice Appleby’s orders, the Thripps met in my room that afternoon. George Frobisher and I, our differences now sunk in the face of the new menace from the judge, shared my small cigars and our anxieties.
 ‘They’ve been in there a long time,’ George was looking nervously at my closed door. ‘I’m afraid it doesn’t look good for us.’’

On the one hand, it can be a good thing when prospective divorces are avoided. On the other, these two lawyers want their fees. There are other funny moments and quips, too.

Because Rumpole likes being in the courtroom as much as he does, the courtroom itself is an important element in these stories. Many scenes take place in that setting, and there are several instances of courtroom procedure, legal strategy, and so on. There’s also discussion of which judge will preside, and what that might mean. There are also several scenes at Rumpole’s own chambers, with his law clerks, colleagues, articling clerks, and secretarial staff.  And, of course, there are plenty of scenes at Pommeroy’s, where Rumpole and his colleagues unwind with plenty of the plonk.

But Rumple has a home life, too. His wife, Hilda, is a formidable person whom he refers to as She Who Must Be Obeyed, or sometimes, She. Her father was Rumpole’s mentor, so she is well versed in what goes on ‘down the Bailey.’ She’s no fool, either. On the one hand, Rumpole jokes more than once that he gets more peace and quiet in his chambers or the courtroom than he does at home. On the other hand, he is just as aware that he and Hilda need each other. In earlier stories, their son, Nick, takes an interest in what his father does, although he finds other interests as he gets older and makes his own life.

Rumpole of the Bailey brings to the page what Mortimer brought to the small screen: a look behind the scenes of the legal life. It features a barrister who takes his commitment to his clients seriously, but who doesn’t take himself too seriously. It takes place against a backdrop of legal settings, and includes both wit and some more thoughtful questions. But what’s your view? Have you read Rumpole of the Bailey or seen the show? What elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 3 December/Tuesday, 4 December – The Invisible Ones – Stef Penney

Monday, 10 December/Tuesday, 11 December – Too Late to Die – Bill Crider

Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe


Filed under John Mortimer, Rumpole of the Bailey

34 responses to “In The Spotlight: John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey

  1. What a lovely reminder of a great series of books!

  2. Mudpuddle

    a riotously hilarious and witty series of books! often, with a glass of Chateau Thames Embankment have i followed Rumpole’s reasoning as he defends once again the “golden thread” that pervades the English system of justice…

    • Ah, yes, Mudpuddle! Can’t for get that glass, can we? I really do like the wit in the Rumpole stories, both the televised versions and the written versions. It’s skewering, but not mean-spirited, and I like that balance.

  3. Always enjoyed that series – but I had no idea the TV series came first!

    • It’s a great series, isn’t it, Marina Sofia? And, yes, it’s one of those unusual situations where the TV series came before the books. Fortunately, Mortimer worked on both, so there’s consistency.

  4. Spade & Dagger

    Missed the TV series, but have enjoyed the radio dramatisations and many of the books. As well as being a dramatist & author, John Mortimer was also an acting barrister involved in high profile, contentious cases. I think it was these experiences that bring such accuracy and interest to the legal wrangles & courtroom characters in the Rumpole stories.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Spade & Dagger, about Mortimer’s experience. His background really was helpful in bringing authenticity to the legal side of the stories. And he managed it with great wit and style, too, in my opinion.

  5. I’ve always assumed the books came first – how interesting! I wondered how they managed to cast such a perfect Rumpole, never mind all the other characters – now I know! I have the entire collection on DVD – you’ve inspired me to dig it out for a re-watch. 😀

    • I think Leo McKern was great as Rumpole, too, FictionFan. It is interesting, isn’t it, that the television show came first. That doesn’t usually happen, and I like it that both the show and the books are quality. And I know just what you mean about digging out episodes of that show. 🙂

  6. I’ve been a fan of Rumpole (and, of course, Mortimer) for many years – even reviewed “A Rumpole Christmas” on my podcast. That’s another excellent collection of the short stories. It’s currently only readily available in e-book formats, but there seem to be a fair number of second-hand print copies. I admire his basic decency and commitment to justice: “It was only, it seemed, Rumpole who stuck to the old-fashioned belief that the most outrageous sinner deserves to have his defence, if he had one, put fairly and squarely in front of a jury. ” Thanks for reminding me of him!

  7. I can’t recommend these books enough. I first saw the television series on PBS when I was a teenager and then moved on to the books. Rumpole is one of my favorite characters in fiction because he is such a “character”. Sort of Falstaff as a defense attorney. Now I think I’ll dig out my copy of a Rumpole Christmas.
    -Robert J. Smith

    • You know, Robert, I hadn’t thought of the parallel between Falstaff and Rumpole, but I see your point. That’s an interesting perspective, for which thanks. Rumpole is a great character, isn’t he? And I thought Leo McKern was exactly the right choice to play him.

      • Yes, McKern was absolutely the right choice to be Rumpole. Usually when I’m reading, I don’t necessarily picture the actor associated with a character in my mind’s eye. I loved Jill Scott as Mma Ramatswe and Robert Urich as Spenser but somehow the characters are different when I’m reading the books. In this case however, Leo McKern is Rumpole. Its a shame that McKern wasn’t around to do a screen version of Rumpole and the Reign of Terror or any of the other later books.

        • I agree, Robert. There is a difference between the mental picture of a character that you get when reading, and the actor portraying that character. And Leo McKern was exactly the right fit for the character of Rumpole. In the same way, I always thought John Thaw was Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse…

  8. Col

    I’ve seen odd bits and pieces on the TV. I’ll have to keep an eye out for one of the books.

  9. Bill Selnes

    Margot: Rumpole is one of the best fictional barristers of all time. Any lawyer would know within minutes of watching an episode or reading a story that the episodes / stories were written by a practising lawyer. I often wondered if the judges before whom Rumpole appeared and often disdained were patterned after judges with whom Mortimer may have found disfavour.

    One aspect of the stories not mentioned in your review but which adds greatly to the authenticity of Rumpole was his perpetual concern over fees. Too few fictional lawyers worry about their finances.

    • I remember that you’ve mentioned how authentic Rumpole is. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Mortimer used his own experiences in developing those stories. I’m not a lawyer, but they sure sound realistic to me.

      Thanks for bringing up that issue of fees. I’m glad that they’re mentioned in the stories, as in real life, finances and fees do matter to an attorney. After all, we all need to get paid. You’re right that I didn’t mention that in my analysis, but it’s a real factor.

  10. I haven’t read the books or short stories but I loved the TV series and his autobiographical play A Voyage Around My Father, which was adapted for TV, with Laurence Olivier playing the role of his father. I met John Mortimer at his house in Turville Heath when I was working on public rights of way (there was a claim for one in Turville and I was interviewing people who had used the claimed path.) He was charming and alarmingly like Leo McKern!

    • Spade & Dagger

      Apparently John Mortimer based the character of Rumpole on his own lawyer father, and found actor Leo McKern a good fit for the role. So I suppose it’s not surprising that John Mortimer was like Leo McKern who was like Mortimer’s father 🙂

    • Lucky you, Margaret, that you got to meet Mortimer! How lovely! And I’m glad he was pleasant and personable. It sounds as though the job you were doing was interesting, too. And you’re right; the TV series was great.

      • I went to Barter Books in Alnwick this morning and thinking about your post I looked for books by John Mortimer and found three – a lovely hardback Folio Society edition of Rumpole short stories in perfect condition and two paperbacks by him – Felix in the Underworld and Paradise Postponed! I’m so pleased you put John Mortimer’s Rumpole books in the Spotlight today.

  11. Reblogged this on DSM Publications and commented:
    Check out this book In The Spotlight: John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey from this post on the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist Blog

  12. tracybham

    I have never read anything by Mortimer. You make the stories sound very good. I am glad Bill commented, I was hoping to see what he thought of the stories too.

  13. tracybham

    Also glad to see that a post on one of Bill Crider’s books is coming up.

  14. Rumpole will always be the man in the TV series, an iconic role for Leo McKern. Very popular in our house – and I have a friend who was a lawyer and she really loved the books too. Always a good sign! And borne out by what Bill says above.

    • Leo McKern will always be Rumpole for me, too, Moira. A great character, and played to perfection. The books are well done, too, in my opinion. And, yes, the fact that lawyers agree that the show, the character, and the books are well-done, that says a lot about the quality!

  15. Pingback: First Chapter First Paragraph: Rumpole by John Mortimer – BooksPlease

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