Friday, May 15, 2009

Rumpole of the Bailey

When I think of the British Justice system, I cannot help thinking of a TV show from my youth, Crown Court. This was a daytime show that showed the British courtroom in all its glory, wigs, gowns and all. I should imagine many other people think of the long-running TV series, Rumpole of the Bailey, when they think of British courts. That is no doubt true even in the US, where the series was shown on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service).

Rumpole started life in a BBC Play for Today in 1975. It evolved into a series, which ran from 1978 to 1992. Leo McKern played the part of Rumpole throughout. The screenwriter of that show, author and ex-barrister John Mortimer, died recently, as covered in my blog post John Mortimer - A Great British Treasure. I had only read a couple of Mortimer's non-Rumpole novels, and barely remember the TV series, so I thought it was about time I read one of the Rumpole books. The books were based on the TV series. I chose The First Rumpole Omnibus, which contains three books: Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole's Return. These cover the first two series of the show, plus a special.

Horace Rumpole always acts for the Defense, and believes strongly in the foundation of British law that one is "innocent until proven guilty." He never pleads guilty. He prefers to appear at the most iconic of all courts, The Old Bailey, and wears a wig "bought second hand from a former Chief Justice of Tonga" in 1932. An older gentleman, he often mentions winning The Penge Bungalow Murder Case, in his heyday. He is an expert on bloodstains and typewriters. He often appears, much to his chagrin, before Judges Bullingham (who is usually sympathetic towards the prosecution) and Vosper. He frequently quotes passages from The Oxford Book of English Verse (The Arthur Quiller-Couch edition). He usually visits Pommeroy's Wine Bar for a glass or two of "Chateau Fleet Street," before heading home to his Wife, Hilda, who he refers to as, "She who must be obeyed."

The first part of the anthology, Rumpole of the Bailey, contains short stories, each describing a case. Some cases Rumpole wins, some he loses. The same is true of the second book, The Trials of Rumpole. However, the second book comes to a climax with Rumpole, seemingly railroaded into retiring by his family and colleagues. The third book, Rumpole's Return, sees Rumpole and his Wife living with his son, a professor at the University of Miami, Florida. This follows an unlucky run of ten losses before Justice Bullingham, and a decision to retire. After receiving a letter from one of his ex-colleagues, Rumpole decides to return to his old chambers, where he takes on a seemingly unwinnable murder case. The accused and the victim were seen on a platform on the London Underground, and the accused was found in the possession of a note seemingly written in the victim's blood.

The book is a tremendous read. Rumpole is a very sympathetic character, and the wonderful stories are written very well. Clive James, writing in The Observer, is quoted as saying, "I thank heaven for small mercies. The first of these is Rumpole." I could not agree more!

Do you remember Rumpole? Are you familiar with the books? Please post a comment and let me know what you think.


Jannie Funster said...

"She who must be obeyed," Rumpole sounds like quite the character. Sounds more realistic that he did not win every case.

Graham said...

Hey @Jannie - haven't heard from you in a while - hope things are good with you. Must take a spin around your blog after I've replied here.

Did you recognize the reference? "She who must be obeyed" comes from the novel, "She" by H. Rider Haggard.

Despite the fact that he always feels he's brilliant, Rumpole doesn't always win - however you do feel sympathetic towards him. Even when he loses, you feel he should have won.

Cindy said...

I have enjoyed watching several episodes on PBS. I loved Horace Rumpole!

Your post makes me want to go out and read a few of Mortimer's books!

Thanks, Graham!

Graham said...

Do it, @Cindy! The books are great. I like to mix up my reading, so I'll be reading other stuff in between, but I'm going to get a hold of the 2nd omnibus edition soon.