Rumpole of the Bailey

I have been enjoying watching episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey recently, as well as reading the stories, both by John Mortimer, and thus feeding my ongoing minor obsession with British genre fiction. I am particularly pleased with how the stories deal with identity and morality.

First, identity. Horace Rumpole, the barrister’s barrister, played in the TV series by the masterful Leo McKern, has certain eccentricities that appear in EVERY episode/story at least once. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. They would make an excellent drinking game. Horace always:

  • Refers to the time that he won the “Penge Bungalow Murders, ALONE AND WITHOUT A LEADER!” ;
  • Refers to his wife Hilda as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” sotto voce, or openly when she is not around;
  • Refers to Phyllida Esrkine-Brown as “the Portia of our Chambers”;
  • Refers to the sub-quality claret available at Jack Pommeroy’s Wine Bar as either “Pommeroy’s Plonk,” “Pommeroy’s Very Ordinary,” “Chateau Fleet Street,” “Chateau Thames Embankment” (my favorite), or something similar;
  • Notes that the wine in question keeps him “astonishingly regular”;
  • Visits Pommeroy’s only because his blood alcohol level is “dangerously low”;
  • Quotes Wordsworth, the “old sheep of the Lake District,” at length with little or no provocation;
  • Mentions that he is about to, or has had already, a lunch of “steak and kidney pud,” and debates the merits of any meal he has at some length;
  • Refers to a judge in the Old Bailey by nickname of his own design – the “Mad Bull,” “Injustice Gravestone,” “Rice Krispies,” etc.

And so on and so forth. While all these things have their charm, Mortimer subverts them on a constant basis. Rumpole often questions whether or not he is merely a collection of eccentric behaviors, a sort of Wordsworth-quoting automaton with frightening powers of cross-examination, and if he is even capable of being anything but the eccentric barrister Rumpole. Furthermore, these very eccentric qualities all have a clear price; Rumpole’s stubborn inability to change and his strict moral code on the job mean that everyone around him (aside from his wife Hilda, who mirrors his consistency) is socially mobile, whereas he is perpetually a junior barrister, unwilling to play politics or do any action for appearance’s sake. Add to this the fact that the series is very long, and employs a loose floating timeline that has Rumpole at roughly age 65-75 for more than 30 years, and it is strangely poignant how the world seems to pass Horace and Hilda by.

But at the same time, Horace and Hilda seem far more real and human than most of the lot that Rumpole has to deal with at the Old Bailey. The world of criminal law in Rumpole’s universe is full of surface-level fakes, judges that have risen via the Peter Principle to their level of incompetence, and the criminals, which are usually the best of the lot. Rumpole insists on remaining a junior barrister because he is comfortable there, whereas he knows he would make a lousy Queer Customer (Queen’s Counsel) or Circus Judge (Circuit Judge). He rejects the social mobility and success that Hilda wants for the somber pleasures of individuality and the knowledge that he did not sell out his principles.

This choice is also mirrored in his moral code, which he usually sums up in one of his closing remarks, about the “golden thread of British justice” – the presumption of innocence. Horace refuses to plead guilty unless his client admits guilt, and he equally refuses NOT to fight on if his client admits guilt to him. In terms of both morality and identity, Rumpole detests how the courts and police can force guilt onto a suspect and transform them into a guilty party without the benefit of sufficient evidence or adequately skilled representation. For him, innocence is a sacred affair that is inexorably tied to personal, individual freedom; crime and guilt must be established, not assigned or assumed.

There is a deeply Platonic vibe, a strong desire for access to the truth, in what Rumpole does, but at the same time he is perfectly willing to lie and manipulate the system in order to win a case. For this reason he has no moral problems with harshly cross-examining a possible rape victim, or defending the many members of the Timson clan, a family of minor criminals; the ends justify the means if the truth about the crime (or alleged crime) is revealed, or at least what can be known is displayed, no matter what the personal cost to the participants or to Rumpole’s career, marriage, and dinner plans. Mortimer is very skilled at finding scenarios where Rumpole’s clients actively resent him getting them off, and Rumpole regrets winning as well.

There is a considerable amount of irony in how Rumpole uses his oratorical skills, with all their rhetorical tricks, cookery, wooing, and manipulation, to defeat what he sees as real cookery; the corruption inherent in the judicial and police system, and the gradual erosion of his beloved golden thread. He has no problem fighting fire with fire, whereas his “learned friends” shy away from his willingness to go to any lengths to defend his client, and the various judges that he battles hate him because his time-consuming antics and cross-examinations disturb their universal desire to have the trial end early so they can take in various sporting events.

Rumpole is deeply conservative but he is an active, fighting, open-minded, old-school conservative rather than the rigid social conservatives that are so prevalent here in America. He is pleasantly absent of things like racism, sexism, and ageism; such things matter little to Rumpole – only guilt and innocence and incorruptibility. In that sense, even though Rumpole claims all he would do as a judge is mutter to himself, “There but for the grace of God, goes Horace Rumpole,” while letting everyone go left and right, his respect for the law and his steady moral compass would really make him a natural judge; he just prefers to work as a barrister, fearing the Peter Principle.

Incidentally, I am also very pleased by how the plots are constructed. Rumpole’s case is always neatly intertwined thematically with his life at home and the social goings-on in Chambers. The resulting parallels are always pleasurable and literary. Mad Men has been doing this to good effect lately as well.

One thought on “Rumpole of the Bailey”

Leave a Reply