Acidly acerbic, subtly anti-authoritarian, crusty yet compassionate with an acutely developed sense of justice, barrister, writer and author John Mortimer's wily, determinedly eccentric "Old Bailey hack," Horace Rumpole, made his television debut in a 1975 Play for Today, for the BBC - before transferring across to the independent network for a hugely successful series for Thames Television, when the powers that be at the BBC dithered and delayed the decision to commission an on-going series.
Allied to Mortimer's witty, intelligent and socially aware scripts,
(which earned him a prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for crime and mystery writing) was the
subtly perceptive and muti-facetted performance of Australian actor Leo McKern. And although
Alistair Sim was reputedly up for the role originally (this at the wishes of the TV company and
not John Mortimer), it was McKern who effortlessly imbued the larger than life, cigar smoking, red
wine imbibing defender of the downtrodden with a sly warmth and abrasive humanity which
successfully elevated Rumpole far beyond the character's more obvious Dickensian traits. Indeed,
such was the show's success that Rumpole became the first British television series to attract
sponsorship for the purposes of advertising.
In the beginning Horace Rumpole was offered the opportunity to take charge of his father-in-law's law firm. Instead he decided to indulge himself in his love of courtroom drama and thereby became the scourge of the judges (whom he openly called 'Old Darling') and his opponents of whom he took great delight in confounding at the last minute by turning the tables in favour of his clients, when all had seemed but lost. For entertainment he would often be found quaffing Pomeroy's Wine Bar claret (which he referred to as Chateau Fleet Street) whilst quoting the Oxford Book of English Verse. However, his professional bluster was brought crashing down to Earth and Horace became the stereotyped hen-pecked husband whenever he spoke to Mrs. Rumpole, the original "she who must be obeyed."
The first series following the move to Thames saw transmission in April
1978, and was produced by the distinguished Irene Shubik with equally noteworthy direction from
the likes of Herbert Wise and Graham Evans. Interestingly, the first series, unlike those that
followed, was not contemporary but instead covered a period between the years 1967 and 1977.
Another plus for the series was the quality of its supporting players and guest stars, with the
likes of Patricia Hodge, Peter Bowles, Samantha Bond, Peter Childs, Jane Asher, Liz Fraser, Anton
Rodgers, Phyllida Law and Ken Jones, and especially Peggy Thorpe-Bates and Marion Mathie
respectively, as the formidable wife of Rumpole, Hilda. The part of junior barrister Liz Probert
was filled (after a change of actress) by McKern's true-life daughter, Abigail.
Although Rumpole retired to Florida in 1979 he returned for a Christmas special in 1980, a complete new series in 1983, more between 1987 and 1988 and for a final run between 1991 and 1992. Warm, witty, insightful and unafraid to address the myriad of social problems that confront the cloistered world of the legal profession, between 1975-1992, John Mortimer's classics quoting, plonk swigging nemesis of injustice, Horace Rumpole was a memorable high-water mark in the annals British television drama's on-going affair with the dramatic tension of the halls of justice.
Published on January 26th, 2019. Written by SRH (2003) for Television Heaven.