The Wednesday Play: Rumpole of the Bailey (1975)

A play that became a phenomenon

John Mortimor and Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey

Few unscrupulous lawyers have been loved as much as Horace Rumpole. While the airwaves have been littered for years with lawyers fighting the good fight – whether in the US in the guise of Perry Mason or Ben Matlock or in the UK as Kavanagh QC or Peter Kingdom – lawyers who fundamentally don’t care whether their client is guilty or not and will defend villains as well as they defend the innocent have been fundamentally scarce.

Maybe it took a real lawyer, John Mortimore, to expose that truer side of the legal profession. Mortimer began his Rumpole journey by writing a Wednesday Play, Infidelity Took Place, for the BBC in 1968. This satirical play – a comment on newly enacted English divorce laws – told the story of a happily married couple who decide to get divorced to take advantage of the more beneficial tax situation they would enjoy were they legally separated. The play features a character, Leonard Hoskins (played by John Nettleton of Yes, Minister fame), a divorce lawyer with a domineering mother, who can be seen as an early prototype of Horace Rumpole

In the early 1970s, Mortimer was appearing for some football hooligans when James Burge, with whom he was sharing the defence, told him: “I’m really an anarchist at heart, but I don’t think even my darling old Prince Peter Kropotkin would have approved of this lot.” “And there,” Mortimer realised, “I had Rumpole.” Mortimer approached Play for Today producer Irene Shubik, who had overseen Infidelity Took Place, with a new idea for a play entitled My Darling Prince, Peter Kropotkin that centred around a barrister called Horace Rumbold. Rumbold would have a particular interest in 19th-century anarchists, especially the Russian Peter Kropotkin from whom the title of the play was drawn. The character’s name was later changed to Horace Rumpole when it was discovered that there was a real barrister called Horace Rumbold. The title of the play was briefly changed to Jolly Old Jean Jacques Rousseau before settling on the less esoteric Rumpole of the Bailey.

Mortimer was keen on Michael Hordern for the role of Rumpole. When Hordern proved unavailable, the part went to Australian-born actor Leo McKern. Mortimer was initially unenthusiastic about McKern’s casting but changed his opinion upon seeing him at rehearsal. Rumpole, a barrister with a strict code – if there’s any doubt whatsoever about whether someone committed a crime, they’re entitled to the presumption of innocence and as strong a defence as possible – is as cynical about the justice system (“Crime doesn’t pay, but it’s a living”) as he is passionate about defending his clients; in this case, a sullen black youth accused of stabbing a stranger at a bus stop. Though his wife (“she who must be obeyed”) needles him as “an old Bailey hack”, he rises to the occasion after determining that there is more to this “20-minute case” than simply “just another boy with a dagger”, and Rumpole spends the play getting the best of scowling judges and corrupt policemen in a perfect performance by McKern.

Aware of the potential for further stories centred on Rumpole, Irene Shubik approached the BBC’s Head of Plays, Christopher Morahan, and obtained permission from him to commission a further six Rumpole of the Bailey scripts from John Mortimer. However, Morahan left his post at the BBC a short time later and his successor was not interested in turning Rumpole of the Bailey into a series. At around this time, Shubik was contacted by Verity Lambert (one of this blog’s ‘blog goddesses‘, the then head of drama at Thames Television, who was looking for ideas for an up-market drama series. Impressed with Rumpole of the Bailey, Lambert offered Shubik the opportunity to bring the series to Thames. John Mortimer readily agreed, since it would mean more money, and Shubik (and Rumpole) duly left the BBC in late 1976.

Rumpole was to appear in seven series on ITV, as well as a TV movie, radio programmes and books. But thanks to the power of YouTube, you can watch that very first Rumpole Play for Today after the jump, since it’s this week’s Wednesday Play. If you like it, don’t forget to buy it from Amazon!

  • Lisa Rullsenberg

    I grew up on the (series) Rumpole so watching this may be a real treat!