Horace Rumpole, better known as Rumpole of the Bailey, is a literary creation of Sir John Mortimer. Rumpole, a verse-quoting, cigar-smoking British barrister, is the featured character in a series of part-legal thriller, part-mystery stories. Rumpole's adventures were dramatized and featured (in the United States) on PBS's Mystery! series. He lives in Froxbury Mansions, London, with his wife Hilda, and they have one son, Nick, a sociology professor in Florida. Out of hearing range, he refers to Hilda as "She Who Must be Obeyed", and often mutters this verse in response to her pronouncements:
in our hour of need,
uncertain, coy, and hard to please!
Rumpole practices law from his Chambers in Number 3 Equity Court, London, and his clientele is a varied one. To the dismay of some of his colleagues, those clients come mainly from the criminal classes of London. Rumpole is at his best defending (Rumpole never prosecutes) some alleged villain in court at the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court. He knows how to cajole judges and juries, usually with his unparalleled gift of oratory.
Quite a bit of the action takes place, though, outside of the courtroom. An idea, or an inkling, will occur to Rumpole and he's off to track down a clue or check out a hunch. When it is time to argue the case in court, Rumpole has one firm belief: never plead guilty! Whether he wins in court or not, Rumpole almost always arrives at the truth behind the case, usually to the chagrin of the police services.
In the television productions, Leo McKern played Rumpole to perfection, and Peggy Thorpe-Bates played Hilda. McKern died in 2002, and he was so identified with the character that the part of Rumpole has been virtually retired.
Also featured in the stories is a running cast of regular supporting characters, who weave their way in and out of the various plots:
Phillida Trant (Erskine-Brown). The first lady barrister to arrive at Equity Court, Rumpole often referred to her as "Miss Trant, our Portia of Chambers". She was an early recipient of many of Rumpole's little tricks, but he later relented and taught her the finer points of appearing in court. Miss Trant would later marry Claude Erskine-Brown and be selected, much to Claude's dismay, to become a Queen's Counsel and sit as a judge herself. (Played by Patricia Hodge.)
Claude Erskine-Brown. A long-suffering barrister in Chambers, Claude is a man around whom some minor disaster is always looming. Most of these are brought on by his own actions: chasing after secretaries in Chambers, foisting Wagnerian operas on the unwary, and a severe inability to properly conduct a case in court. Claude usually requires the services of Rumpole to extricate him from these foibles. (Played by Julian Curry.)
Sir Guthrie Featherstone, Q.C. Early Head of Chambers and married to the fearsome and socially ambitious Marigold Featherstone. Sir Guthrie is a likable fellow, but not extremely bright. He usually falls victim to his own tendency to plant his foot firmly in his mouth, often requiring removal by Rumpole. (Played by Peter Bowles.)
Sam Ballard, Q.C., Head of Chambers in the later stories, and a strident member of 'Lawyers as Christians'. "Soapy" Sam Ballard, as Rumpole calls him, is something of a git. A great deal of Rumpole's time is spent in keeping Ballard's various "improvement" schemes in check. (Played by Peter Blythe.)
The Timsons, a famous and somewhat incompetent crime family of greater London. Their exploits have kept Rumpole gainfully employed for years. Whenever a member of the Timson family is in trouble, the cry goes out, "send for Rumpole!" They are sworn enemies of the lesser crime family of London, the Molloys.
Judge 'Mad Bull' Bullingham. Rumpole's chief nemesis on the Bench, Judge Bullingham, grumpy and irascible, is wise to all of Rumpole's courtroom tricks. The Judge is confident in his belief that Rumpole's practice exists only to keep criminals from their just deserts. (Played by Bill Fraser.)
'Mizz Lizz' Probert. Former pupil of Rumpole and, with the departure of Phillida Erskine-Brown to the Bench, the sole female member of Chambers. Liz Probert's politics sit firmly to the left, being the daughter of labor leader "Red Ron" Probert. She frequently takes on cases with 'social significance'. (Played by Abigail McKern, Leo McKern's daughter.)
The Rumpole stories are very entertaining, and while somewhat satirical, have a glimmer of truth about them. Sir John Mortimer was a practicing barrister, and many events in the stories are taken from his own experiences. Rumpole has a healthy disdain for obnoxious authority, a love of little pleasures (such as swilling claret in Pommeroy's Wine Bar), and a firm belief in the Golden Thread that runs through British justice: the presumption of innocence.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (not including omnibus editions)
Mortimer, John, Rumpole of the Bailey
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1980.
Mortimer, John, The Trials of Rumpole
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1981.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole's Return
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1982.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole and the Golden Thread
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole for the Defence
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole's Last Case
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole and the Age of Miracles
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole a la Carte
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole on Trial
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole and the Angel of Death
. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole Rests His Case
. New York: Viking Books, 2002.
Mortimer, John, Rumpole and the Primrose Path
. New York: Viking Penguin, 2003.