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NITA TV Review: Praise for an “Old Bailey Hack”

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

rumpole

TV and radios talking heads are fond of putting together all-star teams or all-time great lists. One manifestation of this is the “Mount Rushmore”: the four quarterbacks on your Mount Rushmore, the four guitar players on your Mount Rushmore, the four chefs on your Mount Rushmore, etc.  If I had a Mount Rushmore for TV and movie lawyers, you’d easily guess three of them: Atticus Finch, Perry Mason, and Vincent Gambini.  But you might not recognize my fourth: the ineffable, irascible, and totally original Horace Rumpole, self-described “Old Bailey hack.”

Rumpole of the Bailey was a long-running British TV show that was a regular part of Masterpiece Theater here in the States. The show centered on a crusty English barrister, Horace Rumpole, and his adventures in and out of court.  The series started as a single episode show on the BBC in 1975.  That show was well received and eventually led to seven series of episodes, on and off between 1975 and 1992, along with the occasional special.  Rumpole was the creation of John Mortimer, who was a barrister in real life.  His experiences gave the series a ring of truth and legal accuracy that are frequently missing from shows about the law.  Interestingly enough, Mortimer turned each series of scripts into books of short stories that were published after the shows themselves aired.  Like the TV shows, the books are well worth reading.

From the beginning, Rumpole was played by the brilliant Leo McKern.  Rumpole is a criminal defense lawyer who likes inexpensive cheroots (cigars) and cheap red wine, “Chateau Thames Embankment,” which he consumes at his favorite haunt, Pommeroy’s Wine Bar.  He is fond of poetry, making frequent references to The Oxford Book of English Verse, particularly Wordsworth. Rumpole is a member of Chambers at 3 Equity Court, where many of the other members find both Rumpole and his practice embarrassing and distasteful. Even so, at some point or another, every one of those other members of chambers calls on Rumpole to extricate them from some potential ethical, legal, or moral dilemma, which, of course, he does.

Rumpole is a barrister who refuses the higher rungs of the British legal profession. He wears a tatty gown and his wig is old and threadbare. He has no desire to be Head of Chambers, or a judge, and particularly no desire to “take silk, [i]” that is become a Queen’s Counsel (“QC”), a barrister who is able to represent the Crown in both civil and criminal matters.[ii]  The last is what matters to Rumpole, for as he frequently says, “Rumpole never prosecutes!” (Although he does, once, sort of.) You learn very early that Rumpole’s goal is always justice—although it can be interesting to see how he achieves it.

Rumpole is surrounded by a bevy of other wonderful characters.  There are the other members of Chambers: Guthrie Featherstone ( a snob with a social-climbing wife; he later becomes a judge), “Soapy Sam” Ballard (a prissy religious zealot who marries the Matron of the Old Bailey Jail), Claude Erskine-Brown (described as “so dull that he had been chosen to bore for England”), and Phyllida Trant (a female barrister that Rumpole takes under his wing.  She later marries Erskine-Brown and becomes a judge, too.)[iii]  There are the judges that Rumpole butts heads with: Judge Bullington (“The Mad Bull”), Judge Graves, and Judge Oliphant.  There are the support folks in chambers like Albert and Henry, the Chambers clerks, and Diane, the Chambers secretary.  And there are the various members of the Timson family, a large clan of “minor South London villains” who look on Rumpole as the family lawyer.

But most of all there is Rumpole’s long-suffering wife, Hilda, known as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”[iv] Hilda is ambitious for Rumpole; her father was an extremely well-respected QC and she longs to see Rumpole take what she considers his rightful place in the hierarchy of barristers.  Rumpole’s permanent refusal to do so is a constant thorn in her side.  But even as Rumpole and Hilda argue over things, it is clear that they love each other and that she is, ultimately, Rumpole’s rock.  The portrayal of a long-married couple who are still devoted to one another is one of the highlights of the show.

For those of us connected to the legal profession, the show is wonderful for many other reasons.  It gives us an inside look at how the English chambers system works.  This is nothing like an American law firm.  For example, members of chambers can appear opposite one another in cases.  There is the fact that barristers alone can appear in court and must wait to be hired on behalf of clients by solicitors, lawyers who do not appear in court.[v]  There is the faithful replication of British courtroom practice, with barristers referring to their opponents as “my learned friend,” and judges “summing up” (telling the jury what the judge thinks of the evidence(!)) at the end of trials.

Best of all, there is Rumpole’s inner monologue during trials.  I fell in love with this show primarily because of this.  When Rumpole comments internally on what’s happening during a trial, he says exactly what real lawyers think about in these situations. He comments on witness testimony, on jurors paying attention, on the behavior of his opponents and on the conduct of the judge—and boy, does he comment on that! I thought his comments were wonderful when I was a lawyer.  Now that I’m a judge, sometimes I cringe a little.

You don’t have to be an Anglophile (like me) to love Rumpole of the Bailey. If you like great acting, inventive plots, and crackling dialogue, you’ll love Rumpole.  And if you care about trial work, you’ll love Rumpole even more.

I’m thankful for a lot of things at this time of year: my family, my friends, a roof over my head, and a full stomach. I’m also thankful for each and every person who makes NITA the gold standard for teaching trial skills everywhere!  I hope everyone has a bountiful Thanksgiving! – Judge McGahey


[i] In England, only QC’s can wear silk gowns to court.

[ii] At one time in England, there was no centralized prosecution service, and private counsel who were QC’s were often hired or appointed to prosecute criminal cases. The Crown Prosecution Service was established in 1985. It serves much like the United States Attorney or District Attorney does in this country.

[iii] One of the more interesting subtexts of Rumpole is how much more professional and progressive he is than almost every other lawyer in the show about working with woman barristers.

[iv] The reference is to H. Rider Haggard’s famous adventure novel, She. For a really cheesy film version, see She (1965), starring Ursula Andress.

[v] This is changing; there are now some solicitors who have courtroom privileges.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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