April 1, 2023


Remembering Rumpole: John Mortimer's fictional barrister was--like his creator--a rogue redeemed by a fierce commitment to the presumption of innocence. (Kevin Mims, 1 Apr 2023, Quillette)

Horace Rumpole deserves a place alongside Bertie Wooster, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, James Bond, and Father Brown as one of the best creations in all of British popular fiction. The fact that he began his career as a made-for-TV character rather than in the pages of a book, or even a magazine, seems to have worked against him. The brainchild of barrister-turned-writer John Mortimer, Rumpole first appeared on television on December 17th, 1975, in a BBC anthology series called Play for Today.

Mortimer was born 100 years ago this month, and when Rumpole first appeared, he had already been earning a living as a writer since the 1940s. He graduated with a law degree from Oxford in 1943, but then immediately went to work writing documentary films for Britain's Ministry of Information. His first novel, Charade (1947), was based on that experience. The following year, aged 25, he was called to the bar. For the next 35 years or so, he pursued dual careers, as a barrister specializing in the defense of free speech and criminal defendants, and as a writer of stage plays, radio plays, teleplays, essays, memoirs, and novels. After retiring from the bar in 1984, Mortimer continued to put out a book or two a year--most but by no means all of which featured Horace Rumpole--until his death at 85 in 2009.

Some of his early radio and TV plays featured characters that can be viewed as precursors to Horace Rumpole; put-upon barristers struggling for a foothold in the legal profession and largely failing. But it wasn't until 1975 that he finally came up with the character whom, at first, he called Horace Rumbold (the name was changed when it turned out that a real-life barrister already bore that name). That teleplay was called Rumpole of the Bailey, a reference to the Old Bailey, which is the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, where Rumpole plied his trade as a defense attorney.

It was a hit with critics, and the producer of the teleplay, Irene Shubik, hoped to turn it into a regular series. The BBC wasn't interested, so Shubik took the project to Thames Television. The series debuted on April 3rd, 1978, and ran for six episodes. An additional six seasons would follow between 1979 and 1992. Fans of the series will know that Rumpole was brilliantly played by Leo McKern, an Australian actor, and that his wife, Hilda ("She Who Must Be Obeyed"), was played by Peggy Thorpe-Bates for the first three seasons and by Marion Mathie for the final four.

I don't know if he ever acknowledged it, but when Mortimer created Rumpole, he was almost certainly inspired, in part, by Columbo, the American TV series starring Peter Falk. [...]

As Penelope Dimont, the future Mrs. Mortimer published a single novel, Johanna (1947), which hadn't been particularly successful. But after marrying Mortimer, she changed her name to Penelope Mortimer, and published seven more novels, all of them "blatantly autobiographical," according to Graham Lord, author of John Mortimer: The Devil's Advocate. Lord describes the first of these novels, A Villa in Summer, as "a searing account of their increasingly dreadful marriage. A howl of anguish that was barely fiction at all..." While most of Penelope's fiction dealt with her marriage, much of John's fiction was based on his infidelities with other women, infidelities he was happy to flaunt in front of his emotionally troubled wife. Curiously, many of their literary works were dedicated to each other, despite the fact that said works usually contained a hideous fictional portrait of the dedicatee.

Posted by at April 1, 2023 7:19 AM