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Remembering Rumpole

John Mortimer’s fictional barrister was—like his creator—a rogue redeemed by a fierce commitment to the presumption of innocence.

· 18 min read
Remembering Rumpole
John Mortimer QC (left) and Leo McKern and on the set of the British TV series ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ in March 1979 (Alamy)


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. The two programs—and their main characters—have a lot in common, even though Columbo was committed to putting people in jail and Rumpole’s job was to keep them out. Both series debuted in the 1970s, but have roots going back to at least the 1960s. Columbo, like Rumpole, first appeared in a standalone TV drama written for an anthology series, this one an American program called The Chevy Mystery Show. The creators of both characters acknowledged G.K. Chesterton’s fictional cleric Father Brown as a partial inspiration. Both Columbo and Rumpole are cigar-smoking slobs (one of the adjectives most commonly applied to Columbo by TV critics of the 1970s was “rumpled”). Both characters have working-class origins and are often underestimated by their social superiors. The wives of both men play an important part in their lives (although Columbo’s is never seen).

Rumpole of the Bailey ran for 44 episodes over seven seasons. The original Columbo series, which ran as part of a wheel program called The NBC Mystery Movie, ran for seven seasons and 45 episodes. After a 12-year absence from the airwaves, the series was rebooted on ABC Television in 1989, but the episodes produced for ABC are not considered canonical Columbo episodes by most diehard fans. The last canonical episode of Columbo was first broadcast on May 13th, 1978, just about a month after the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series debuted on April 3rd, 1978. The big difference between the two franchises is that Columbo was almost entirely a television phenomenon. Though some Columbo tie-in novels have been published through the years, they are of negligible literary value. If somehow every TV episode of Columbo were to vanish tomorrow, Columbo would essentially cease to exist.

But the same is not true of Rumpole. In fact, if forced to choose, most Rumpole fans would probably opt to preserve the written record rather than the TV episodes. This makes perfect sense for a number of reasons. All of the TV episodes have been converted into prose works, but not all of the written adventures of Rumpole have been adapted for television. Thirty Rumpole adventures—short stories and novels—totalling more than 1,400 pages of material, were never adapted for TV (though some were adapted for radio). Fully 40 percent of Rumpole’s adventures would be lost if all that remained were the TV episodes.

Richard Levinson and William Link, the two high-school best friends who created Columbo, never worked as LAPD homicide detectives and their work shows it. As entertaining as Columbo is, it bears little resemblance to actual police work. John Mortimer, on the other hand, had been a barrister who had tried numerous criminal cases in court, and he knew that milieu inside and out. “The beneficiaries of this were the Rumpole stories,” his friend and legal colleague Ann Mallalieu wrote in an introduction to one of his collections. “All the earlier ones were written against a background which John knew intimately because he was a part of it. The criminal law and the way successive governments changed it, usually for the worse to curry favor with popular opinion, was something he saw happening at first hand. Personal experiences provided many storylines, and the characters, in chambers and on the Bench, were drawn so closely from people he encountered that one member of the judiciary threatened legal action.”


Amazingly, Mortimer’s real-life legal career was more dramatic in many ways than Rumpole’s fictional one. He began by practicing family law, busying himself primarily with divorces and the drawing up of wills. This may sound dull, but it was an excellent training ground for an aspiring writer. People tend to be at their rawest and most vulnerable as their marriages are breaking up. Many of Mortimer’s literary works focus on married couples and their deceits and deceptions. Mortimer didn’t willingly choose to practice family law. He was largely forced into it by his overbearing father, Clifford Mortimer, himself a practitioner of family law. Clifford didn’t think writing plays was likely to provide his son with a steady income, so he insisted that John take up his own trade.

Clifford, though a cold and overbearing man, wasn’t entirely wrong in advising his son to seek out a steady income. At the age of 25, Mortimer married Penelope Dimont (née Fletcher), a writer five years his senior and a wild and mercurial character. When John first became involved with Penelope, she was married and the mother of four children, two of them sired by her husband, and two of them sired by men with whom she’d had extramarital affairs. She became pregnant by John before she managed to divorce her first husband.

As a girl, Penelope had been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a clergyman. The psychological scars of her youth made life difficult for her as an adult, and so it also made life difficult for those around her. But marriage to John Mortimer would have been difficult under any circumstances. He himself was a rather mercurial character. A serial adulterer, a chronic liar, a drunk, a man with a bad temper and no impulse control at all, Mortimer wasn’t exactly good husband material, although he often proved to be a better parent to his children and stepchildren than Penelope managed to be.

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.

By the mid 1950s, blindness and infirmity had caused Clifford to withdraw from his legal practice, after which John was free to pursue a practice more suited to his progressive politics and rebellious nature. In the early 1960s, Emlyn Hooson, a legal colleague of Mortimer’s, found himself overburdened and asked John if he’d take on the defense of a wife accused of murdering her husband. Mortimer had never handled a criminal defense, but Hooson believed that he would be perfect for the job. As he later told Graham Lord, “[H]e’d make sure half the jury were women, and he’d say the wife had been justified to murder her husband. He was very good with juries, at creating the right friendly atmosphere. It was the first criminal case he’d ever done and he got an acquittal.” Soon he was defending axe murders and poisoners and all other variety of killers. (One of his memoirs is called Murderers and Other Friends.)

By his own admission, Mortimer (like Rumpole) wasn’t much of a lawyer. He didn’t care about case law, legal precedents, or any of the other fine details of Britain’s legal machinery. But (also like Rumpole) he was eloquent and loved to perform in front of a jury. His summations could go on for hours and were often as dramatic as a great theatrical experience. He would seduce a jury, suggest to them that they, like him, were smart enough to see through the many holes in the prosecutor’s case, even if the judge seemed determined to put his thumb on the scales of justice. Prosecutors and judges tended to dislike Mortimer, but juries often found his arguments persuasive.


Then, in 1960, Penguin Books was taken to court for publishing an unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been deemed pornographic by the British government. Penguin’s victory proved to be a seminal event in British legal history. Although the case would have a profound effect on the course of Mortimer’s legal career, he had nothing to do with it. But, because he would go on to fight numerous censorship cases in court, Mortimer was often erroneously credited in the press with having won the Lady Chatterley case for Penguin.

Mortimer’s obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune was typical of many that appeared after his death. It credits him with both defending Penguin against obscenity charges in 1960 and with writing the scripts for the hugely successful 1981 British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Neither of those things is true, though Mortimer was always happy to accept credit for them. (Mortimer wrote a six-episode adaptation of Brideshead when director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was still attached to the project. When Charles Sturridge was brought in to replace Lindsay-Hogg, he tossed out Mortimer’s work and hired Derek Granger to write an 11-part series that was much more faithful to the novel. But the heirs of Evelyn Waugh had reserved the right to select the scriptwriter for the project and, fearing that they might pull the plug on the project if they knew that Mortimer’s work had been discarded, the producers opted to credit Mortimer as the sole writer of the adaptation. As a result, Mortimer spent years accepting praise for scripts he had nothing to do with. Granger, who was even older than Mortimer, died just last November, at the age of 101.)

The Lady Chatterley controversy inspired Mortimer to once again change the focus of his legal practice. By the mid 1960s, he was directing much of his energies towards fighting government censorship efforts in court. During the 1950s and early ’60s, pioneering publishers in Britain, the US, and elsewhere won victories in court that allowed them to offer the public controversial books such as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (a penname for Anne Desclos). Usually they did this by calling experts to testify that the book in question, though undoubtedly explicit and shocking, possessed redeeming literary value. Mortimer, on the other hand, specialized in defending books that almost no one believed had any literary value. One of these was Inside Linda Lovelace (1974), credited to the star of the pornographic film Deep Throat, but ghostwritten by someone else. The book was described by Graham Lord as “a work of pure commercial pornography produced under particularly loathsome circumstances—and whose praises were sung in court by an array of self-appointed illuminati.”

When defending books like Inside Linda Lovelace in court, Mortimer tended to treat the subject with dismissive humor, arguing that an empire that had survived two world wars couldn’t be undone by some silly books written so that a few pathetic masturbators could get off. Mortimer’s fellow barrister Tim Cassel told a reporter for the Guardian that John’s numerous jokes and double entendres “had the judge beside himself with mirth.” “Indeed,” wrote Graham Lord, “Judge Rigg found the proceedings so hilarious that at one stage he giggled helplessly behind his notebook when Mortimer’s cross-examination referred to a passage in the book about a suspended, seatless chair in which a naked woman could sit and be spun around just above a man lying on his back beneath her. Rigg’s summing-up was so tolerant that it made an acquittal inevitable.”

Among the other books Mortimer defended in court was one called The Return of the Enema Bag Rapist. Another was a book detailing the many objects that could be inserted into an anus for the purposes of experiencing sexual pleasure. Another was a magazine published exclusively for those who enjoy “bottom-smacking” (Mortimer himself loved to be spanked during sex, often with a hair brush or some other implement). Many of these victories infuriated the British political establishment and drew blistering attacks from the press. The Times was outraged by the verdict in the Inside Linda Lovelace case, arguing in its editorial pages that “pornographers are sick-minded commercial men who sell images of hatred, and particularly of hatred of women, for vast profit.”

Mortimer responded to the article with a letter in which he claimed that he defended pornographers only because he was so devoted to the cause of free speech. A week later, the Times carried a rebuttal by journalist Ronald Butt, in which he asked, as paraphrased by Lord, if Mortimer and his ilk “were really quite happy … to ignore the misery of all the exploited women who were forced to pose for degrading pornographic photographs, sometimes with animals? What about the sexual photographs of small Asian children that were so disgusting they would make any decent man or woman weep?”

As sympathetic as I am to victims of sexual exploitation, I think Lord and other critics have been too harsh on Mortimer’s free-speech crusades. As Mortimer himself pointed out, defending a pornographer is no more an endorsement of pornography than defending a murderer is an endorsement of murder. And time has vindicated some of his anti-censorship battles. In 1968, he successfully appealed the conviction of a British publisher, John Calder, who had been found guilty of obscenity for publishing Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. That book is still controversial but many now consider it an American classic.

In the 1970s, he defended a publication called Gay News, which had been charged with obscenity for publishing a blasphemous poem about the homosexuality of Jesus Christ, but was probably targeted primarily just because it appealed to gay readers (he lost that case). Also in the 1970s, he successfully defended the Sex Pistols, who were taken to court when the title of their first album, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, was deemed by law enforcement to be obscene (Mortimer was able to establish in court that the word “bollocks” was originally a slang term for priests, and that the Pistols might well have been using it in that context).


So, where do the reputations of Mortimer and Rumpole stand today, 100 years after the birth of the former and nearly 50 years after the birth of the latter? Well, it depends whom you ask. Shortly after Mortimer’s death, Christopher Hitchens wrote of him in Vanity Fair: “It is given to very few people to create one imperishable fictional person, and then to see that very person take on life and flesh as if animated by Pygmalion. In the name and figure of Horace Rumpole, old rogue and old hero of the Old Bailey, as impersonated—no, incarnated—by Leo McKern, we have someone for the ages, someone who will be available at need to our inner eye and ear every time it is demonstrated once again that ‘the law is an ass.’”

Likewise, P.D. James once noted that, “Rumpole, like Jeeves and Sherlock Holmes, is immortal.” But Graham Lord (a somewhat hostile biographer who acknowledges that he had a falling out with his former friend) isn’t so sure. He noted that even back in 2004, when Penguin Books published Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, “Sales of Mortimer’s books … were declining. ‘I don’t think the rest of the crew at Penguin thought much of them,’ his ex-editor Judith Burnley told me. ‘They were good middlebrow fiction and a success but I don’t know if there’s a market for them now.’”

Even Lord seems to lament this turn of events, noting that Penge Bungalow Murders “was one of the best of the Rumpole stories—highly readable, gripping and unusually well written, an astonishingly fresh, inventive tale considering that Mortimer was eighty-one, and to add to the pleasure Rumpole describes how he was ensnared into marrying Hilda Wystand, She Who Must Be Obeyed.” I concur with that assessment. When I heard that Mortimer had finally dramatized the long-ago case that Rumpole brags about obsessively throughout the entire series of stories, I thought it would surely be a mistake, that the real case couldn’t possibly live up to Rumpole’s estimation of it. But I was wrong. Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders is indeed one of the best Rumpole stories, and certainly the best Rumpole novel.

Lord notes that only one of Mortimer’s plays (A Voyage Round My Father) still retains any prominence in the English theater. The rest have largely been forgotten. “As for his books, even the Rumpole stories, Mortimer is already forgotten by the younger generation…” (this could be an ironic reference to the very first Rumpole tale, which was titled “Rumpole and the Younger Generation”). Lord recalls that in late 2004, he entered a Waterstones bookshop in London and asked a clerk for a John Mortimer title:

“Who’s John Mortimer?” he asked.
I was astonished. Waterstones is renowned for its staff’s wide literary knowledge. “He’s a writer,” I said.
“What does he write?”
“Lots of novels, stories, plays. He published a novel just two weeks ago about Rumpole of the Bailey, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders.”
“Ah, yes. I’ve heard of Rumpole. What’s the chap’s name again?”
“John Mortimer.”
“How do you spell Mortimer?”
“So he’s the Rumpole man.”
As far as that young man was concerned Mortimer might be dead and buried already.

Actually, the fact that the Waterstones clerk recognized Rumpole but not his creator probably would have amused, even delighted, Mortimer. And it tends to disprove Lord’s assertion that Mortimer’s works were entirely unknown to younger readers back in 2004. Alas, that assessment seems more accurate in 2023. Mortimer was much esteemed by left-leaning thinkers back in the 20th century. But towards the end of his life, he complicated his relationship with the Left by rebelling against what he saw as its excesses. Egged on by his second wife (also named Penelope but commonly referred to as Penny), he became a vocal supporter of fox hunting, despite the fact that he wasn’t physically capable of participating in it himself.

He also became a vocal critic of smoking bans on airplanes and in restaurants and other public places. Today, even much of his leftwing legal legacy would probably not pass muster with many on the far-Left, especially those who oppose free speech for groups they consider unworthy of it (racists, sexists, homophobes, etc.). In May 2019, a group of Harvard Law students got African-American Law Professor Ronald Sullivan removed from his duties as a faculty dean in order to punish him for joining the legal defense team of accused (now convicted) rapist Harvey Weinstein. Rumpole and Mortimer would both have jumped at the chance to represent as widely reviled a defendant as Weinstein. It was what they lived for. That impulse isn’t likely to endear them to many young readers now.

Which is a shame. Rumpole, though far from perfect, is by and large an admirable barrister. And his adventures aren’t as predictable as those of, say, Perry Mason. Rumpole, not infrequently, loses in court. Sometimes his victories merely consist of getting a charge slightly reduced. In Rumpole and the Old Boy Net, he clears his clients of a blackmail charge but they are nonetheless convicted of running a house of prostitution. In more than one story, he acquits a client of a murder charge only to find out later that his client was actually guilty (Rumpole often represents clients he believes to be guilty, but he will not represent anyone who openly admits his guilt; so long as a client insists that he or she is innocent, Rumpole feels duty-bound to try to prove their innocence in court, even if he suspects they might be guilty). In Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas, Rumpole is outfoxed by a prosecutor who uses Rumpole’s alcoholism to defeat him court. In Rumpole and the Golden Thread, he travels to the fictional African country of Neranga to defend an old student of his who has been charged with murder. Rumpole wins an acquittal by using a defense that ultimately gets his client murdered.

As noted, Rumpole has many failings as a husband, lawyer, and provider. He admits that he cheated in order to pass the bar exam. He hasn’t saved a penny for retirement, he occasionally bounces checks, and boasts that he never pays a bill on time. But his many small faults are outweighed by his major virtues: sympathy for the underprivileged, a passion for justice, and a determination to keep his clients out of jail. Most commentaries on the Rumpole stories tend to emphasize how funny they are, how memorable Horace and Hilda and their many comic foibles are. But Sam Leith, in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Collected Stories of Rumpole, is one of the few Rumpolians who gives equal weight to the seriousness of the stories:

So the stories are conservative. But there is more to them than that. At the core of Rumpole’s conservatism is his regard for the law: a time-hallowed institution through which the presumption of innocence, as he often reminds us, runs like a golden thread. But Rumpole—defender of the underdog, upsetter of judicial applecarts—is resolutely antiauthoritarian … Adulterers, pornographers, and honest villains don’t disturb him half so much as do prigs, punishment junkies, and whited sepulchres. … This, in essence, is the golden thread of seriousness that runs through these stories intended to delight: a recognition of mortal folly, and an effort to spare the fools—as far as possible—the harshest consequences of it.”

I had often encountered Horace Rumpole banging on about the presumption of innocence, but not until I served as a juror in a murder trial, back in 2011, did I realize exactly what this entailed. I assumed it meant that a juror could not begin to doubt the innocence of the accused until said juror heard evidence that cast doubt on that presumption. But, as the judge reminded us every day, the accused must be granted, by every juror, a presumption of innocence that follows him until both the prosecution and the defense have rested their cases. Not until the jurors begin deliberations are they allowed to entertain the possibility that the accused might be guilty.

During every day of the trial, we had to maintain a presumption that the accused was innocent even as we reviewed evidence and heard testimony that strongly suggested otherwise. That struck me as an incredibly humane ideal to employ as the bedrock of a nation’s judicial system, and only then did I understand Rumpole’s assertion that, “When London is but a memory and the Old Bailey has sunk back into the primeval mud, my country will be remembered for three things: the British Breakfast, the Oxford Book of English Verse, and the Presumption of Innocence! That presumption is the Golden Thread that runs through the whole history of our Criminal Law—so whether a murder has been committed in the Old Kent Road or on the way to Nova Lombaro [the capital city of Neranga], no man shall be convicted if there is reasonable doubt as to his guilt.”

The stories are clever and witty. And, as Mortimer himself pointed out, each individual story generally contains three different strands braided together—a trial to be won, a domestic problem with Hilda to be resolved, and some sort of contretemps in Chambers that must be confronted. But probably the best reason to read the Rumpole stories is Rumpole himself. He is endlessly fascinating and his adventures (almost always told in the first person, though occasionally he allows another character to fill in the blanks) are replete with epigrammatic observations about life, love, literature, and, above all, the law:

I’m not sure that I like cast iron alibis. They’re the sort that sink quickest, to the bottom of the sea.
You know what we always say in Court? Listen to the questions. The questions are so much more important than the answers.
Contempt of Court should be a silent exercise, like meditation.

Graham Lord, after his 2004 encounter with a young clerk at Waterstones, proclaimed both Rumpole and Mortimer to be on their way to extinction. But in that same year, Easton Press brought out an expensive signed, leather-bound edition of Rumpole stories that quickly sold out. The cheapest copy I could find online just now was listed at $175. In the years since Mortimer’s death, Penguin has published The Collected Stories of Rumpole (actually more of a “selected stories”), and Viking has published Forever Rumpole, another selection, with an introduction by Ann Mallalieu.

It is entirely possible that all these editions are being purchased only by aging baby boomers like myself, who met Rumpole in their youth and have remained fond of him. But I’m holding out hope that a few younger readers with an anti-authoritarian streak might stumble across the adventures of Horace Rumpole and find a kindred spirit in him. Now more than ever, we need as many Horace Rumpoles as we can get.

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