Rumpole of the Bailey
Caricature of Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole from the episode "Rumpole and the Younger Generation"
GenreCourtroom drama
Created byJohn Mortimer
StarringLeo McKern
Theme music composerJoseph Horovitz
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series7
No. of episodes44 (list of episodes)
Running timec. 50-minute episodes
Production companies
Original release
NetworkBBC 1
Release17 December 1975 (1975-12-17)
Release3 April 1978 (1978-04-03) –
3 December 1992 (1992-12-03)

Rumpole of the Bailey is a British television series created and written by the British writer and barrister John Mortimer. It starred Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole, a middle-aged London barrister who defended a broad variety of clients, often underdogs. The popularity of the TV series led to the stories being presented in other media, including books and radio.

The "Bailey" of the title is a reference to the Central Criminal Court, the "Old Bailey".


Horace Rumpole

While certain biographical details differ slightly between the original television series and the subsequent book series, Horace Rumpole has a number of definite character traits that are constant. First and foremost, he loves the courtroom. Despite attempts by his friends and family to get him to move on to a more respectable position for his age, such as a Queen's Counsel (QC) or a Circuit Judge (positions Rumpole sarcastically calls "Queer Customers" and "Circus Judges"), he only enjoys defending his clients (who are often legal aid cases) at the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court: "the honour of being an Old Bailey Hack", as he describes his work. A devotee of Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse, he often quotes Wordsworth (and other poets less frequently, e.g. Shakespeare). He privately calls his wife, Hilda, "She Who Must Be Obeyed", a reference to the fearsome queen in H. Rider Haggard's adventure novel She.

His skill at defending his clients is legendary among the criminal classes. The Timson clan of "minor villains" (primarily thieves) regularly rely on Rumpole to get them out of their latest bit of trouble with the law. Rumpole is proud of his successful handling of the Penge Bungalow Murders "alone and without a leader" (that is, as a "junior" barrister without a QC) early in his career and of his extensive knowledge of bloodstains and typewriters. Cross-examination is one of his favourite activities, and he disdains barristers who lack either the skill or courage to ask the right questions. His courtroom zeal gets him into trouble from time to time. Often, his investigations reveal more than his client wants him to know. Rumpole's chanciest encounters stem from arguing with judges, particularly those who seem to believe that being on trial implies guilt or that the police are infallible.

Rumpole enjoys smoking inexpensive cigars (cheroots), drinking cheap red wine and a diet of fried breakfasts, overboiled vegetables and steak and kidney pudding. Every day he visits "Pomeroy's",[1] a wine bar on Fleet Street within walking distance of the Old Bailey and his chambers at Equity Court, at which he contributes regularly to an ever-increasing bar tab by purchasing glasses of red wine of questionable quality, which he calls variously "Cooking Claret", "Pomeroy's Plonk", "Pomeroy's Very Ordinary", "Chateau Thames Embankment", or "Chateau Fleet Street". (The last two terms are particularly derogatory: the subterranean Fleet river, which flows below Farringdon Street in a culvert and crosses under one end of Fleet Street at Ludgate Circus, served as the main sewer of Victorian London,[2] while the Thames Embankment in central London was a reclamation of marshy land that, until the 1860s, was notably polluted).

His cigar smoking is often the subject of debate within his Chambers. His peers sometimes criticise his attire, noting his old hat (a battered Homburg), imperfectly aligned clothes, cigar ash trailing down his waistcoat and faded barrister's wig, "bought second hand from a former Chief Justice of Tonga" (or the Windward Islands: Rumpole is occasionally an unreliable narrator).

Despite his affection for the criminal classes, Rumpole has firm ethics. He is a staunch believer in the presumption of innocence, the "Golden Thread of British Justice". He often reinforces this by proclaiming that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent to be convicted (basically Blackstone's formulation).

Accordingly, Rumpole's credo is "I never plead guilty", although he has qualified that credo by stating on several occasions that he is morally bound to enter a guilty plea if he knows for a fact that the defendant is guilty of the crime of which he/she is accused. (In fact, he enters a plea of guilty on behalf of his clients in "Rumpole's Last Case".) But if he has any doubt whatsoever about the facts surrounding the commission of the crime, even if the defendant has confessed to the deed (having stated, and proved, on one occasion that "there is no piece of evidence more unreliable than a confession!"), Rumpole feels equally honour-bound to enter a plea of "not guilty" and offer the best defence possible. His "never plead guilty" credo also prevents him from making deals that involve pleading guilty to lesser charges (again, with some exceptions; in "Rumpole and the Tap End" he persuades his client to plead guilty to assault in exchange for the dismissal of a charge of attempted murder). Rumpole also refuses to prosecute, feeling it more important to defend the accused than to work to imprison them. (There was one exception, when Rumpole took on a private prosecution, working for a private citizen rather than for the crown, but he proved that the defendant was innocent and then reaffirmed, "from now on, Rumpole only defends".)

Some of Rumpole's clients feel that things would have been better for them if they had been found guilty and resent him for getting them off.[3]

Mortimer's 2009 obituary in The Daily Telegraph confirmed that Rumpole was, in part, based on a chance meeting in court with James Burge QC:

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."[4]

Biographical information (television)

In the television series, where Rumpole first appeared, there is some consistency with regard to Rumpole's backstory. The original play is set in 1974, and Rumpole says he is 64 years old, suggesting a birthdate of 1910 (Leo McKern, the actor who played Rumpole, was born in 1920). Rumpole's Oxford Book of English Verse is inscribed "Horace Rumpole, Little Wicks School 1923. Cursed be he who steals this book," (Series 4 – 1987); in Rumpole and the Fascist Beast it is mentioned that he studied at Birkenshaw School, which he calls 'a wind-blasted penal colony on the Norfolk coast'; he bought his barrister's wig in 1932; first appeared in court in 1937; first met Hilda on 14 August 1938; served in the RAF Ground Staff in World War II; married Hilda in approximately 1944; won the Penge Bungalow Murder case in 1947; and had his son Nick in 1951. The series itself takes place between 1967 and 1992, when Rumpole is getting on in years.

Biographical information (books)

Within many short stories and occasional novels, which were written over a 29-year period (1978–2007), Rumpole's biographical details fluctuated. For example, in the first book, published in 1978, Rumpole mentions buying his wig in 1932, and another time to proposing to Hilda in 1938, and his "sixty-eight next birthday". In Rumpole and the Fascist Beast it is mentioned that Rumpole was born sometime before the outbreak of World War I. These last two pieces of information would indicate a birth year of 1911, but later books contradict this. Rumpole and the Primrose Path, for instance, appeared in 2003 and was set in the present day, but Rumpole was in his seventies, not 92. Nonetheless, when in Rumpole and the Primrose Path Erskine-Brown asks Rumpole what he sings to himself when he is alone, Rumpole replies, "A ballad of the war years."

In general, in the book series, it would seem that Rumpole has been frozen at an age of around 70 years, and past events in his life have been retconned to fit each story's time frame. Thus, in the books published in 1996 and before, he proposed to Hilda in 1938, and in books published in 2003 and after, it appears that he neither became a barrister nor met Hilda until after World War II ended in 1945. Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, containing his first unled case and his engagement to Hilda, takes place in the early 1950s, entirely inconsistent with the early stories. Since 1988, when Phyllida Erskine-Brown became a QC and Soapy Sam Ballard became Head of Chambers, the other characters seem to be similarly frozen in time. In Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, Rumpole was still practising in 2006, and Judge Bullingham was still in post – unless this is a different Bullingham, but that is never stated explicitly. In the 1990 story Rumpole at Sea, Rumpole says of Bullingham: "But now we have lost him." The prior "Mad Bull" was Roger Bullingham, and this Bullingham's name is Leonard.

The son of Reverend Wilfred Rumpole and his wife Alice, and born at Dulwich,[5][6] Rumpole attended "Linklater's" (a fictional minor public school)[7] and studied law at either Keble College[8] or the fictional "St Joseph's College", Oxford,[9] coming away with "a dubious third" (Oxford then awarded fourths, so a third is equivalent to a 2:2). Rumpole was called to the bar at the "Outer Temple" (a fictional Inn of Court, named on the analogy of the Inner Temple, where John Mortimer was called, and the Middle Temple).

Rumpole's family

Apart from the legal drama in each story, Rumpole also has to deal with his relationships with family and friends. His wife Hilda was proud of her daddy (as she calls him), C. H. Wystan,[10] who was Rumpole's Head of Chambers, and she frequently advocates that Rumpole seek a higher position in the legal world such as Head of Chambers, Queen's Counsel or a judgeship.[11] The Rumpoles reside in a cavernous, underheated mansion flat at 25B Froxbury Mansions (sometimes called Froxbury Court), Gloucester Road, London.

Rumpole raises tensions with his American daughter-in-law Erica (Deborah Fallender) because of their differing views (such as her disapproval of his cross-examining a rape victim he believed to be lying).[12] His associates' dynamic social positions contrast with his relatively static views, which causes feelings between him and the others to shift over time.

Rumpole retired for a short period of time, moving to Florida to be near his son Nick, a sociology professor and now department head at the University of Miami.[13] Nick is described by Rumpole as "the brains of the family". Nick was educated at public school as a teenager, then studied at Oxford University and Princeton. His academic visit to Baltimore University was determinant for staying in the US. Rumpole often says that Nick is proud of his father's work in criminal law, and enjoyed his accounts of his cases and "harmless legal anecdotes".


In total, seven series of Rumpole of the Bailey were made from 1978 to 1992, each consisting of six episodes. A special two-hour film, Rumpole's Return, was made and aired in 1980, between the 2nd and 3rd series. The author, John Mortimer, occasionally appeared as an extra.

Character P Series 1 Series 2 S Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Series 6 Series 7
1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6
Horace Rumpole
Hilda Rumpole
Nicholas Rumpole
Erica Rumpole
Barristers and staff of No. 3 Equity Court
Guthrie Featherstone QC V
Sam Ballard QC
Phyllida Erskine-Brown QC
Claude Erskine-Brown
T.C. "Uncle Tom" Rowley
George Frobisher
Percy Hoskins
Fiona Allways
Liz Probert
Dave Inchcape
Albert Handyside
Henry Trench
Dot Clapton
Rumpole's legal and judicial allies and adversaries
Mr Justice Bullingham
Mr Justice Vosper
Mr Justice Graves
Mr Justice Oliphant
Mr Bernard
Mr Myers
Det. Inspector Brush
The Timson Clan of minor South London villains
Fred Timson
Dennis Timson
Cyril Timson
Jim Timson
Percy Timson
Hugh Timson
Nigel Timson
Tony Timson
Cary Timson
Jack Pommeroy
Marigold Featherstone
Dodo Mackintosh
"Fig" Newton
Marguerite Ballard
Mr Keith
Peter "Peanuts" Molloy
Character P 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 S 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6
Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Series 6 Series 7

Rumpole and his family:

Members of Rumpole's Chambers at 3 Equity Court, London:

Other Staff at 3 Equity Court, London:

Frequent courtroom allies and adversaries:

Others in Rumpole's life:



The origins of Rumpole of the Bailey lie in "Infidelity Took Place", a one-off television play for the BBC's 1960s television anthology drama series, The Wednesday Play that was written by John Mortimer and broadcast by BBC TV on 18 May 1968.[18] 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 if legally separated. The play features a character, Leonard Hoskins (played by John Nettleton), a divorce lawyer with a domineering mother, who can be seen as an early prototype of Rumpole.[19] Mortimer also drew parallels with his 1957 radio play "The Dock Brief", in which elderly and unsuccessful barrister Morganhall (Michael Hordern) is called upon to defend a man, Fowle (David Kossoff), accused of murder. Morganhall hopes that a not guilty verdict will bring him the fame that has so far eluded him, but when Fowle is convicted and sentenced to death, he is granted a reprieve on the grounds of Morganhall's desultory performance in court.

In the mid-1970s, Mortimer approached BBC producer Irene Shubik, who had overseen "Infidelity Took Place" and who was now one of the two producers overseeing Play For Today – the successor series to The Wednesday Play as the BBC's strand for contemporary drama. Mortimer presented an idea for a new play, titled "My Darling Prince Peter Kropotkin", that centred on a barrister called Horace Rumbold.[19] Rumbold would have a particular interest in nineteenth-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.[20] The title of the play was briefly changed to "Jolly Old Jean Jacques Rousseau" before settling on the less esoteric "Rumpole of the Bailey".[20]

Mortimer was keen on Michael Hordern for the role of Rumpole. When Hordern proved unavailable, the part went to Australian-born actor Leo McKern.[20] Mortimer was initially unenthusiastic about McKern's casting but changed his opinion upon seeing him at rehearsal.[21] Cast as Hilda was Joyce Heron, who played the character as a much tougher individual than that later seen in the eventual series.[22] Aside from Rumpole and his family, no other characters who would eventually be series regulars were seen in the Play For Today production of Rumpole of the Bailey—with the possible exception of a fellow lawyer named George, who could be an early version of eventual series character George Frobisher. (Note that in the series, George Frobisher was played in a very different style by a different actor).

Rumpole of the Bailey made its television debut on 17 December 1975 to good reviews by the critics.[22]

The series

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.[23] 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, Head of Drama at Thames Television, who was looking for ideas for an up-market drama series.[23] 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.[24]

Rumpole of the Bailey made its Thames Television debut on 3 April 1978 in a series of six episodes. These introduced and established the supporting characters including Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles), Claude Erskine-Browne (Julian Curry) and Phyllida Trant (Patricia Hodge). The role of Hilda was recast, with Peggy Thorpe-Bates taking on the part. Other than McKern, David Yelland (who played Rumpole's son Nick) was the only cast member from the BBC Play For Today who also became a regular in the series.

Rob Page's title sequence, featuring amusing caricatures of Rumpole, was inspired by the nineteenth-century cartoonist George Cruikshank, who had illustrated the works of Charles Dickens.[25] The music was composed by Joseph Horovitz, whose extensive use of the bassoon for Rumpole's theme complemented Leo McKern's portly stature and sonorous voice.[25] Mortimer continued to work as a barrister while writing the series, rising at 5:30am to write scripts before going to work at the Old Bailey.[26] The series was critically acclaimed ("Not to be missed. Leo McKern is superb as the wild and witty barrister Rumpole"[27]The Times; "I wouldn't say the BBC threw away a pearl richer than all its tribe but it has mislaid a tasty box of kippers"[27]Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian) and Thames quickly commissioned a second series. However, upset to see that her pay had reduced while McKern and Mortimer had received increases for the second series, Shubik's relationship with Verity Lambert deteriorated and, in the end, she quit Thames after commissioning three of the six scripts for the second series.[28] Shubik moved to Granada Television, where she produced an adaptation of Paul Scott's Staying On and set up, but did not produce, The Jewel in the Crown, the follow-up adaptation of Scott's Raj Quartet.[29] Rumpole of the Bailey continued under a new production team.

When Rumpole of the Bailey returned for its fourth series in 1987, Marion Mathie took over as Hilda when Peggy Thorpe-Bates retired because of poor health.[30]


"Number 3 Equity Court", Rumpole's chambers, are in King's Bench Walk in the Inner Temple Inns of Court.[31] Mortimer, however, has also given the address as "Number Two Equity Court", as in Chapter Two of the 1980 novel Rumpole's Return; or "4 Equity Court", as in the 2005 story "Rumpole and Father Christmas", later compiled in the UK collection Rumpole At Christmas (entitled A Rumpole Christmas in the United States). According to the story "Rumpole and the Younger Generation", Horace and Hilda Rumpole live in a "mansion flat" at 25B Froxbury Court, Gloucester Road, a building sometimes referred to as Froxbury Mansions.


Main article: List of Rumpole of the Bailey episodes

SeriesEpisodesOriginally aired
First airedLast aired
Special16 December 1975 (1975-12-16)
163 April 1978 (1978-04-03)15 May 1978 (1978-05-15)
2629 May 1979 (1979-05-29)3 July 1979 (1979-07-03)
Special30 December 1980 (1980-12-30)
3611 October 1983 (1983-10-11)15 November 1983 (1983-11-15)
4619 January 1987 (1987-01-19)25 February 1987 (1987-02-25)
5623 November 1988 (1988-11-23)28 December 1988 (1988-12-28)
6628 October 1991 (1991-10-28)2 December 1991 (1991-12-02)
7629 October 1992 (1992-10-29)3 December 1992 (1992-12-03)

Home media

The seven series of the programme and the Rumpole's Return special episode are available on DVD and as part of a single DVD box set, published by Fremantle Media. The Play for Today (The Confession of Guilt) is also available on DVD, released separately by Acorn Media.

A&E Home Video released the entire series on DVD in Region 1 between 2004 and 2006. It was initially released in season sets then on 28 February 2006, they released Rumpole of the Bailey a 14-disc box set with all 42 episodes.

In other media


Main article: Rumpole of the Bailey (radio series)

Since 1980 there were a number of different BBC radio productions derived from the Rumpole stories. Essentially there were two different series and three Christmas specials – yielding a grand total of 40 episodes. Five different actors portrayed Horace Rumpole in these episodes: Leo McKern, Maurice Denham, Timothy West, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Julian Rhind-Tutt.

In 1997, abridged readings of two Rumpole stories from Rumpole for the Defence ("Rumpole and the Dearly Departed" and "Rumpole and the Boat People"), abridged by Bob Sinfield and performed by Leo McKern, were broadcast on BBC Radio 2,[citation needed] subsequently rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra.[32]


Main article: Rumpole of the Bailey (book series)

John Mortimer adapted his television scripts into a series of short stories and novels starting in 1978. A series of anthologies and omnibus editions were also released.


  1. ^ The statue of Fortitude and Truth flanking a recording angel above the main entrance was sculptured by Frederick William Pomeroy
  2. ^ "European Sewer Safari".
  3. ^ cf. Rumpole and the barrow boy; Rumpole and the Fascist Beast, where Rumpole humiliated his client to get him off, but this resulted in his being deposed as chairman of his party, after which he shot himself; Rumpole and the Golden Thread, where a cast iron alibi exposed his client as having a relationship with a woman from a rival African tribe, and his own tribe assassinated him.
  4. ^ Daily Telegraph Obituaries (16 January 2009). "Sir John Mortimer: QC who took on liberal causes but found most fame as the creator of the fictional barrister Rumpole". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  5. ^ Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama, Irene Shubik, Manchester University Press, 2000, p. 178
  6. ^ 'Rumpole and the Younger Generation', Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer, 1978
  7. ^ In the first story, it is called "Mulstead".
  8. ^ Rumpole and the Younger Generation.
  9. ^ Rumpole and the Gentle Art of Blackmail.
  10. ^ Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, John Mortimer, Penguin Books, 2004, p. 7; this contradicts 'Rumpole and the Barrow Boy' (from the collection Rumpole and the Age of Miracles, 1988), where the fact that Wystan was never made a Q.C., and that it would therefore be inappropriate to give Rumpole that distinction, is discussed.
  11. ^ Angelini, Sergio. "Rumpole of the Bailey (1978–83, 87–92)". Screenonline. Retrieved 16 April 2007.
  12. ^ Directed by Graham Evans, written by John Mortimer (17 April 1978). "Rumpole and the Honourable Member". Rumpole of the Bailey.
  13. ^ Rumpole's Return (Television production). Thames Television. 1980.
  14. ^ Rumpole's monogram HWR is clearly seen on the red robe bag he frequently carries. It is most clearly legible in the episode "Rumpole and the Alternative Society". It is never mentioned in the television series what the W stands for. The books state his father to have been 'Reverend Wilfred Rumpole', which makes 'Wilfred' a strong possibility.
  15. ^ Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, John Mortimer, Penguin Books, 2004, p. 7
  16. ^ Albert is called "Mr. Tree" by Henry in both his appearances in Series 1, but his last name is thereafter Handyside.
  17. ^ Henry's last name is never spoken aloud by any character, but it can be seen on a poster in the chambers office in a fourth season episode.
  18. ^ Shubik, Play for Today, pp. 101–2.
  19. ^ a b Shubik, Play for Today, p. 177.
  20. ^ a b c Shubik, Play for Today, p. 178.
  21. ^ Shubik, Play for Today, p. 179.
  22. ^ a b Shubik, Play for Today, p. 180.
  23. ^ a b Shubik, Play for Today, p. 182.
  24. ^ Shubik, Play for Today, p. 184.
  25. ^ a b Shubik, Play for Today, p. 187.
  26. ^ Shubik, Play for Today, p. 190.
  27. ^ a b Shubik, Play for Today, p. 195.
  28. ^ Shubik, Play for Today, pp. 198–203.
  29. ^ Vahimagi, Tise. "Irene Shubik (1935–)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 17 April 2007.
  30. ^ Cooper, Nick (28 October 2001). "John Mortimer". Archived from the original on 3 April 2007. Retrieved 16 April 2007.
  31. ^ "SUB-TREASURER'S CORRESPONDENCE FILES (c.1950-2003)". Retrieved 25 August 2022.
  32. ^ "BBC Radio 4 Extra - Rumpole for the Defence". BBC.