When John Mortimer created the character of Horace Rumpole, he admitted his ultimate motivation was to come up with a Sherlock Holmes or a James Bond, a fictitious figure whose popularity could span a series of books that would keep the author financially comfortable in his old age. In the end, it was the television incarnation of Rumpole as played to utterly convincing perfection by Leo McKern in the ITV series, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, which ran from 1978-1992, that provided Mortimer with his retirement nest-egg.
Mortimer was himself a barrister and he drew inspiration from some of the ‘Old Bailey hacks’ he had encountered during his legal career, those who regarded their role as a moral duty, one that honoured the inscription on the pediment above the portico of the Central Criminal Court – ‘Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer’. Like them, Rumpole had no career ambitions to climb the legal greasy pole, to become a QC or Circuit Judge; he was a firm believer in the presumption of innocence and favoured legal aid cases that few other barristers of his experience would touch.
As a barrister, John Mortimer gained a reputation for defending what many saw as the indefensible, famously on the side of the ‘Oz’ editors charged with obscenity in 1971, ‘Gay News’ for blasphemous libel in 1976, and Virgin Records over the furore concerning the public display of the word ‘bollocks’ on the sleeve of the debut Sex Pistols LP in 1977. Although he cited his criminal barrister father as another influence on the character of Rumpole, there was certainly more than a touch of the author in his creation’s wilful embrace of the underdog up against the powers-that-be.
Interestingly, Rumpole baulked at prosecution, though there were occasions when even if he knew his client was guilty, he still entered a ‘not guilty’ plea; for all his noble dedication to ‘the golden thread of British justice’, Rumpole’s cherished ethics occasionally encompassed the lies that so many in his profession propagate in order to secure success. Rumpole’s career was back in pre-CPS days, so he had no need to court favour with the Clown Prosecution Service in the hope that he could one day prosecute on their behalf; he never deliberately threw a defence case by withholding vital evidence he knew couldn’t be used in an appeal, thus ensuring a dubious CPS conviction. The old boy network was one Rumpole revelled in standing outside of.
As unconventional and borderline Dickensian a character as Horace Rumpole was, he nevertheless represented a recurrent strand in British television when dealing with the most revered professions within British society, that of the heroic crusader seeking justice for the little man when confronted by those with the weight of the establishment behind them. Such a character had already become familiar in the genre of the police drama. Sgt George Dixon was far from being a rebel, but he personified the honest copper children had been brought up to believe was there to protect them. Stratford Johns’ bullish CID colossus Barlow (‘Z-Cars’ and ‘Softy Softly’) was a different proposition, but still essentially a good guy when it came to the innocent. If we ever found ourselves in a tight corner, we wanted Sgt Dixon, DCS Barlow and Rumpole to be there for us.
These effective TV PR jobs for the police and the Law presented the public with an idealised and unrealisable vision of crime and punishment that viewers who had no first-hand contact with either came to believe was the truth. It wasn’t until GF Newman’s uncompromising ‘Law and Order’ was broadcast on the BBC the same year that ITV aired the first series of ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ (1978) that television uncovered the less reassuring reality of how the system actually worked.
A four-part series whose grim brutality showed up ‘The Sweeney’ for the admittedly enjoyable escapism it really was, ‘Law and Order’ featured a corrupt police detective (Derek Martin of later ‘Eastenders’ fame) faced with finding the guilty parties behind an armed robbery. Although this proves a relatively simple task, the urge to frame a career villain (Peter Dean AKA Albert Square’s Pete Beale) who has evaded arrest for several other jobs sees the detective cajole and persuade the men responsible for the crime to name said villain as a member of their crew even though he had no involvement with them or their ‘blag’. The man was ‘due’ and is duly found guilty, sent down for several years for something he didn’t do; in the eyes of the copper, this is justice.
The bias of the judge in directing the jury to reject the outrageous notion that the police could possibly be liars, the hopeless predicament of the low-rent lawyer entrusted to keep the accused innocent from prison, and the smug satisfaction of the detective in removing a persistent offender from his books are all complemented by perhaps the most graphic portrayal of prison life ever seen on TV up to that point.
‘Law and Order’ doesn’t make for easy viewing, but I would recommend it to anyone who remains in denial that the judiciary and the police aren’t always on our side. Yes, we want to believe in Rumpole and Dixon in the same way we want to believe every newspaper journalist is on a par with Woodward & Bernstein. The sad fact is that when we encounter them we find this isn’t necessarily the case.
Only this week in promoting the ITV police drama, ‘Unforgotten’, its author spoke on the radio of deliberately portraying the police as ‘nice people doing a tough job’ and it would seem endless toxic headlines of police corruption and ineptitude have resulted in TV returning to a more feel-good formula that assures its viewers that not every apple in the barrel is rotten. Try telling that to the innocents who have been on the receiving end of a system that purports to live by the principle carved on that Old Bailey pediment and yet is found wanting when the maintenance of the status quo from which its beneficiaries thrive and prosper becomes the prime objective, along with increasingly insidious politicisation that has made ‘guilty till proven innocent’ the rule rather than the exception. Be careful out there – you’re on your own.
© The Editor