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A&E Home Video presents
Rumpole of the Bailey: The Complete First and Second Seasons (1978/1979)

"Terrible things go on here, terrifying things. Why is it I never go through these portals without a thrill of pleasure, a slight tremble of excitement? And why does it always seem a much jollier place than my flat in Gloucester Road, under the strict rule of She Who Must Be Obeyed?"
- Horace Rumpole (Leo McKern)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: February 18, 2005

Stars: Leo McKern
Other Stars: Peggy Thorpe-Bates, Peter Bowles, Patricia Hodge, Julian Curry, Moray Watson, David Yelland, Derek Benfield, Ronathan Coy, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Bill Fraser, Maureen Derbyshire, Robin Bailey, Camille Coduri, Richard Murdoch, Peter Whitaker, Edward de Souza, Ian Gelder
Director: Herbert Wise, Graham Evans, Brian Farnham, Peter Hammond, Donald McWhinnie

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 10h:32m:27s
Release Date: December 28, 2004
UPC: 733961716597
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-B+B+ B

DVD Review

"Once you get your bottom on the bench, you're in for a pension." - Horace Rumpole

There are few thespians who can so perfectly embody their roles as to become practically one and the same with them. Leo McKern (Candleshoe, X the Unknown), is one such actor, in his portrayal of the walleyed junior barrister, Horace Rumpole, a part he played for over twenty years in the television show's seven seasons. Rumpole of the Bailey is classic British satire, poking fun at the English legal system through the wonderfully quirky persona of Rumpole and his associates at the chambers of Number 3, Equity Court and the Old Bailey, England's preeminent courthouse. A&E brings the first two seasons—twelve hour long episodes plus a bonus feature length installment—to DVD in this four disc set.

Created and scripted by author and playwright, Sir John Mortimer, himself a Q.C. and 30 year veteran of the bar, Rumpole began life as the central figure in several short stories, which was adapted into a Play for Today for the BBC in 1975, but would find a home at Thames as a television series in 1978, and later aired in the U.S. as part of the PBS series Mystery. While writing the stories, Mortimer had envisioned Alastair Sim for the part, but due to the actor's demise, Leo McKern stepped into the shoes of the barrister.

Rumpole is what some might term a "character." Married to Hilda (Peggy Thorpe-Bates), whom he covertly but affectionately refers to as She Who Must Be Obeyed (a term borrowed from title character Ayesha, Queen of Kor from H. Rider Haggard's She), the daughter of his former head of chambers, Rumpole is quick to site notable passages from the Oxford Book of English Verse, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's edition, and has a taste for "plonk," especially clarets. He is an oddity in the English legal profession, swearing off prosecuting, and despite his ample qualifications for advancement to Queen's Counsel or a spot on the bench, prefers instead to remain a self-proclaimed "Bailey hack," defending the various and sundry characters who call upon his services. He is notorious in chambers, and known throughout the region for his out of style hat, a trait that garners more attention from his peers than his skills in cross-examination. Rumpole's claim to fame is his successful defense of the Penge Bungalow murders, the highlight of his 40-year career. He is fascinated by the intricacies of blood, the delicacies of the typewriter, and has a propensity for chiding his fellow members of the bar as well as an irreverent relationship with the judges presiding over his cases, especially one Judge Bullingham (Bill Fraser), the bane of Rumpole's existence.

The chambers where Rumpole practices are populated by a group of capable costars, themselves donning the roles of a motley collection of characters to perfection. Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles), Q.C., M.P., is Head of Chambers, edging the position from Rumpole on the advice of Hilda's retiring father. Featherstone is an odd and nervous fellow, aspiring to the bench, and often exasperated by Rumpole's behavior and reputation, while finding his own ways of getting into trouble. Phillida Trant (Patricia Hodge), whom Horace refers to as Portia due to her similarity to her Shakespearean namesake, is the only woman in chambers. A former understudy of Rumpole's, she has a great respect for his abilities, and often comes to his defense. She is pursued by the stuffy Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry), a real estate lawyer who disapproves of the criminal element brought to them by Rumpole's clientele. Rumpole's dearest friend is George Frobisher (Moray Watson), who will abandon his profession as lawyer to join the circuit court on the bench.

The series is written and directed extremely well, making for a very even presentation with virtually no bad episodes. Laced with humor and infused with Rumpole's diatribes and ramblings (both out loud and in thought), the goings on in the courts are mocked in their pomp and circumstance, with Rumpole's friends and adversaries enriching the life the character cherishes so dearly. Each installment holds its own rewards, as Rumpole takes on the legal system head on.

Rumpole and the Younger Generation - 1967

"I have the honor of being an old Bailey hack. That's enough for me." - Rumpole

After a group of youths rob a butcher, Rumpole takes the defense of the son of a notorious criminal family whose alibi is unusable. The prosecution has the son of a rival family as key witness, and the boy's testimony that he and the accused are good friends goes against a fierce family feud. Meanwhile Rumpole is up for Head of Chambers, and his son Nick (David Yelland) is visiting from school.

Our introduction to the world of Horace Rumpole establishes his family and chamber partners, and Horace's peculiarities for citing Wordsworth at the drop of a somewhat dishevelled hat.

4 Scales of Justice out of 5

Rumpole and the Alternative Society - 1970

"If you've got a nice bit of crime by the sea, relax and enjoy it." - Rumpole

Rumpole is off to the country on circuit, defending a young woman set up for a drug buy by the local constabulary. His trip also includes a visit with some old war friends, who don't approve of the "lotus eaters," however, Rumpole takes up the challenge and walks on the wild side. The case seems open and shut, but the client sees the case as a chance to make a stand.

Here we learn Rumpole's passion for the truth, and his inability to pretend innocence with those he knows are guilty, despite the results.

Justice is done!

Rumpole and the Honorable Member - 1974

"They will either lock you up or let you go." - Rumpole

A member of Parliament is accused of rape, and Rumpole gets a paying case by defending him. Nick brings his American fiancée (Deborah Fallender) home for dinner, but when the young couple come to see Rumpole in action, his work methodology upsets the bride-to-be. Chambers are abuzz with accusations of impropriety with the petty cash.

This is the set up for Nick's move to America, and the showdown between Rumpole and his future daughter-in-law is excellent.

4.5 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Married Lady - 1975

"All the decent villains are on holiday in the Costa Brava. They have absolutely no consideration for the legal profession." - Rumpole

Work is slow, and She Who Must Be Obeyed is depressed that Nick has gone to America and the house is empty. Rumpole gets a divorce case, and a female understudy, much against his wishes. When his client calls him at home, Hilda gets the wrong idea. Rumpole discovers his lunch partner and dear friend, George Frobisher, is his challenger in court, and the two conspire to draw out the case for the refreshers.

Peggy Thorpe-Bates shines here as her character's jealousy is sparked. This won't be the last time his wife thinks Rumpole is up to some hanky panky, while Rumpole remains oblivious. This is the entrance of Phyllida Trant, who learns a humiliating lesson from her mentor.

4 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Learned Men - 1976

"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." - Rumpole

Rumpole rises from his death bed to take up the defense of a safecracker, but wishes he had stayed home when he learns he will be seconding Featherstone. The evidence against their client is clear cut—his prints were found at the scene of the crime—which leads Rumpole to believe there is more going on than meets the eye. When Featherstone comes down ill, Rumpole is given the rope to take the cross-examination into his own hands, but may have strung himself up as a result.

Rumpole's investigative streak is highlighted.

4.5 Scales of Justice out of 5

Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade - 1977

"My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky—or a murder in the offing." - Rumpole

Rumpole is ecstatic when a murder case comes across his desk. The accused is somewhat of a simpleton, and his brothers are banking on Rumpole bungling the case. Meanwhile Rumpole's attire is coming under fire in chambers and in the courtroom, and Featherstone invites the Rumpoles to a posh Scales of Justice Ball—a fate Horace finds worse than death.

The hat is a focus of this episode.

4 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Man of God

"With any luck there's a little crime going on in the world." - Rumpole

Rumpole's client is a vicar caught stealing shirts at the local sale, but when Rumpole discovers who the judge will be for his case, he is praying for a miracle. George, who has decided to see a position as a circuit judge, brings his fiancée to dinner, a vibrant young lady that Horace recognizes from the past.

The second season does away with the yearly notations. Scenes that otherwise seem irrelevant all pull together to make this story.

4.5 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Case of Identity

"I'm not at all sure I like cast iron alibis—they're the kind that sink fastest to the bottom of the sea." - Rumpole

Appearances can be deceiving as a purported assailant is identified only by his tartan cap, leaving Rumpole to uncover the truth. The new girl in the typing pool is causing tension in chambers, and Featherstone is acting strangely.

Both in court and in chambers, Rumpole's wit saves the day. Peter Bowles puts some meat on Featherstone's character, with some hilarious results.

4 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Show Folk

"The show must go on." - Rumpole

Rumpole goes up country to defend an actress accused of murdering her husband. Found with the gun in her hand, and admitting she'd killed him, the case for the prosecution is clear, but Rumpole has a different perspective. When his lead is dismissed, Horace has to go it alone.

More brilliant detective work is in store.

4 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Facist Beast

"Our penal system is open to all, regardless of creed or color." - Rumpole

Racism reaches Number 3, Equity Court, when Rumpole takes the defense of a fascist political candidate. The arrival of Horace's new "foreign" student doesn't help matters with the client, and exposes bigotry in chambers, leaving the new couple in house not seeing eye to eye.

Patricia Hodge fleshes out the independence and moral stature of her character in this episode.

4 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Course of True Love

"Don't you think that love has been grossly overestimated by the poets? The course of true love never did runs smooth." - Rumpole

A schoolmaster gets involved with a student, and Rumpole has an unlawful carnal knowledge case in front of his good friend Judge George. Miss Trant, who finds herself in the family way, is his prosecutor. Featherstone is vying for a spot on the bench, under threat of divorce from his wife, but the respectability of his chambers are under scrutiny by those in a position to influence his future.

Friendship is tested as Rumpole makes his debut in front of the newly-appointed Judge Frobisher. Portia and Claude cause a scandal, with Featherstone expectedly incensed.

4 Scales of Justice

Rumpole and the Age for Retirement

"Bring on the dancing Rumpole." - Rumpole

Horace is defending the eldest of a crime family on a possession of stolen property charge. Nick comes over from America for a visit, with plans to take his parents back to Baltimore. A conspiracy is developing to encourage Rumpole's retirement.

Once again, Rumpole is oblivious to what is happening around him, leading to an inevitable conclusion, and the set up for the next episode, Rumpole's Return.

4.5 Scales of Justice

Rumpole's Return (Bonus Episode)

"Farewell the ancient court, farewell the wicked troupe and the old judge that made oppression virtue. Oh, farewell pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious London sessions. Rumpole's occupation's gone." - Rumpole

A member of the aristocracy is knifed in the subway, and the young squatter in chambers takes the case as his first murder defense. The evidence is overwhelming—just the kind of thing Rumpole would revel in, but the barrister has reluctantly retired to Florida, and is now staying with Nick (Ian Gelder) and his wife Erica. When Miss Trant sends a letter requesting his assistance in the case, Rumpole takes the cue and sneaks off to his old element, but the members of his former chamber are less than enthusiastic with his return.

The near two-hour length of this episode allows for a more complex plot, and indeed an exquisite storyline, with McKern at his finest.

Justice has been served!

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Overall the image quality is extremely respectable for a television series. Colors are saturated, and black levels solid. Interiors are very good, with great detail and contrast but there is a moderate degree of edge enhancement in places. The image during exteriors and locations is somewhat soft, and tends to exhibit a bit of dust and dirt here and there. Scattered throughout the 12 hours of content here is some rainbowing, a few rolling bars, brief video dropouts, and some typical video flaring. While not 100% pristine, this still looks very good on the whole.

These appear to be the same transfers as the original HBO release, with the introductions tacked on to the beginnings.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Mono audio is clean with no signs of distortion or other technical anomalies. Dialogue is occasionally difficult to discern due to the location audio and the actors' distance from the microphone. Aside from these minor source-related deficiencies, the presentation is quite adequate.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 72 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: Thinpak
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Episode introductions by John Mortimer
  2. Bonus movie Rumpole's Return
  3. About the Old Bailey
  4. Official Executioners of Newgate Prison
Extras Review: Extras are bit different than the original HBO version of the first and second seasons. The most noteable addition are the "opening remarks" for each episode by author John Mortimer, outlining the story and how it came to be. These clock in at a half minute to over two minutes each, and do contain a few spoilers. The episodes feature six chapter stops (unfortunately without one placed directly after Mr. Mortimer's comments), and each disc has a Play All option.

The principle extra is the 1980 TV movie follow up to the second season, Rumpole's Return which clocks in at 1h:43m:31s, reviewed above.

A short Mortimer biography and selected bibliography is included, as are brief text essays on the Old Bailey and a list of the official executioners of Newgate Prison. Unfortunately, two interesting extras found on the original set, the essay on Rumpole, covering many of the aspects surrounding his existence, and the British Legal System Q&A which covered the hierarchy of the institution, with details on the various terms heard throughout the series, are not to be found here.

Each of the four thinline cases feature a a brief episode synopsis on the back, and come housed in a sturdy carboard box.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

"Lawyers and tarts, the two oldest professions in the world, and we both aim to please." - Rumpole

Rumpole of the Bailey is an exquisite blend of legal satire, courtroom drama, mystery, and situation comedy. Leo McKern fully embodies the role, and is surrounded by an eclectic and rich supporting cast. Rumpole's antics and style, both in and out of court, make for highly engaging viewing, and this collection firmly establishes the quality of content one can expect from this witty British series. Recommended.


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