John Mortimer's Rumpole stories are a familiar English delightby Sam Leith / April 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
“Being Horace Rumpole in his sixties, still slogging round the Old Bailey with sore feet, a modest daily hangover and an aching back was certainly no great shakes, but who else could I be?.”
Such is the situation of John Mortimer’s greatest creation. Who else could Rumpole be, but a hungover Old Bailey Hack in his sixties? His own account tells us he was born some time around 1910, but he actually drew his first breath, already in his sixties and, as it were, pre-crumpled, in December 1975, when “Rumpole of the Bailey” went out on the BBC’s long-running TV series Play For Today.
Rumpole, then, had his first incarnation on the small screen. In fittingly Rumpolian fashion, he got the second choice of name and third choice of actor. Originally, he was to have been called “Rumbold” (a decision hastily modified after the discovery that there already existed, in Guildford, a barrister called Horace Rumbold). And though he was brought brilliantly to life by Leo McKern, his creator had originally eyed Michael Hordern (too busy) and Alastair Sim (too dead) for the part.
The many prose stories that Mortimer went on to write are more than just TV spin-offs, however. They have an independent, and enduring, life. McKern’s stentorian Rumpole on the small screen may have defined the character in the public mind, but what we find in the stories is a subtly different creature: camper, more feline, more Mortimeresque.
Rumpole, on the page, is quite a cocktail: there’s a very generous slosh of PG Wodehouse, a dash of Falstaff at his more benign, a tincture of Tony Hancock and a faint but discernible backnote of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. His readiness with a quotation from the Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch original, be it noted: not Dame Helen Gardner’s 1972 reboot) and fondness for the Times crossword even seem to anticipate Inspector Morse.
Rumpole takes his place among these figures without apology. He is an enduring comic character with the potential to live in any number of stories: a creation, as John Mortimer put it, “to keep me in my old age.” He is the one character Mortimer created who outlived him.