Home Television Drama Rumpole of the Bailey

Rumpole of the Bailey

1 9 7 8 – 1 9 9 2 (UK)
37 x 60 minute episodes

Rumpole of the Bailey, a mix of British courtroom comedy and drama, aired on the UK’s Thames Television in 1978. The programme also made a successful transatlantic voyage and was popular on the American PBS Network.


The wag in a wig had originally appeared in a BBC Play For Today but the BBC took so long deciding about a series that Thames Television snapped it up.

All episodes featured the court cases of Horace Rumpole (Australian actor Leo McKern), a short, round, perennially exasperating, shrewd but lovable barrister who took only defence cases.

His clients were often caught in social conflicts – A father accused of devil worship; a gay newspaper sued for blasphemous libel; a forger of Victorian photographs who briefly fooled the National Portrait Gallery; a pornographic publisher etc.

Rumpole’s deep commitment to justice led him to wholeheartedly defend hopeless cases and the spirit of the law, as opposed to his fellow barristers who stubbornly defended the letter of the law.

Rumpole was given to frequent outbursts from the Oxford Book of English Verse and managed to aim the elegant passages at upper-class hypocritical trumpeters, buffoons and other barristers, and prosecution inspiring justices.


He constantly commented on the phenomenon of “judgitis” – which he maintained “like piles, is an occupational hazard on the bench.” His suggested cure? Banishment to the golf course!

Like barrister Mortimer, Rumpole hated prison, liked cocking a snook at authority and relished such crimes as the Penge Bungalow Murders and the Great Grimsby Fish Fraud.

Rumpole was married to Hilda (played at various times by Joyce Heron, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, and Marion Mathie), who he called “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

Even though Hilda (whose father was head of chambers) aspired for a more prestigious position for her husband and a more luxurious lifestyle for herself, she always supported her husband’s brand of justice rather than that sought by egotistical or social climbing royal counsels.

Rumpole loved to lampoon his fellow colleagues (“a group of twits”) including the dithery and pompous Claude Erskine-Brown, the full of himself Samuel Ballard, and the variety of dour judges who presided in court – The bumbling Justice Guthrie Featherstone, the blustering “mad bull” Justice Bullingham, the serious and heartless Justice Graves, and the almost kindly Justice “Ollie” Oliphant.

Among Rumpole’s colleagues, he favoured the savvy and stylish Phillida Neetrant Erskine-Brown (Patricia Hodge, pictured at right), and the endearing Uncle Tom, an octogenarian waiting to have the good sense to retire while practising his putting in chambers.

There was a second series in 1979, but Leo McKern reused a third, fearing being stuck in the one role. He relented in 1983 and again in 1987, by which time he could command £100,000 for six shows.

John Mortimer (the creator of the Rumpole stories) called upon both his 36 years of experiences as Queen’s Counsel and his life with his father, a blind divorce lawyer. Many of Rumpole’s character traits are shared by Mortimer himself – He adores good food, enjoys a bottle of claret before dinner, loves Dickens, and fights for liberal causes.

Sadly, Leo McKern died on 23 July 2002, aged 82.

Horace Rumpole 
Leo McKern
Guthrie Featherstone 

Peter Bowles
Claude Erskine-Brown

Julian Curry
Phyllida Trant 

Patricia Hodge
George Frobisher 

Moray Watson
Uncle Tom 

Richard Murdoch
Hilda Rumpole 

Joyce Heron (1)
Peggy Thorpe-Bates (2)
Marion Mathie (2)
Justice Bullingham 

Bill Fraser
Fiona Allways 

Rosalyn Landor

Jonathan Coy

Maureen Derbyshire
Marigold Featherstone 

Joanna Van Gysegham
Nick Rumpole 

David Yelland
Liz Probert

Samantha Bond (1)
Abigail McKern (2)
Judge Graves 

Robin Bailey
Samuel Ballard QC 

Peter Blythe


Rumpole & the Younger Generation | Rumpole & the Alternative Society | Rumpole & the Honourable Member | Rumpole & the Married Lady | Rumpole & the Learned Friends | Rumpole & the Heavy Brigade | Rumpole & the Man of God | Rumpole & the Case of Identity | Rumpole & the Showfolk | Rumpole & the Fascist Beast | Rumpole & the Course of True Love | Rumpole & the Age for Retirement | Rumpole’s Return | Rumpole & the Genuine Article | Rumpole & the Golden Thread | Rumpole & the Old Boy Net | Rumpole & the Female of the Species | Rumpole & the Sporting Life | Rumpole & the Last Resort | Rumpole & the Old, Old Story | Rumpole & the Blind Tasting | Rumpole & the Official Secret | Rumpole & the Judge’s Elbow | Rumpole & the Bright Seraphim | Rumpole’s Last Case | Rumpole & the Bubble Reputation | Rumpole & the Barrow Boy | Rumpole & the Age of Miracles | Rumpole & the Tap End | Rumpole & Portia | Rumpole & the Quality of Life | Rumpole a la Carte | Rumpole & the Summer of Discontent | Rumpole & the Right to Silence | Rumpole at Sea | Rumpole & the Quacks | Rumpole for the Prosecution | Rumpole & the Children of the Devil | Rumpole & the Miscarriage of Justice | Rumpole & the Eternal Triangle | Rumpole & the Reform of Joby Jonson | Rumpole & the Family Pride | Rumpole on Trial