Rumpole of the Bailey began life as a one-off Play for Today on BBC One. Created and written by real-life barrister John Mortimer it hit its mark instantly, with great writing and Leo Mckern’s terrific performance combining to create a TV classic. But its origins can be traced further back to Mortimer’s 1968 Wednesday Play ‘Infidelity Took Place’ featuring John Nettleton as a divorce Lawyer.
The character of Rumpole was originally called Horace Rumbold, but it was changed when it was realised there was a real barrister with that name.
Michael Horden was originally Mortimer’s choice for the role, but he wasn’t free when the filming was scheduled. At first resistant to the casting of Australian-born Leo McKern, Mortimer changed his mind when he saw the actor in rehearsals.
Broadcast in December 1975, it was a critical hit, but for some reason the BBC decided not to commission a whole series. Mortimer took Rumpole to Thames TV and they snapped it up. A total of seven series were screened from 1978 and 1992.
During production of the first series, Mortimer continued his work as a barrister, often rising at 5.30am to work on scripts, before heading to his day job at the Old Bailey.
She who must be obeyed
Such was the show’s success that a new phrase was born, with Rumpole’s reference to his wife Hilda as ‘She who must be obeyed’ trotted out by many a husband who felt they were hen-pecked.
Rumpole has also been adapted for the radio, with first Maurice Denham then Timothy West taking on the role for a series of adaptations and original stories, broadcast on Radio 4. West’s real-life wife Prunella Scales joined him to play Hilda.
Look out for appearances by Peter Bowles, Patricia Hodge, Samantha Bond, Camille Coduri amongst the cast.