Series: Rumpole of the Bailey
A Thames Television
series, intermittently from 1978 to 1992, following a one-off BBC
drama, focused on the professional and personal life of one Horace Rumpole, barrister at law.
Rumpole's unhealthy personal habits, disdain for societal expectation, and general sharp-tongued iconoclasm earn him few marks among his peers or family. Despite his successes, he is something of an embarrassment to his class-conscious chambers. At home, he has to endure the well-meaning haranguing of his wife, semi-affectionately referred to by Horace as "She Who Must Be Obeyed", a reference to the H. Rider Haggard
; one of Rumpole's simple vices is a love of English literature. Although ostensibly mysteries in many cases, the cases he undertakes are very unlike the standard Whodunnit, Agatha Christie
murder mystery — in some cases, Rumpole's task is merely to prove how his client didn't commit the crime (more often assault, fraud or theft than out-and-out murder) rather than ferret out the true culprit (although he frequently does so anyway). And, like the Sherlock Holmes
cycle, sometimes no crime has really been committed at all.
Yet Rumpole is his own man, and holds dearly to those rules he considers inviolate. Despite the detriment to his career, he never
prosecutes. His job is to secure a "not guilty", and this he does with extreme regularity, even if it means antagonizing judges, refusing to make deals, or uncovering more than his client would prefer revealed in court.
The show often strikes a well-balanced, perceptive note between the often ridiculous emphasis to which society demands the appearance
of moral behaviour, and how it differs from the common sense, deeply personal, and more authentic morality represented by Rumpole. His mildly amused contempt for the trappings of "polite society" only serve to highlight his profoundly ethical nature.
The character is loosely based on the actual courtroom career of barrister Sir John Mortimer CBE QC, Rumpole's creator and author, who often took on controversial and "lost hope" causes (such as defending the Sex Pistols
' use of the word "Bollocks" on the cover of their one and only album — he won by proving the word had been used in common and cherished literature as far back
John Mortimer adapted many of the show's episodes into book form, and after the show was cancelled continued to write and publish new Rumpole stories, which frequently featured plots Ripped from the Headlines
, or as close to it as you can get for a book. Many Rumpole stories have also been adapted for BBC Radio
Compare and contrast Garrow's Law
, which is much like Rumpole
, but in Georgian London
Rumpole of the Bailey contains examples of:
- Accidental Misnaming: Phyllida (Trant) Erskine-Brown keeps having to correct people who think her name is "Phyllis".
- Accuse The Witness: This seems to be Rumpole's favorite tactic, from very early in his career as revealed in Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. However he always makes sure he has evidence to back up these attacks first.
- A Day in the Limelight: "Hilda's Story," collected in Rumpole and the Angel of Death.
- Against My Religion: Frequently invoked/joked about: whatever religion Rumpole follows, it forbids prosecuting and pleading guilty (unless he knows for a fact that the client did it or if the judge is sympathetic and the client won't get jail time).
- Alternate Continuity:
- The books, though they began as adaptations of the TV series, had some very minor differences from the series, and kept being published long after the series had ended.
- The recent BBC Radio 4 plays featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. They feature a much younger Rumpole, but they are all reworked stories from the television series that featured Leo McKern's much older Rumpole.
- Always Murder: A rare exception to the rule for mystery stories. Very rarely does someone actually end up dead in Rumpole's cases — in fact the very first story revolved around a random wounding.
- Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: In the Play for Today episode, Rumpole slowly realizes that that's how his son regards them.
- Amoral Attorney: Vanishingly few; most of the lawyers we meet are at worst sanctimonious hypocrites.
- Featherstone and Ballard prefer prosecution or civil work to defense, and as such when they are assigned to be defense counsel they rarely apply themselves; they don't do their own investigations or even bother to cross-examine witnesses for fear of upsetting the judge, unlike Rumpole who does everything he can to make sure his clients have a fighting chance.
- The solicitor Perrivale Blythe in "Rumpole and the Last Resort" fits this rather well; he never pays his bills to barristers — hoping to wait until the barrister dies and then settle for a small percentage with the grieving widow — and engages in some other questionable business with his clients besides.
- Even Rumpole falls in to this from time to time. He uses Phyllida's naivety against her causing her to lose an open and shut case (her first prosecution), and then when she became a Recorder (part time judge) he arranged to sit on one of his cases, clearly hoping for an unfair advantage.
- Arch-Enemy: Many judges don't like Rumpole, but none are so vehement in their dislike as Judge Roger Bullingham, known to Rumpole as "the Mad Bull". He doesn't like defense barristers in general, but he has a special contempt for Rumpole.
- Artistic License – Law: Averted. This is noted as one of the most realistic legal dramas ever producd. The writer and creator John Mortimer, QC was an actual practing barrister in addition to being a writer, and thus knew legal life, extremely well. He would get up at 4:00 in the morning to write the scripts and then go to work at court. He eventually retired from the Bar to focus on writing full time.
- Awful Wedded Life: Rumpole and Hilda really don't get along. How this is subverted to an extent as Hilda mentions that they tried to be a family for Nick's sake when he was a boy.
- Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: They may fight and argue but in Rumpole's words "they'd rather have war together than a lonely peace". There are several indications that Hilda is secretly proud of her husband, despite her loud dissapointment that's he not a judge or a QC, although she'd never say so to her face.
- Bad Boss: Sam Ballard as Head of Chambers. He's extremely judgmental about what choices his colleagues make in their personal and professional lives, especially Rumpole. He obsesses over very petty matters in Chambers, and his greatest concern is the public reputation and image of Chambers. On many occasions he's tried to force Rumpole out, so his office can be taken by a more financially lucrative or "respectable" barrister.
- Batman Gambit:
- Rumpole executes a magnificent one in "Rumpole and the Last Resort." The gambit was focused on the solicitor Blythe, who at once owed Rumpole nearly £2,500 in fees going back as ten years earlier (at a time when Rumpole was late on his utility bills and overdrawn at his bank) and was a material witness in the fraud case he was defending. Blythe was known to hold out payment to barristers until they died, then wheedle the widow into settling the payment for a small fraction of the original fee. On top of that, Blythe had a tendency to have "just slipped out of the office" every time somebody called the office; he was more or less nowhere to be found. After Rumpole fails to convince Judge Bullingham to grant an adjournment in the fraud case to find Blythe, he decides to fake his own death: he collapses in the middle of his application to Bullingham, sends a message to Chambers (supposedly from his wife) informing them that he is dead, and hides in his house for some time (possibly a week or more) until Blythe shows up at the door, offering Mrs. Rumpole the same pittance of a settlement he usually offered. She declines, forces him to sign a check for the exact amount Rumpole was owed, and then lets in Private Detective "Fig" Newton, who hands Blythe a subpoena. Finally, when Blythe is forced to take the stand and the fraud case recommences, Bullingham starts something of a eulogy for Rumpole. At this point, Rumpole appears in the courtroom and begins his questioning of a terrified Blythe. In the meantime, Chambers had gotten rather excited by the prospect of the death of Rumpole, with "Soapy Sam" trying to use it as an excuse to take on Guthrie Featherstone's well-connected nephew, and Claude Erskine-Brown hoping to take possession of Rumpole's umbrella stand: all of which Rumpole heard about and used to make a point about his Chambers.
- Rumpole executes a few on Ballard, most notably in "Rumpole and the Age of Miracles", where he tricks "Soapy Sam", sitting in judgment in an ecclesiastical court, that the ghost of a saint that supposedly haunts the hotel where they are staying is warning the judge in the case (i.e. Ballard) of a great injustice to come.
- The trick Liz Probert pulls on Claude Erskine-Brown falls under this, as well (see Mistaken for Gay below).
- Hilda and Liz Probert join forces in the final episode, "Rumpole on Trial," to trick Rumpole out of giving up his career. All it takes is Hilda detailing all the things they're going to do together now that he's retired.
- Benevolent Boss: Guthrie Featherstone, when he was Head of Chambers in the first two series. He had a much more friendly relationship with Rumpole and the other barristers than Sam Ballard ever did.
- Boarding School: Because Rumpole went to a third-rate public school, he doesn't have an "Old Boy Net" — which turns out to be why Sam Ballard (who went to Marlborough, as did Featherstone) becomes Head of Chambers instead of Rumpole.
- Brilliant but Lazy: Rumpole is a fantastic barrister and advocate, but his practice is noted to have frequent lulls, and by his own admission he knows little about actual law. If he applied himself or expanded into other areas, he'd be much more financially secure (his bank account is often overdrawn).
- British Brevity: The series aired from 1978 to 1992 for a grand total of 42 episodes broadcast over seven series, and one feature-length special aired between series two and three, plus the pilot aired on BBC in 1975.
- British Newspapers: Make an occasional appearance. Rumpole is partial to The Times, especially its crossword. Hilda prefers the Evening Telegraph (and its crossword). Papers appear as important points in certain episodes: "Rumpole and the Tap End" features embarrassing reports on a decision of (Mr. Justice) Guthrie Featherstone's in The Evening Standard; "Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation" features Rumpole and Claude Erskine-Brown's dealings with an obvious replacement for The Sun (complete with Page Three Stunna!) called the Beacon. Specifically, Rumpole has to defend the sleazy editor of Beacon on a libel charge (it's a "money brief", with an unspeakably large fee and a £500/day refresher), while Erskine-Brown is caught at a strip club (doing research on his case about a fight at the club some time earlier) by the Beacon photographers and has to deal with the consequences.
- Brotherhood of Funny Hats: In "Rumpole and the Right to Silence", he finds that the city of Gunster is dominated by the Ancient Order of Ostlers (described as "like the Freemasons, only more so"), who have a secret grip and swear by "the Great Blacksmith and Forger of the Universe."
- Bulungi: Narenga, a Central African Commonwealth Realm with complex and often deadly tribal politics, in "Rumpole and the Golden Thread". One of Rumpole's old pupils, who has become Minister of the Interior, invites Rumpole to defend him in a case of capital murder; the absence of a jury — an institution abolished by the British during the colonial period — drives Rumpole mad.
- Busman's Holiday: "Rumpole at Sea".
- Butt Monkey: If somebody is getting the short end of the stick, you can bet good money that it's either Claude Erskine-Brown, Guthrie Featherstone, or Sam Ballard.
- Cake Toppers:
- Claude and Phyllida Erskine-Brown's wedding cake at the end of "Rumpole and the Course of True Love" features the groom in a barrister's gown and clerical bands and the bride in a wedding dress—and both in barristers' wigs.
- In "Rumpole and the Quality of Life", the cake at Sam Ballard's wedding to Marguerite "Matey" Plumstead, Matron of the Old Bailey, is topped with a man in barrister's garb and a woman dressed as an old-fashioned nurse in a blue gown, white apron with red cross, and white hat.
- Can't Hold His Liquor: Samuel "Soapy Sam" Ballard, QC, gets absolutely blotto — as in fall-on-the-floor, can't-remember-how-many-drinks-he's had, crazy drunk — after a mere five small glasses of sherry.
- Can't Stand Them, Can't Live Without Them: The ever-antagonistic Rumpoles may not love each other, exactly, but they occasionally show signs of a deep-seated loyalty. Horace learns to dance to make Hilda happy; Hilda fiercely defends Horace in "Rumpole on Trial"; and they prove themselves unbeatable when they join forces in the Batman Gambit discussed above.
- Casting Gag: Peter Cellier as Sir Frank Fawcett, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, in "Rumpole and the Official Secret", doubtless referencing his recurring role as Permanent Secretary to the Treasury Sir Frank Gordon in Yes, Minister.
- Catch Phrase: the "Golden Thread of British justice" and "never plead guilty" as personal mantras.
- Celibate Hero: According to the novels, the Rumpoles had sex exactly once, on their honeymoon, which explains how they managed to have a child. Other than that, no, and Horace has only been Mistaken for Cheating.
- Character Name and the Noun Phrase: Just about every episode title.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- A literal one occurs in "Rumpole and the Fascist Beast". The gun is in the titular "fascist beast"'s shed, where he keeps birds, hidden under the bird seed. He commits suicide after his acquittal leads to the local chapter of the party — an obvious stand-in for the BNP — unseating him.
- Another literal Chekhov's Gun appears in Rumpole and the Show Folk; whilst demonstrating with a gun in court, Rumpole notices that the hammer is extremely prone to going off accidentally when cocked, which becomes relevant when the defendant testifies to the gun going off accidentally in self defence. Subverted when it's revealed the defendant did actually murder the victim in cold blood and was just very good at covering her tracks.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: After actor Richard Murdoch's death in 1990, Uncle Tom vanished without an explanation.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Uncle Tom, who hasn't had a brief in anyone's living memory, but still happily potters around Chambers playing golf. His chief role in the show is to go off on long semi-relevant recollections of past events whenever anyone discuses anything near him.
- Cold Cash: Or rather, cold silver; "Rumpole and the Blind Tasting" begins with the police going through one of the Timsons' freezers and finding Georgian silver tableware in bags of frozen peas.
- Comic-Book Time: Rumpole is somewhere in his mid-sixties when first introduced, and never really gets any older. (See the Other Wiki for a detailed rundown of the series' flexible chronology.) Strangely, this only applies to Rumpole and his wife. The young female lawyer introduced just passing the bar in the first stories is an experienced judge in late middle age by the end, and many other characters also age, retire, and so forth.
- Common Nonsense Jury: "Rumpole a la Carte." Rumpole all but openly advocates a nullificatory verdict (the prosecution had objectively proved its case by any reasonable standard — health-code violations at restaurants are strict-liability offenses requiring only a showing that the offending item was present in the restaurant, and nobody doubted that a live mouse had been present on a plate of food at that restaurant). He wins.
- Commuting on a Bus: Guthrie and Phyllida, after the first two series. Their actors had other commitments but they still mananged to appear in every season in some compacity.
- Continuity Nod: Several, especially later in the series. They often occur when a character who was formerly a regular but now isn't (e.g. Guthrie Featherstone or Phyllida Trant) shows up.
- Court-Martialed: In the episode "Rumpole and the Bright Seraphim", Rumpole is asked to defend a soldier in a court-martial and has some difficulty with the differences from the civilian courts he's used to operating in.
- Courtroom Antic: A major part of Rumpole's arsenal; when he's invited to lecture on law in one episode, one of his colleagues remarks that he knows very little about law but everything there is to know about how to distract the jury while one's opponent is summing up. And unlike most seen on television, they generally aren't the sort of thing that could get one charged with contempt of court; Mortimer was a practicing lawyer and knew just what you could reasonably expect to get away with in a court of law.
- A Day in Her Apron: Rumpole faces a more realistic form of this when Hilda takes "industrial action" in "The Summer of Discontent." The house doesn't get enough time to go to pot, but Rumpole sets fire to his beef.
- Deadpan Snarker: Rumpole, in both his life but especially in his style of advocacy.
- Phyllida Erskine-Brown is also very good at this — possibly a function of having been trained by Rumpole.
- And under Mortimer's pen, everyone gets this. See, for instance, this bit from "Rumpole and Portia":
Rumpole: If Uncle Tom goes, I go.
Ballardnote : That would seem to make the departure of Uncle Tom even more desirable.
- Defeat Means Friendship: Rumpole's underhand defeat of Phyllida Trant in their first courtroom encounter in Rumpole and the Married Lady. Referred to quite a bit in later episodes.
- Dirty Cop: Detective Inspector "Dirty" Dickerson of "Rumpole and the Learned Friends," who runs a sort of protection racket with the "minor villains" in his area of South London (usually by planting evidence of some crime — whether or not they committed it — and then blackmailing them with it) and is all too happy to perjure himself.
- Drink Order:
- "A glass of the old cooking wine": Pommeroy's Plonk, Pommeroy's Very Ordinary, Chateau Thames Embankment, Chateau Fleet Street, all names for Rumpole's trademark £2-a-bottle claret.
- As for Mrs. Rumpole, she'll have a gin and tonic.
- Henry the clerk is portrayed as ordering a pale, peculiar drink with a lemon slice floating in it at Pommeroy's Wine Bar ("Rumpole and the Last Resort"); it's Dubonnet and lemonade.
- Claude Erskine-Brown fancies himself a wine connoisseur ("Rumpole and the Blind Tasting"). Possibly a case of The Cast Showoff; Julian Curry (who plays Erskine-Brown) is also a noted wine expert.
- "Soapy Sam" Can't Hold His Liquor, and is thus often found drinking sparkling water.
- Driven to Suicide: One of the characters in "Rumpole and the Official Secret" winds up throwing himself under a train.
- Dysfunctional Family: the Rumpoles (particularly obvious in the original teleplay, which was darker in tone than the later episodes).
- Eek, a Mouse!!: In "Rumpole a la Carte". Admittedly, a plate in a three-Michelin-star restaurant is the last place you would expect to find a live mouse, but do you really have to stand on your chair and shriek?
- Embarrassing Middle Name: Claude Leondard Erskine-Brown. Rumpole exhibits unbridled joy reciting it when he learns it just before his cross-examination of Erskine-Brown in "Rumpole a la Carte".
- Exact Words: Phyllida Erskine-Brown to Sam Ballard: "I'm leaving the Bar."
- Exiled to the Couch:
- Hilda does this to Rumpole when she suspects him of having a fling with the young girlfriend of an elderly artist. Unfairly; he was just at a pub to collect evidence.
- Rumpole exiles himself after a particular disastrous night at the Scales of Justice Ball, where he tells a "blue" story that offends both Hilda and the prudish Welsh judge he was sitting next to. He ends up living in chambers for a while, to Ballard's displeasure, forcing him to move in with the Erskine-Browns. Eventually the Erskine-Browns get fed up with him (and he gets fed up with young Tristan and Isolde Erskine-Brown's incessant complaints about his smoking), and he ends his self-imposed exile... but not before he forces Ballard to spend a night at chambers himself.
- Claude Erskine-Brown eventually is himself forced to live with Rumpole after the "Kitten a-Go-Go" flap ("Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation"); at first Hilda takes great delight in annoying Rumpole with Erskine-Brown's holier-than-thou habits, but she eventually tires of his incessant playing of opera tapes.
- Faking the Dead: See Batman Gambit above. And the entire scheme serves as the setup to one TV's greatest Overly Preprepared Gag moments: Rumpole, after it's revealed he's alive: "It must have come as a huge relief for those who heard Rumpole had kicked the bucket, to hear he had just turned a little pail."
- Fawlty Towers Plot: A good number of the B-Plots fall into this category. The one about sexual harassment in "Rumpole and the Eternal Triangle" fits particularly well.
- Female Misogynist: During one of his complaints about the various unreasonable judges he has to work with, Rumpole singles out a female judge as a worse male chauvinist than any of the men.
- Feuding Families: The Timsons and the Molloys, two families of South London villians who have not been on speaking terms ever since a Molloy betrayed a Timson in the Streatham Co-op Robbery. More than once in the series, the police attempt to use a Molloy as a "grass" to get the goods on a Timson, rarely with good results.
- Fiery Redhead: Phyllida (Trant) Erskine-Brown and the first Liz Probert (played by Samantha Bond).
- At the beginning of the series, Claude Erskine-Brown is a somewhat pompous but nevertheless effective barrister with a thriving civil practice. By the end, he's an incompetent and completely un-self-aware milquetoast. Lampshaded when Erskine-Brown complains to Rumpole about how he's been reduced to "scraping the bottom of your [i.e. Rumpole's] barrel." Also, at the beginning of the series, Erskine-Brown is an all-around devotee of classical music in general and opera in particular, whereas at the end he focuses exclusively on Wagner.
- Mr. Justice Oliphant went from mentioning "common sense" and his blunt Northern heritage once or twice a trial to practically every line.
- Flaw Exploitation: Phyllida Erskine-Brown exploits Sam Ballard's sexual hypocrisy in order to get Claude his promotion to QC.
- Florence Nightingale Effect: How Marguerite ("Matey") gets Sam Ballard to marry her.
- Forging The Will: One story revolves around a forged will; Rumpole is retained by the true beneficiary to represent her in challenging the false will. (He's initially reluctant to venture into a civil court case, but he can't resist a good forgery.)
- Former Teen Rebel: Sam Ballard. In the later novels and short stories, he and his teenage rock group get back together for jam sessions.
- For Your Own Good: In "Rumpole and the Reform of Joby Jonson," Sam Ballard, in an uncharacteristic Hurricane of Puns, kindly explains to Claude Erskine-Brown that no, he couldn't possibly recommend Claude for promotion to QC. The result is an equally uncharacteristic What the Hell, Hero?.
- French Cuisine Is Haughty: La Maison Jean-Pierre, run by Jean-Pierre O'Higgins, in "Rumpole a la Carte" is an epitome — but it's not quite so stuffy after Rumpole defends him.
- Friendly Enemy: The members of Number 3, Equity Court often find themselves on opposite sides of a case, but are friendly enough to each other, usually.
- Gilligan Cut: In "Rumpole at Sea," Hilda wants to take a sea cruise. Rumpole doesn't. He tells her to get one thing clear, that he is not going on any cruise, no, no, NO... [ship's foghorn blows].
- Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Subverted. While it is true that almost all of Rumpole's clients that we see are in fact innocent of the crime they're on trial for, they are very frequently guilty of some other crime. This is particularly true of the Timsons, a clan of South London "minor villains" who make their living off of petty larceny and fencing, and whose fees seem to pay a fair chunk of Rumpole's own bills. There's also one Downer Ending where Rumpole's client tells him after he's got her off that she was in fact guilty and thanks to the double jeopardy rule there's nothing he can do about it.
- Grand Finale:
- Most season finales where written in a way to wrap up the show, because Leo McKern, although he enjoyed the role, wanted to avoid typecasting and was frustrated how it seemed to overshadow his other works (much like Alec Guiness with Star Wars), but John Mortimer convinced him to keep coming back. The ultimate finale was "Rumpole on Trial", where all of the cast main and supporting reunite for a party, at the end.
- In the final novel published, Rumpole Misbehaves, Rumpole makes a serious attempt to become a QC, because his client wants a QC, and only a QC to defend him. He doesn't get it because during a cross examination he implied that a Home Office official was connected to a prositution ring much to anger of the presiding judge, who happens to be on the Committe that grants applications for QCs.
- Hanging Judge: Most of the judges Rumpole encounters are not impartial. They tend to act as a second prosecutor.
- Mr Justice Roger "the Mad Bull" Bullingham
- "Rumpole and the Sporting Life" features an unusual and literal example in the elderly Mr Justice Twyburne, who once sentenced a man to hang for killing a policeman. The man was later proven innocent, a fact which has preyed on Twyburne's conscience ever since.
- Hangover Sensitivity: here's at least one episode of wherein Rumpole, after a night of "carousing" with Henry the clerk, has to come in to court shading his eyes.
- Happy Ending Massage: "Rumpole and the Judge's Elbow". Featherstone, presiding in this case, thinks he went to a parlor where these were provided, although he didn't partake and wasn't even aware of the possibility. Hilarity Ensues.
- Harmless Villain: The Timson clan, very, very low-level crooks ("minor villains" is what Rumpole likes to call them) whom Rumpole defends on a regular basis (they appear to be his primary source of income, and at one point he refers to himself as being "CT — Counsel to the Timsons.").
- Henpecked Husband:
- Rumpole. His nickname for Hilda is "She Who Must Be Obeyed".
- Sam Ballard
- Claude Erskine-Brown is in the same boat, but Phyllida tries to be subtler about it.
- And Guthrie Featherstone, whose wife is constantly pushing him to the next-higher position.
- Oddly enough, Ballard, Erskine-Brown, and Featherstone are all portrayed as actually being rather happy in their marriages. Perhaps a window to Mortimer's own view of the subject?
- High-Class Call Girl: Played with in "Rumpole and the Old Boy Net": Rumpole's clients were a middle-aged couple who ran a brothel for a high-class clientele. None of the actual prostitutes were in any way significant, and they weren't call girls (working as they were at a brothel), but the general idea (of a high-class prostitute) applies.
- Holier Than Thou: Sam Ballard. One wonders why he didn't become a cleric instead of a barrister.
- The Humphrey: Rumpole is a heroic variation- he knows and exploits the politics and follies of the legal system, but tries to pursue justice when possible.
- Hunting Accident: "Rumpole and the Sporting Life" revolves around a death that may have been murder or a genuine hunting accident.
- I Coulda Been a Contender: Rumpole is a variation in that his wife is disappointed that he hasn't achieved greater financial and career success, nor become head of chambers like her father was. Rumpole, on the other hand, is perfectly happy where he is, and has no interest in becoming a "Queer Customer" or "Circus Judge."
- In Da Club: Bizarrely and briefly. Phyllida Trant talks Claude Erskine-Brown (then just her boyfriend) into going to a fairly typical disco club after what was for her a thoroughly bored night at the opera, where they find none other than Guthrie Featherstone dancing in a tiger-print shirt with Angela, one of the junior clerks at chambers. Well, it was 1979.
- Jaded Washout: Rumpole. He's still a competent barrister but his most famous days were the Penge Bungalow Murders after WWII. His practice is not as sucessful as it once was, he's considered an embarrassment by his peers, and a disappointment to his wife.
- Justified Criminal: Most pitiably, a music hall singer who murdered her violently abusive husband, only to find herself years later on the same cruise ship with the judge who presided over her trial.
- Large Ham: Rumpole's modus operandi for much of his dealings with other people, and particularly his advocacy. He's called out on it by some theatrical actors in Rumpole and the Show Folk.
- Last Name Basis: Most everybody with respect to everybody else. Vanishingly few people call Rumpole "Horace;" not even Hilda. This is actually accepted practice amongst many members of the Bar, first names generally only being used between barristers who are on a very informal footing. We can see this with Rumpole and George Frobisher, who are (in early seasons) close friends (They have something of a falling-out after Rumpole's first case before Frobisher as a circuit judge) and call each other "Horace" and "George".
- Lame Rhyme Dodge: Rumpole's habit of talking to himself frequently asserts itself at the wrong time, leading to some rapid backtracking.
Horace Rumpole: [under his breath] She who must be...
Hilda Rumpole: What?
Horace Rumpole: I said "trust me," Hilda. I shall always be a staunch supporter of women's rights.
- Lethal Chef: Rumpole, as evidenced by the flaming bits of meat in "Rumpole and the Summer of Discontent."
- Malicious Misnaming: When Rumpole is feeling ill-disposed towards Ballard (which is most of the time), he calls him "Bollard".
- Mistaken for Cheating:
- Sam Ballard, Guthrie Featherstone, and even Rumpole himself, on separate occasions.
- Subverted with Claude Erskine-Brown, who attempts to cheat and fails miserably.
- And averted once with Featherstone, who actually was cheating with Angela (the left-wing junior clerk).
- Mistaken for Gay: One of Liz Probert's boyfriends (Dave Inchcape) makes it into Chambers because Claude Erskine-Brown believes that he's gay.
- Murder Is the Best Solution: "Rumpole and the Quality of Life."
- My Local: Pommeroy's Wine Bar.
- Never Learned to Read: One episode has Rumpole proving that a confession was coerced because the defendant can't read or write, and thus couldn't have written it/known what he was signing.
- The Nicknamer: Rumpole himself.
- He calls pretty much everyone "old darling" or "old sweetheart".
- He calls Hilda "She Who Must Be Obeyed."
- He gives Phyllida Trant the nickname "Portia" (or more completely, "the Portia of our chambers"), after Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
- He gives Samuel Ballard the honor of not one but two nicknames: "Soapy Sam" (referring to Samuel Wilberforce, a famous public speaker and defender of Christianity in the late 19th century) and the rather less complimentary "Bollard." In the stories, "the Savanarola of our chambers."
- He calls Liz Probert "Miz Liz". Guess why.
- He repeatedly calls the young Charles Hearthstoke "Hearthrug." To his face.
- At one point, in front of Mr Justice Featherstone. Who once (accidentally? Or was it a slip?) follows suit.
- The solicitor Mr Bernard (who usually handles the Timsons' cases, among others) is known to Rumpole as "Bonny Bernard".
- He creates a couple of private nicknames for several of the recurring judges. The notable ones are:
- Judge Roger "The Mad Bull" Bullingham.
- Mr. Justice Gerald Graves, called by Rumpole "Mr Injustice Graves," "Mr Justice Gravestone," and at on least one occasion "Mr Injustice Death's Head".
- Nipple and Dimed: Averted, as the series aired after the Watershed. A stripper in "Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation" and an artist's model in "Rumpole and the Quality of Life" are both depicted with their assets clearly displayed.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The "Ostlers" of the (fictional) town of Gunster in "Rumpole and the Right to Silence" bear a (lampshaded) resemblance to the Freemasons.
- Noodle Incident: Rumpole's greatest professional success, the case of the Penge Bungalow Murders, was a Noodle Incident for almost three decades before recently being told in a novel suprisingly named Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders.
- No Party Given: Averted where applicable.
- The third episode, "Rumpole and the Honourable Member", features an MP clearly identified as Labour accused of rape by his left-wing "Trot" campaign worker.
- Another episode, "Rumpole and the Fascist Beast", subverts this by having Rumpole defending a far-right politician from the "British Patriots," which doesn't exist but is clearly based on the National Front.
- Guthrie Featherstone QC MP is clearly identified as having joined the Social Democratic Party shortly before becoming a judge. When Featherstone is still in practice as a barrister, Rumpole often identifies him as a "Conservative-Labour" politician — i.e., too indecisive to be possessed of any great political conviction. It's implied that he joined the Social Democrats mainly because it kept him from having to choose a side.
- Charles Hearthstoke self-identifies as a Tory when discussing radical change at chambers with...
- Liz Probert, daughter of "Red Ron" Probert, a left-wing Labour leader of a North London borough council; she takes after her father. As for why Hearthstoke was talking to Probert about change in the chambers, he argued that the fact they were both young would make them both favor modernisation. However, it's pretty clear that he just wants to get into her pants (or is it her robes when discussing barristers?).
- Phyllida Trant, while chewing out her then-boyfriend Claude Erskine-Brown, mentions his "inexplicable approval of Mrs Thatcher" (or something to that effect) as one thing she's willing to accept, implying that Erskine-Brown is a Tory and that Phyllida isn't.
- No Sense of Humor: Sam Ballard and, often, Claude Erskine-Brown. Ballard's humorlessness is usually of the Literal-Minded variety.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Rumpole occasionally uses this when he's trying to get something, especially if he's trying to get it from Hilda.
- Office Golf: Uncle Tom's primary occupation, besides making bizarre comments at Chambers meetings and completely misunderstanding anything anyone says within earshot of him.
- Old-Fashioned Copper: Detective Inspector Brush, depicted most negatively.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: T. C. Rowley, called Uncle Tom by even an ultra-stuffy character like Ballard.
- Oop North: Mr Justice Oliphant is very proud of being from there, and it drives Rumpole to distraction.
- Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Mr Justice Featherstone has this problem; Rumpole even mentions it by name in his worst instance ("Rumpole and the Tap End").
- Plea Bargain: Despite his maxim "never plead guilty" he does at times engage in plea-bargaining, particularly when he knows the judge to be sympathetic. He tries at this — and Phyllida Trant, who was prosecuting, quite agreed — in "Rumpole and the Course of True Love," but George Frobisher couldn't guarantee that the client wouldn't do prison time. "Rumpole and the Tap End" starts with just one of these, where he got an attempted murder reduced to actual bodily harm before Featherstone, and the client was bound over. That is where the trouble began, however...
- Properly Paranoid: Hilda in "Rumpole and the Reform of Joby Jonson," as Rumpole concedes at the end.
- Put on a Bus:
- Nick Rumpole moves to America to become a Professor of Sociology first at Baltimore then Miami. He isn't seen after the first two series.
- Judge Bullingham was written out after his actor passed away after series four. However, this does not apply to books where Judge Bullingham was still a regular supporting character up to the very end.
- Rank Up: Phyllida Trant begins the series as a junior barrister and ends it as a High Court judge.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: A number of storylines are a Whole Plot Reference lifted from the headlines; for instance Rumpole and the Children of the Devil tackled the spurious accusations of ritual Satanic abuse that created a moral panic.
- Reality Ensues:
- Rumpole's habit of turning down more lucrative law practices, and promotions seems all find and admirable until you remember he how often his bank account get overdrawn. In Rumpole and the Last Resort he has no money to pay utilties because a particular seedy solicitor is refusing to pay him his due from a back case.
- It also means he really doesn't have much money for a pension so he can't retire from the Bar, even if he wanted to.
- Since Rumpole refuses to take QC, he's therefore a "junior" barrister and often finds himself sitting second chair on cases to QC's and he often works to have them removed from the case (usually by impressing the client well enough that they just want Rumpole as their brief) so he can defend them properly.
- His habit of insinuating respectable people are guilty of crimes in his cross examinations upset many judges and they are openly hostile to him and vice versa. It also means he gets threatned with disbarment on occasion when he really can't back up his claims like in ''Rumpole and the Learned Friends"
- Recycled Plot: After BBC Radio 4 did an adaption of Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders with Benedict Cumberbatch as the young Rumpole, they began producing more plays featuring Benedict's Rumpole that were just reworked version of John Mortimer's old scripts.
- Retcon: Somewhere along the line in the books Judge Roger Bullingham became Judge Leonard Bullingham. Whether or not they are the same charcter is open to fan debate.
- Running Gag:
- "Speaking as a man with daughters..."
- Hilda's obsession with her "Daddy", C. H. Wystan.
- Claude Erskine-Brown's obsession with Opera; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg gets mentioned a lot.
- Satchel Switcheroo: Rumpole accidentally walks off with Uncle Tom's briefcase, discovering the switch only when he opens it. In court. Hilarity Ensues.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Rumpole's attitude towards prosecuting, taking silk, and becoming a judge. He is tempted, every now and then, but he always falls back to his old habits.
- In "Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation," he has taken on a civil libel suit defending the editor of a London tabloid, the highest-paying case of his career, which promises to fund his retirement. Then he discovers the entire lawsuit is a fraud cooked up between his client and the plaintiff (to extract money from the co-defendant, the corporation that publishes the tabloid; the plaintiff—a writer of sappy romance novels—and Rumpole's client are actually lovers). Rather than continue with the case, he blackmails the client into making sure the case is dropped, and instructs his solicitors to return the client's money.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: How Sam Ballard is able to become Head of Chambers, despite being a new member. He's part of Guthrie's "Old Boy Net".
- Second Face Smoke: Rumpole does this to some of the more priggish characters, especially Ballard.
- Sexless Marriage: The Rumpoles (see Celibate Hero above). "Rumpole at Sea" suggests that this may not entirely be Hilda's doing.
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Several, and hardly surprising given Rumpole's love of English literature.
- Some are built into the stories. In "The Dear Departed," Rumpole opens and closes with a quote from Richard II ("Let's talk of graves, and worms, and epitaphs...") The solicitors in his will case are Mowbray and Pontefract — Mowbray being the accused knight whose duel opens Richard II, and Pontefract (Pomfret) being the castle where Richard is imprisoned at the end of the play.
- Silent Snarker: A lot of Rumpole's snark is actually delivered in voiceovers, audible only to viewers. One of the running gags is the frequent discrepancy between Rumpole's internal snarking and his external restraint.
Solicitor: What do you think of the prosecution, Mr. Rumpole?
Rumpole (voiceover): I think if it were conducted by a nervous first-year law student with a serious speech impediment they'd still get a conviction.
Rumpole (aloud): Well, we do face certain difficulties. (Rumpole and the Old, Old Story)
- Sophisticated as Hell:
Ballard: Look here, Rumpole, I would advise you to take this matter seriously.
And I would advise you, Bollard
, if you can find a taxidermist willing to undertake the work, to get stuffed.
- Society Marches On: Chambers of today are much more and centralized specialized then they were in John Mortimer's time at the Bar. Today Head of Chambers have a greater influence of which barristers takes which cases instead of having the clerk give them to you as they come.
- Straight Man: Just about everybody plays this part for Rumpole.
- Straw Feminist: Liz Probert (mostly in the later novels and short stories).
- The Summation
- Taking the Heat: "Rumpole and the Sporting Life"
- A Tankard of Moose Urine: Rumpole's favoured "Pommeroy's Plonk" lives up to the name; the wine's "nose" suggests the terroir of a stretch of land between a garage and a pissoir. (A pissoir, for the unfamiliar, is exactly what it sounds like.)
- Theme Naming: Claude and Phyllida's children are named Tristan and Isolde.
- Teacher/Student Romance: In the episode "Rumpole and the Course of True Love", the case Rumpole is defending is a young high school teacher who slept with his student.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: In the final episode, "Rumpole on Trial," Hilda dragoons Ballard into defending Rumpole after he insults Justice Oliphant. Ballard is horrified and Rumpole initially uncooperative, but Ballard for once manages to be effective: he convinces Oliphant that it would look better if he accepted an apology from Rumpole.
- Token Minority: Lampshaded and eventually subverted in Rumpole and the Fascist Beast; Rumpole takes on Indian Latif Khan as a pupil, much to the surprise of everyone in chambers and to the disgust of his racist defendant (it's left unclear as to whether Rumpole deliberately took on an Indian to either annoy his client or make his client look better in court). However, it's clear that Khan has been coerced up the ladder by his rich father and he's dismissive of Phyllida after she attempts to bond with him over their "oppressed minority" status... because she's a woman.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: Pretty much every episode features an A plot — the case of the week — and a B plot revolving around some intrigue in chambers, or some intrigue in Rumpole's household.
- Twisting the Words: Inversion or Subversion, depending on your perspective: Rumpole often asks witnesses on the stand who heard someone say something or another if they were sure it had the emphasis they recalled.
- The Usurper: Rumpole is the senior man in Chambers, and was most likely to succeed his father-in-law as Head of Chambers, until Guthrie Featherstone became QC. In Series Three, Guthrie is about to become a judge and Rumpole looks like he's about to take the job...until Guthrie's old friend Sam Ballard comes into town, looking for a place in Chambers.
- Unwitting Pawn: Sam Ballard has a habit of falling for the traps Rumpole lays for him.
- Video Inside, Film Outside: Eventually dropped, in Season 4, when it went all-video.
- White Sheep: In "Rumpole and the Barrow Boy", one of the Timsons goes to school, studies, and gets a high-paying finance job in the City... and is the one set up to be blamed for financial irregularities at his place of employment by his father-in-law-to-be, who is not happy at finding out about young Timson's family, even though he's never done anything wrong himself.
- Worthy Opponent:
- Often stated by Rumpole whenever he's up against a good barrister.
- Judges are not actually barristers' opponents, but there are some judges whom Rumpole cannot stand both personally and professionally (he thinks they're hostile to the defence). Of these, Mr. Justice Graves, though in court he seems entirely to reciprocate Rumpole's attitude, indicates to others outside court that he has a certain respect for his principles and advocacy skills, and acknowledges that life would be duller without him.
- Your Cheating Heart:
- Featherstone, in "Rumpole and the Case of Identity", with the secretary Angela. Rumpole talks him out of it.
- Phyllida Erskine-Brown in the Christmas special "Rumpole's Return". She gets disgusted after her paramour, a young radical lawyer, tries to set up Rumpole to lose so he'll get Rumpole's room in chambers. Amusingly, she calls him "a nice bit of crumpet" — words usually reserved for men speaking of their mistresses.