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June 11th 2016 print

John Whitworth

Horace Rumpole, an Anarchist at Heart

The first collections of stories were written up from the television scripts. Later, Mortimer wrote the stories first. Later still, after the death of Leo McKern in 2002, he wrote stories which were never broadcast on television. He knew by then that McKern was irreplaceable

rumpole“I get together with John, he asks me if I feel like doing another. I usually say yes.” John Mortimer and Leo McKern were an unbeatable team. But it was not always so.

When Mortimer wrote the very first Rumpole script as a BBC “Play for Today”, he first wanted Alastair Sim (“but he was dead”) and then the Shakespearean Michael Hordern to play Rumpole. This was probably because Hordern had already played a barrister in a Mortimer play, The Dock Brief, though this barrister is spectacularly incompetent. At other times Mortimer claimed that Rumpole was based on his colleague, James Burge QC, who confided in him, “I’m really an anarchist at heart but I don’t think even my darling old Prince Kropotkin would have approved of this lot.” There is the speech style as well as the credo.

In some ways perhaps Rumpole is the barrister Mortimer himself never quite had the courage to be. Mortimer was rich because his father was a successful barrister and because he became a fashionable QC with a penchant for outrageously fruity cases, like the trial of Oz for conspiracy to corrupt minors (as I remember partly by means of a huge penis belonging to Rupert Bear), of Gay News for blasphemous libel, of Virgin Records for saying “bollocks” on a record title, and of Linda Lovelace, a porn actress who later found God. It was quite a long time before his writing caught up, as it were. Without Rumpole it never would have done so.

I may say there is a certain amount of guesswork here. Mortimer didn’t like to talk about money, especially his own. Though he confessed readily to being a “champagne socialist” he didn’t go into the matter in terms of actual money. This was very English of him and perhaps rather leftist. He contrasts with P.G. Wodehouse, no socialist he, who would happily talk about money all day.

It is as well to remember that Mortimer was not a novelist originally, but a playwright, and it is obvious when he wrote his first Rumpole play that he had only the sketchiest idea of what his hero could turn out to be, or indeed whether he would turn out to be anything at all. A Rumpole like Alastair Sim, feline and just a little threatening, or like Hordern, long, thin, almost cadaverous, would have been a quite different animal from the one we know. Mortimer only came round to McKern when he saw him in rehearsal.

For Rumpole is Leo McKern. The two are indivisible. Ian Carmichael is a version of Lord Peter Wimsey, Stephen Fry a version of Jeeves, but other interpretations are possible, indeed there are other interpretations. But, though Rumpole has been played by others on radio—Maurice Denham and Timothy West—no one represents him in the flesh but McKern.

It is worth saying a little about what a remarkably good actor McKern was technically. He is not physically suited for romantic roles, not even when he was younger, but I am sorry I never saw his Iago (twice), his Shylock, his Volpone or his Uncle Vanya. On film he is often nasty, one of the four murderers in Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons, a doctor in King and Country who prescribes laxatives as a cure-all for soldiers at the front in the First World War; but he turns his hand to anything. “A wasted year” in Ryan’s Daughter, surely one of the ten worst films ever expensively made, right up there with Cleopatra, caused him to sell all his possessions, including a Rolls Royce, by God, and drive his family to Australia in a Kombi. Hats off to him. He was fifty by then.

He had a glass eye as the result of an industrial accident. It gave his face even more of that lived-in look, particularly when he tapped it absently with a biro, or dropped it in his soup to surprise a waitress, a Rumpolean moment. He confesses to an affection for Rumpole but insisted he was not like him in some ways. “I’m not as loyal as Rumpers. I would have left She Who Must Be Obeyed ages ago.”

So would Mortimer, come to that. He married Penelope Mortimer and was unfaithful to her. He then married another Penelope. Four children resulted from the two marriages. He was the father of a fifth child with the actress Wendy Craig. Eliot’s marvellous polyphiloprogenitive is the word, I think, at least for an English upper-middle-class non-Catholic man. Incidentally his son Jeremy did not follow the law. He was a radio producer.

She Who Must Be Obeyed (the wonderful phrase is from the novel She by Rider Haggard—Mortimer had a liking for sensational fiction) is Hilda Rumpole. Horace found himself married to her because she was the daughter of his Head of Chambers. Mortimer probably got the idea from another writer-barrister, W.S. Gilbert. The Judge in Trial by Jury recollects:

 When I, good friends, was call’d to the bar,
I’d an appetite fresh and hearty,
But I was, as many young barristers are,
An impecunious party.
I’d a swallow-tail coat of a beautiful blue
And a brief which I bought of a booby,
A couple of shirts, and a collar or two,
And a ring that looked like a ruby.
At Westminster Hall I danc’d a dance
Like a semi-despondent fury;
For I thought I never should hit on a chance
Of addressing a British jury.
But I soon got tired of third-class journeys
And dinners of bread and water,
So I fell in love with a rich attorney’s
Elderly, ugly daughter.
The rich attorney, he jump’d with joy
And replied to my fond professions,
“You shall reap the reward of your pluck, my boy
At the Bailey and Middlesex Sessions.
You’ll soon get used to her looks,” said he,
“And a very nice girl you will find her.
She may very well pass for forty-three
In the dusk, with a light behind her!”
The rich attorney was good as his word;
The briefs came trooping gaily,
And every day my voice was heard
At the Sessions or ancient Bailey.
All thieves, who could my fees afford
Relied on my orations,
And many a burglar I’ve restored
To his friends and his relations.

And here is Rumpole:

When I first went to the Bar … I entered the Chambers of C.H. Wystan … He … had a daughter, Hilda … It became clear to me that I was expected to marry Hilda … it seemed a step in my career like getting a brief.

Gilbert’s aspiring and unscrupulous judge throws over his betrothed, but the good Rumpole does not. His marriage to Hilda is rocky but enduring and indeed has issue, their son Nick, whom Rumpole loves dearly in a rather absent-minded way.

Rumpole claims to have loved three women in his life, but none of them was Hilda. Miss Porter, his university sweetheart, died before they could marry. Rumpole says, “I often think about her, and of the different course my home life might have taken, for Miss Porter was in no way a girl born to command, or to expect implicit obedience.”

None of these three women finished up in Rumpole’s bed. It seems to me that Rumpole, in spite of these protestations, is like Mr Pickwick, an innocent asexual creature in a world of villains on both sides of the law. His concern as a barrister is simple: get them off. Their guilt or innocence is neither here nor there. Just get them off. And of course he does. His defeats all happen off stage. On stage, though puzzled, aggressively out of date, and often appalled by a modern world of supermarkets and rock concerts, he is Achilles, and unconquerable.

Rumpole is about seventy, but like the boy vampire in Let the Right One In he has been the same age “for a very long time”. In this he is very like Richmal Crompton’s William Brown, who was eleven for forty years as the world changed around him. In fact William and Rumpole have a lot in common. They are both scruffy outlaws contemptuous of polite society and each dearly loves the sound of his own voice. I was gratified to find that the boy Mortimer had all the William books, though he insisted he always preferred books about grown-ups. Certainly a character like John, short-sighted and bookish, would have got short shrift from William, who despised all but the most bloodthirsty of reading matter.

Though less cavalier than Crompton, who forgot the surname of William’s best friend and the age of his elder brother, Mortimer is fairly breezy about altering the exact time frame of his hero’s life. Probably he doesn’t really care. Rumpole is not for an age but for all time.

Incidentally, Rumpole would have been the much inferior Rumbold, except that there really was a barrister called Horace Rumbold. The name Rumpole does not appear to exist outside the works of John Mortimer. It has all sorts of connotations Dickens and Trollope would have loved. Rumpole is rumpled and crumpled and broad in the beam. And he has, as a barrister, a lot to do with rumpy-pumpy, an English slang expression for illicit sex.

Many works of literary art have sprung directly from the writer’s childhood. Dickens wrote David Copperfield, George Eliot The Mill on the Floss and Wordsworth The Prelude. One of my own books, the favourite of Wendy Cope’s, is entirely made up of childhood memories. Mortimer’s relationship with Rumpole is more devious.

Clinging to the Wreckage is Mortimer’s first autobiography, and A Voyage Round My Father is his memoir of Clifford, his blind, poetry-loving, cigarette-smoking barrister father who made enough money to ensure John’s upbringing was what we have learned to call “privileged”, unlike Rumpole’s, whose father was a vicar (one who had lost his faith, which may partly account for Rumpole’s suspicion of organised religion) and therefore in much more straitened circumstances. This vicar was a straight steal from life; he was Mortimer’s father-in-law.

John would probably never have become a barrister if it had not been his domineering and much-loved father’s wish. He always wanted to be a writer and indeed he was one during the war, turning out propaganda films for the Crown Film Unit when his poor eyesight kept him out of the army. He was not called to the bar until 1948.

He wanted to be a novelist. His Crown Film Unit experience gave him the material for his first, Charade. But I must say that Mortimer’s non-Rumpole novels are rather like Richmal Crompton’s non-William novels, interesting only because of the monstrous hero each has created elsewhere.

The first collections of Rumpole stories were written up from the television scripts. Later, Mortimer wrote the stories first. Later still, after the death of Leo McKern in 2002, he wrote books of stories which were never broadcast on television. He knew by then that McKern was irreplaceable. Mortimer died in January, 2009.

I can count forty-five television episodes, each just under an hour long. There are many more stories, including the full-length novel The Penge Bungalow Murders. One of the stories is narrated by his wife, interesting but not to be repeated. It is perhaps worth noting that one of the Jeeves stories is narrated by Jeeves and two of the Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated by Holmes.

Authors who use these serial characters (Mortimer, Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Crompton, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Buchan, Donna Leon and Patrick O’Brian are my particular favourites) are not of the first rank, according to the purveyors of Eng Lit. And in the cases of Sax Rohmer (Dr Fu Manchu), Sapper (Bulldog Drummond), Capt. W.E. Johns (Biggles), Leslie Charteris (The Saint) and other friends of my youth too numerous to mention, not of the first rank according to anybody much. Agatha Christie is a special case. People whose judgment I respect have found something there which I can’t. But you don’t have to like anything. If I never read another word of Thackeray, Meredith or D.H. Lawrence, I would take it like a man.

One of Mortimer’s clients grumbled after his case was lost, “Your Mister Rumpole could have gotten me out of this. Why can’t you?” Rumpole may be fictional but he is real. This is perhaps his greatest accolade.

John Whitworth, whose poetry frequently appears in Quadrant, lives in Kent.