With the recent death of character actor Leo McKern, there will be a resurgence of interest in video editions of his wonderful "Rumpole of the Bailey" series so dear to the hearts of Mystery Theatre watchers on PBS. In fact, HBO is reissuing all of the tapes onto DVD format and they will be available starting in in the Fall of 2002. So it was with great pleasure that I saw listed in the Audio Partners catalogue of books on tape, "Rumpole on Trial" ((61267). The set holds 6 cassettes with a running time of 8 hours and 7 minutes. The reader is British actor Timothy West, whose voice is the next best thing to the gravel-throated chortle of McKern. Here he reads seven complete Rumpole tales: "Rumpole and the Children of Evil," "...the Eternal Triangle," "...the Miscarriage of Justice," "...the Family Pride," "...the Soothsayer," "...the Reform of Joby Jonson," and (to break the pattern) "Rumpole on Trial." All of these have been televised and all of them are a good deal of fun. John Mortimer's custom was to create around the case Rumpole is handling a framing plot that has thematic likenesses or is antithetical to the main plot. So, for instance, all the while Rumpole is worried about being disbarred, his draconian wife, Hilda ("She Who Must Be Obeyed" as he calls her) is plotting to have him made a judge.
The army of minor characters are a joy in themselves. The pompous Head of Chambers "Soapy" Sam Ballard, the unhappily married clerk Henry, the pro-labor and pro-women barrister Liz Probert, the opera-loving snake in the grass Claude Erskine-Brown, the foot-in-his-mouth Guthrie Featherstone, and above all the (in)Justices Olliphant and Graves who love the prosecution and cannot see any humor in Rumpole's reminding them a trial should be fair.
Timothy West does all the voices, of course, but does not try to emulate the women as other readers do on (say) the Jeeves tapes. That would have been an error, since the tales are always told first-person from Rumpole's point of view. For the most part, I think I clocked in about one good laugh per minute while listening to these tapes on long car trips; and I can highly recommend this set.
This volume is a collection of 7 Rumpole short stories. Rumpole is a practicing lawyer in London created by ex-lawyer John Mortimer. This is a long-running series of books that are still being written. An excellent BBC series starring the late Leo McKern is also available.
Rumpole has become a classic character and Mortimer's books are compared favorably with Wodehouse and other such geniuses of light fiction.
This is the 9th book in chronological order, though Mortimer reintroduces the characters at the beginning of his stories so you can start anywhere. There are 3 omnibus editions which each contain 3 books of short stories. However, this book is not in the omnibus editions and must be purchased individually.
Rumpole stories are comedic accounts of Rumpole's cases (he only works for the defense) interspersed with the foibles of his fellow lawyers. The other characters in the books, from judges to petty criminals are wonderfully drawn.
I have re-read this book several times. The part that most appeals to me is how Rumpole functions in a world that seems almost insanely bent on any pursuit but justice. The stories often comment on modern malaise and various hot-button issues from immigration to assaults on civil liberties.
My favorite story in this collection is "Rumpole and the Children of the Devil", where a busybody social worker tries to take away a child who played dress-up with a mask and turned this into devil worship. Like most Rumpole stories, this story comments on current trends like government miscues regarding child welfare.
I recently found this audio edition of "Rumpole on Trial." I had only heard Leo Mckern read the Rumpole stories, but knew other actors had portrayed the British barrister in the past. Unfortunately, after listening to the Timothy West version for awhile, I stopped listening. Those of us who have heard Mckern do Rumpole almost exclusively may be dissapointed with West's version. Mckern is much more bombastic and furious with his Rumpole. West's comedy is much more subtle to the point of non-existance. Where during an objection about a point of law, Mckern would have shouted with a great relish to the argument. West does not have that flair. But Timothy West is a good reader. I would encourage those who haven't heard Leo Mckern or have not decided that they won't accept any Rumpole other than Mckern's, to give this edition a chance. Those of us who have saturated ourselves with Mckern's acting ability, it might be best to save some money.
In "Rumpole on Trial" we have seven more wonderful Rumpole stories. I totally enjoyed each one. But as always, I will pick a favourite from this particular book, and it is "Rumpole and the Reform of Joby Jonson". It was laugh-out-loud funny, and Rumpole was at his curmudgeonly best in it. The other stories were lots of fun too. In the story, "Rumpole on Trial" we have Rumpole sitting on a different side of the justice system, when he is on trial for unprofessional behaviour in the courtroom. That in itself is funny, since I don't know when Rumpole is ever professional in court. But, boy is he smart. Not much gets past him that's for sure. These stories are pure delight, and I can't wait to read another.