Essays: Rumpled Rumpole |
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Rumpled Rumpole

TO THE 346,728 scientifically minded readers who have written in to point out that I don’t know the difference between silicon and silicone, the answer is that I do really, but forgot in the heat of the moment. Silicon is the stuff lying around on beaches. Silicone is what makes a stripper’s chest stick out.

Anyway, this week I intend to thank Heaven for small mercies. The first of these is Rumpole of the Bailey (Thames), a new series by John Mortimer developed from a one-shot play screened a year or so back. After two episodes Rumpole, played by Leo McKern, is already well established as the kind of rumpled old barrister you love to hug. Rather like John Mortimer himself, in fact.

In the first episode Rumpole was to be seen defending a dedicated young criminal against a false charge. The lad was a known thief, but the charge was a police frame-up. In other words, Rumpole was defending the rule of law: a simple point, but well conveyed. There was a fuddy-duddy judge who had not heard of the Rolling Stones. ‘I’m afraid a great deal of this case is taking place in a language foreign to me.’ Rumpole tolerantly enlightened him, the same way that John Mortimer tolerantly enlightens fuddy-duddy judges every day of the week.

In the second episode the police were at it again, tricking sweet communarde Jane Asher into a drugs deal. Rumpole fell for Miss Asher — a believable infatuation, since she looks a treat and becomes a better actress with every passing year. You can tell when Rumpole is happy: he quotes Wordsworth. He also quotes Wordsworth when he is unhappy. It is sometimes hard to avoid the conclusion that Wordsworth should be cut in for a large slice of the writing fees. But on the whole the series deserves credit for making its points, some of them tough ones.

An inspiring series about the struggle to save an ailing newspaper in Glasgow, The Standard (BBC1) is the answer to a prayer — the prayer being: bring back ‘Compact.’ Younger viewers and readers might not remember that there was once a series about a magazine called ‘Compact,’ in which the action veered grippingly between discussions around the tea-trolley and power-struggles in the art department. There was a financial whizz-kid, a career girl, a harried editor, an up-and-coming reporter, and a stuffy father of the chapel. Fifteen years later, in ‘The Standard,’ there is a financial whizz-kid, a career girl, a harried editor, an up-and-coming reporter, and a stuffy father of the chapel.

Two episodes have by now lurched by and the characters have filled out to their full roundness, or as much roundness as they are ever going to have. The editor is my favourite. He is cast and made up to look like Charles Wintour, thereby confirming the impression that the story-line is based as much on the happenings at the London Evening Standard as on anything that might have occurred at the Scottish Daily Express.

He behaves, however, like no real-life editor anyone has ever heard of. He condemns the up-and-coming reporter as ‘not the “Standard’s” kind of man.’ If anyone suggests an interesting story, he says: ‘It might be all right for one of the yellow Sundays but it’s not what people expect to see in the “Standard.”’

The great mystery of the series is why the financial whizz-kid sees no connection between the paper’s weak performance and the editor’s attitude. Meanwhile the career girl, who is also the news editor, and the up-and-coming reporter, who in the first episode was identifiable as a radical by his red tie, and the stuffy father of the chapel, who, which, because, and then...

Obviously ‘The Standard’ will run forever. The ‘Armchair Thriller’ adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun (Thames), dramatised by Julia Jones, is scheduled for only six episodes, of which so far we have seen two. But there is no reason why the central character, Jemima Shore, should not survive and flourish. As played by the posh but sexy Maria Aitken, Jemima could be the biggest thing in lady sleuths since Miss Marple.

Jemima is a television presenter by vocation, but she doubles as a detective as well. She does a lot of things at once, like Antonia Fraser, who stands behind her heroine, the same way that John Mortimer stands behind his hero. It occurs to the alert viewer that Lady Antonia might have at last tapped the main line to immortality. People who had trouble picking Cromwell up won’t be able to put Jemima down.

At an out-of-the-way convent, a nun has turned blue and dropped dead. Jemima investigates. The place is full of nutter-nuns. Each of them seems to have something wrong with her, and Sister Edward, to judge from the name, might have something very wrong indeed. Even the plucky Jemima is spooked by the weirdo ambience, but finds comfort in the arms of her lover, Tom Amyas MP.

What with his wife and the demands imposed by the House of Commons, Tom is oft torn from Jemima’s side. ‘Look sweetheart, I’m as disappointed as you are.’ The tip of Jemima’s aquiline nose (Miss Aitken is aquiline everywhere else too, but it all adds up) wobbles with disappointment. Breeding tells, however. She is soon on her feet and charging back to the convent, where the atmosphere is somewhere between ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ A phantom nun mugs her in the chapel. Every few minutes a mystery Mini tries to run her down. Heavy sisters warn her to get lost. Is there something monstrous behind the monstrance? Fear clutches the cloisters.

The latest ‘Play for Love’ (Yorkshire) was Sheila Sibley’s The Marriage Counsellor, starring James Grout in the title role and Felicity Kendal as the young wife in search of advice. The ageing counsellor’s advice took a practical form. Eventually their affair wound to an end when he found himself under sentence of death from cancer. But from their brief idyll she had learned all about love. His wisdom, patience, tenderness, etc. Her youth, vitality, curiosity, etc. It was corn, but sweet corn.

Besides, there was something to it. After all, we clapped-out but experienced chaps would obviously be more attractive to Felicity Kendal than the healthy young type playing her husband in the programme.

Angels (BBC1) is back. Often mocked, it is in fact good, solid stuff, all about young girls finding a worthwhile aim in life — which is exactly what nurses do.

Lawrence Durrell’s Egypt (BBC2) profited froth a lush commentary by Durrell himself. The Back Page (BBC2), a play by Andrew Nickolds, was a promising but all-too-successful attempt to convince anyone who needed convincing that the typical Second Division football fixture is a dull occasion. On The Muppets (ATV) Link Hogfroth, captain of the starship Swine Trek, is rapidly emerging as the show’s most baroque character.

The London Weekend Show (LWT) featured boy prostitutes, known as rent-boys. Some of them took up the trade after seeing ‘Johnny Come Home.’ If I ’adn’t seen the film I don’t fink I would of gone on the rent scene.’ VD and psychopathic clients are among the occupational hazards, but at least it’s zero-rated.

The Observer, 16th April 1978