Rumpole of the Bailey was a British TV series that started back in the late 1970s and ended up running for a number of years; most American viewers discovered the show when the first season aired on the long-running PBS show Mystery! This is the first episode and introduces us to Rumpole, a middle-aged, overweight, cynical, boisterous barrister, played to perfection by Leo McKern. The show isn’t really a mystery show. It’s a show about the law, but also about Rumpole’s relationship with the other lawyers at his firm and with his domineering wife, “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” It has dramatic moments and also broadly comic ones. In this episode, Rumpole finds himself defending a young lad from charges of assault and robbery; he’s part of a family of infamous petty criminals in London and this is his first brush with the law. Rumpole’s problems with his own son inform the court case and Rumpole is diligent in his efforts to have the young man aquited, but troubled by the fact that yet another member of this family has begun his, probably destined to be lifelong, career in crime. Rumpole is a complicated character, very well-written, and the show is quite brilliant at the way it makes this episode really thematic, very much about the father-son relationships and the way in which fathers direct the paths of their children. It’s made even deeper by another subplot revolving around Rumpole’s father-in-law and a promotion he has in mind for Rumpole. It’s a deep, character driven episode; there’s a moment late in the episode where a scene plays perfectly straight on one level and it was only on reflection a few hours later, that I realized I had completely missed the character’s true motivation for doing what he did in the scene. That’s good writing. The biggest problem here is that, even on DVD, the quality is quite bad. This was obviously a series made very cheaply and the visual quality suffers; but it’s the sound that’s really occasionally crippling – it’s fuzzy and, if the scene has more than a couple of people in it, it tends to just dissolve in a murky racket. The show was genuinely challenging to watch, the quality was so bad. But, luckily, it was worth it. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – extremely poor technical quality is a big obstacle here, but great writing and acting help this British legal comedy-drama series hold up. 3 ½ stars.