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Monday, February 6, 2012

Rumpole of the Opera

How an English television show hooked me on opera.
The opening title-card of Rumpole of the Bailey, with Leo McKern (l.) and the Statue of Justice.
© 1977 Thames Television.
For as long as I can remember, the British television series Rumpole of the Bailey (and the accompanying novels and short stories by John Mortimer) were a fixture in my life.

I first saw Rumpole in 1983 on Mystery! a still-running PBS series that airs British television mysteries. (The show was produced in the U.K. by Thames Television.) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the character, Horace Rumpole is a portly, curmudgeonly British criminal barrister who "never pleads guilty", lives on his wits, cheap red wine and smelly small cigars, and refers to his wife Hilda as "She Who Must Be Obeyed."

Here's the show's theme, featuring a memorable bassoon part. It was written by composer Joseph Horovitz:

Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole, Barrister-at-Law.
Probably from Rumpole's Return.
While Rumpole himself is not a tremendous lover of music, (he has an affinity for vaudeville shows and songs like "Roll Out the Barrel" and "My Little Sister") the opera plays an important part in the series. Some episodes incorporate excerpts from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (Rumpole and the Bright Seraphim) and Schubert's chamber music (Rumpole and the Eternal Triangle.) But the most frequently heard composer on Rumpole is Richard Wagner.

Claude Erskine Brown Q.C. (that's "Queen's Counsel") is the resident Wagnerian of No. 3 Equity Court. He's a hopeless prosecutor with an almost masochistic affinity for music drama, referred to in one episode as the man "who can sit through Tannhäuser without laughing." He's married to the busy Phillida Erskine-Brown Q.C., (the "Portia" of Chambers--she later becomes a judge), and they have two children: Tristan and the younger Isolde.

Feeling ignored by his busy wife, Claude makes repeated efforts to take another barrister to Covent Garden. This is "Mizz" Liz Probert, a fierce left-wing radical feminist who does her best to quash Claude's romantic ambitions. In one episode, he tells his wife that his guest for the opera was an elderly barrister, Thomas C. "Uncle Tom" Rowley. Uncle Tom claimed he enjoyed the "happy bits" of Tristan, particularly "If You Were the Only Boy in the World."

Rumpole (Leo McKern) sleeps through a recital as Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles, r.) looks on.
Frame-grab from Rumpole and the Case of Identity © 1980 Thames Television.
It was thanks to Claude's misadventures that I first heard much of the Wagner catalogue, long before I owned any recordings or saw the operas. The show includes excerpts from the Prelude to Act III of Meistersinger. The Wach Auf chorus shows up, faintly, in another episode, along with the Ride of the Valkyries and the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

We'll end with Rumpole and the Official Secret has a scene filmed in the Royal Box at Covent Garden. Rumpole goes to interrogate a suspect during Act I of Tosca. The villain (who is earlier said the be the "only chap in the office who could actually whistle Wagner") doesn't stick around for the third act. He hurls himself to his death in the London Underground against the crashing Scarpia chords. 

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