But now, it appears, there is to be a second Rumpole. A female Rumpole, of all things. Blimey, who’d have thunk it?
The thought of John Mortimer’s legendary fictional creation being reborn as a woman has, inevitably, upset the whatever-next brigade.
You know the type. Those people who froth at the mouth about gender-neutral vegetables, make unfunny jokes about non binary coffee and pretend the European Union once tried to force politically correct alcohol down our British throats.
These whatever-nexters still haven’t recovered from Dame Judi Dench taking over the role of M in James Bond films, Jodie Whittaker being cast as the 13th Time Lord in Doctor Who and Millie Bobby Brown playing Sherlock’s just as clever sister in the Netflix series Enola Holmes.
When a national newspaper this week broke the story that Mortimer’s classic, long-running ITV drama - which ran from 1978 to 1992 and starred Leo McKern - was being rebooted in this way, the usual suspects raised their eyebrows, cleared their throats and had a good old moan.
“Leave Rumpole alone,” thundered Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn. “Rumpole is immortal.” Some critics insisted such tinkering was disrespectful to Mortimer’s family. Others argued the crumpled bon viveur was a distinctly male character.
In fact, the new series, which will be screened next year, has not only got the family’s blessing - it has been written by two of them. Daughters Emily and Rosie have spent the past two years writing all the episodes.
“It’s an onerous responsibility in a way,” admitted Emily, who recently directed the scathingly satirical TV series The Pursuit of Love, “but it’s been such fun to write. It’s such a nice way of remembering our dad and realising how radical the character was.”
As well as being an old-fashioned, principled, singular radical - representing defendants at the bottom of the legal pile, refusing promotion to the higher echelons of the establishment and championing progressive causes - McKern’s Rumpole was famous for his caustic wit, eccentric manner, love of quoting Wordsworth and Shakespeare, devotion to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse and penchant for cheap red wine.
I am a big fan of the original Rumpole. Indeed, I have been watching old episodes on the retro, nostalgia-soaked, channel Talking Pictures TV, which has enjoyed a well-deserved surge in popularity during the pandemic, with audience figures of just over 3.5 million a week.
This week’s offering, Rumpole and the Summer of Discontent, featured the self-described “Old Bailey hack” defending a political activist accused of manslaughter.
Would it be so impossible to imagine Anna Maxwell Martin, Miriam Margolyes, Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, Kristin Scott Thomas or Kate Winslet - brilliant as the crumpled, cantankerous, maverick detective in Mare of Easttown - playing this role?
Of course not. Actually, it would be pretty exhilarating for the series to be brought back to life as a 21st Century remake - in the same way Our Jodie managed to revitalise the Doctor Who format three-and-a-half years ago.
Loving the Huddersfield star’s performances as The Doctor has not undermined my appreciation for other favourite Tardis adventurers such as Tom Baker, David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston.
Such “gender flipping”, as Whittaker has proven, is hardly a new phenomenon. It has become a popular cultural trend, with franchises like Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 11 and American Pie all being revamped as women-centric films.
Besides, according to figures from the Bar Standards Board, there are now more female lawyers than male - so the rebooted Rumpole would reflect the current state of the sexes in the courts.
The whatever-nexters are not convinced. In their tweets, social media posts and other on-line comments, they have been reminiscing about a golden age of TV when the mighty McKern’s interpretation of the witty, anti-establishment barrister lit up the small screen.
I am curious to learn why being witty, anti-establishment and fond of claret should be deemed the distinct character traits of a male, rather than a female, barrister.
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