Rumpole sentenced to an early retirement

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The Independent Online
In a twist that defies knee-jerk use of the term "political correctness", Radio 4 has turned down a new series of Rumpole of the Bailey because it didn't like the feminist portrayed - rather than the sexist old barrister at the centre of the stories.

Rumpole, who is the creation of Labour-supporting John Mortimer, is most obviously sexist when it comes to his wife - whom he refers to as "she who must be obeyed", but most of his beliefs are exactly those you would expect from a barrister of his generation.

The BBC didn't object to this, but instead thought that a female colleague with strident feminist views was a touch old-fashioned and out of date.

Yet a dose of strident feminism is clearly what the legal profession could be doing with: a conference organised by the Bar and the Law Society two years ago discovered that Mr Rumpole's attitudes are anything but atypical.

Despite the fact that the percentage of female barristers has increased from 10 to 40 per cent in the last 20 years there are still precious few of them at the senior levels of the profession.

Much of this is down to the fact that women barristers get pushed into what are called "girlie crimes" like sexual offences and family law by the chambers' clerks who allocate cases to barristers and operate a painfully literal old boy network. If they try to take on their chambers clerk, women then find they don't get any work at all.

Margaret McCabe, the senior barrister who organised the conference, said that when she tried to change chambers she was asked whether she intended to give up practising when she got married; informed that women with children should not work and told that women members of chambers tended to be trouble- makers.

All of which leaves the BBC in something of a quandary. A Radio 4 spokeswoman said: "The BBC feels that the feminist politics of the last Rumpole offering were dated and old-fashioned."

But the unpalatable fact is that the fictitious Rumpole's views are probably right on the money. So while the BBC is being accused of political correctness gone mad by the right-wing press, it could be accused of covering up the nasty underside of life for women in the legal profession.

Still, the BBC is used to quandaries. If it had commissioned such a joyfully middle-brow character as Rumpole someone would probably have accused it of "dumbing down".