‘What next, Del Girl Trotter’: has genderswap TV gone too far?

Following Jodie Whittaker’s turn as the first woman to play the lead in Doctor Who, and Millie Bobby Brown’s feminised Sherlock in Netflix’s Enola Holmes last year, another leading screen character will switch from male to female in 2022.

Horace Rumpole, the battered slow-track barrister who proved one of TV drama’s most vivid characters from 1978 to 1992, will be reimagined as a female lawyer in a new take on Rumpole of the Bailey. The update for the most famous character created by the novelist and QC Sir John Mortimer, who died in 2009, is currently being written by his daughters, Emily (who scripted BBC One’s The Pursuit of Love) and Rosie.

A gender-swapped Rumpole feels the boldest attempt of this kind so far. The Doctor is naturally shape-shifting, having taken a dozen very varied male forms before Whittaker, and Brown was not playing, as it were, “Sheila Holmes” but Sherlock’s sister. Contrastingly, Horace was a very male figure in a legal system dominated by men (thrusting younger QCs, grunting judges). As played by Leo McKern in the ITV series, he was a claret-and-cheroot chap, sexistly frightened of women, who nicknamed his wife “She Who Must Be Obeyed”.

Emily Mortimer, who is writing the new Rumpole with her sister Rosie.
All in the family ... Emily Mortimer, who is writing the new Rumpole, which was based on her father’s novels, with her sister Rosie. Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

As such, the biggest decision for the Mortimers is to what extent a “Horatia Rumpole” will share appearance, personality and dialogue with the McKern version. For instance, will she have back in the flat a “He Who Must Be Obeyed” (or, possibly, “Ignored”), or, even still share her life with a “She”?

Crucial, also, to the original character (first seen in a BBC One Play for Today in 1975) is being an Old Bailey “hack”, a barrister refusing to seek promotion to QC, and loftier and more lucrative briefs, in favour of taking cases from the bottom of the legal pile. Emulating Mortimer, Rumpole preferred, on moral grounds, to defend, not prosecute.

The newspaper that broke news of the transposed show suggested Lily James and Keeley Hawes as possible casting for a “Horatia Rumpole”, but that would bring the figure closer to the elegant and successful Phyllida Erskine-Brown, QC, played by Patricia Hodge in the original series.

Mortimer’s characterisation of Rumpole was strongly and consciously indebted to another Sir John – Shakespeare’s Falstaff – the sottish but sagacious figure embodying a vanishing England. In that model, a Mrs Rumpole would be something like Mistress Nell Quickly, the bawdy innkeeper who runs Falstaff’s favourite tavern, for whom the most logical casting would be Miriam Margolyes.

While society aims to become less gendered, television drama and comedy, especially of the past, is often very binary

The suggestion is that the series would be updated to the present day, when female barristers outnumber men and there are two female supreme court justices. In that scenario, there is potentially dramatic purchase in casting a woman as a lawyer who, like Horace, refuses to seek silk or higher promotion, and is determined to represent defendants at the lowest end of the spectrum. The most obvious Shakespearean model for such a character has gone – Erskine-Browne was nicknamed “Portia” – but an alternative template would be Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, a smart, spirited, truculent rebel. Dream casting for such a Ms Rumpole would be Anna Maxwell Martin.

Because TV production tends to trend, the question arises of which other classic characters might be cross-written? But a complication is that, while society aims to become less gendered, television drama and comedy, especially of the past, is often very binary.

It might be tempting to reboot Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em as Francesca. But Raymond Allen’s scripts are a comedy of hapless masculinity, with Michael Crawford’s character struggling to match the stereotypical expectation of “being a man”. A version in which a clumsy and clueless woman tries and fails to do a man’s work would feel unavoidably sexist, and even more 70s than the original.

Similar risk would afflict inversions of Only Fools and Horses and Minder, series about London chancers that reflected the rise of Thatcherite entrepreneurialism. Delilah ‘Del Girl’ Trotter and her sister Roda – or Anthea Daley (with a husband referred to as “’Im Indoors) and minder Teresa McCann – would be intriguing writing and acting exercises, but the figure of the “spiv” or “tout” was historically male, and, if reversed, heads in the direction of satire, fantasy or science fiction. That also applies to revivals of The Sopranos, featuring “Toni” Soprano, and The West Wing, set in the White House of “Jessica” Bartlet.

There is, though, one Rumpole-like makeover I’d love to see. Watching Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown, and coming to the conclusion that it was the most magnetic TV acting since Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I fantasised about a remake of John le Carré’s spy drama with Winslet as “Georgina Smiley”, mole-hunter in the British secret service in 70s Britain.

Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.
Magnetic ... Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

While many remakes are updated to explain a female protagonist, there have been, since as early as the 1920s, occasional women in the hierarchies of the British establishment – such as Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), Labour’s first female cabinet minister, and Mervyn Pike (1918-2004), her equivalent Conservative pioneer, or Milicent Bagot (1907-2006), a precociously powerful woman in British intelligence.

Le Carré’s character Connie Sachs was based on Bagot, and in any distaff spin on scenes in which “Georgina” seeks her counsel, producers might make the confidante into Cornelius “Con” Sachs. But how much more interesting to keep her Connie, and implicitly an ex-lover, making Miss Smiley one of those rare influential women in postwar Britain whose single status was attributed to the death of a fiance in world wars, their private life sometimes necessarily secretive.

As the best investigators (Sherlock Holmes, Endeavour Morse, Hercule Poirot, Supt Ted Hastings, Mare Sheehan) tend to be outsiders and loners, because of workaholism and a reluctance to trust anyone, for Smiley to be the only woman in the upper reaches of Circus HQ would dramatically ramp up the character’s isolation.

Related: Enola Holmes: Sherlock sister spin-off lives up to its feminist ideals

There might also be mileage in a new version of Edge of Darkness, where, instead of detective Ronald Craven (Bob Peck) probing the conspiracy that killed his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley), a woman investigates her son’s death, the family dynamics significantly different.

And potentially enticing for those who remember Charlie’s Angels is Charlotte’s Angels, with a tough woman demanding various tasks of subservient men, potentially a satisfying inversion of a sexist formula – although the concept has arguably already been done in Dame Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life.

As “Horatia Rumpole” might warn, sometimes there are laws and social trends that can’t be altered.