Inside the bizarre world of ITV’s Judge Rinder

Rinder's daytime courtroom reality series is compulsive viewing finds Michael Buerk – but why?

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He is not, to put it mildly, straight out of the stiffly formal traditions of the English judiciary. Offhand, I can’t think of many courtroom judges who would lean forward from their lofty eminence to shrill at a defendant: “I can smell a liar like a fart in a lift!” Or sum up the character of another: “If you had been at the Last Supper, you would have asked for ketchup”.

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But this is Judge Robert Rinder, star of a reality courtroom series on ITV that’s proved an instant hit, who is now spawning other programmes to showcase his forensic talents and flouncing personality.

Every afternoon, Judge Rinder lords it in a rather adenoidal, and extremely camp, way over a steady stream of the kind of lowlife inadequates who seem to have been bred specially for daytime television.

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In one way, it’s Jeremy Kyle set in a small-claims court. The litigants bring their grievances for him to settle, and much of the guilty fascination lies in the eye-openingly bizarre lives they lead and the mess they make of their relationships.

But Judge Rinder – it rhymes with tinder, not grinder – is what makes the whole thing cult viewing.

OK, he’s not a real judge. But he is a criminal barrister of some considerable repute for his age (42). And OK, he can be preening and petulant in the high-camp style that’s almost obligatory on daytime TV. But he is very smart indeed (which, without being unkind, is far from obligatory for daytime, believe me). And often very, very funny.

His grip on each case seems total. His ability to summarise, simplify, condense, can be a joy to watch. The way he rips gaily through the stumbling obfuscations is thoroughly entertaining, if cruelly one-sided.

The programme’s real USP, though, is that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and most of the people brought up before him are clearly complete idiots.

“I don’t get a cheap thrill out of calling them idiots,” he says when we meet. “I never put it in those terms, by the way.” He does, in fact. All the time. He threw one poor sap out of court with: “I’m sorry. I can’t take any more of you, I’m afraid. I think you’re an absolute moron. Get out. Out! Grow up!”

He concedes the point gracefully. “OK, but by that stage, I am just saying what everybody else is thinking!”

He insists he is not a snob and makes much of his working-class connections in north London. In fact, his dad was, and still is, the driver of a black taxi. But his parents were divorced when he was very young and his mother got first a degree, then a career, and ended up running a publishing company.

Robert Rinder’s boyhood experience was thoroughly upper-middle-class, albeit with grandparents who lived most of their lives in a council house.

He went to a very selective grammar school – “About five million apply for each place” (understatement is not his style) – where he was, by his own admission, loathsome. “I was an appalling person to teach. At 14, I was pretty advanced. I would read all the books in a few minutes, and I was bored. It must have been awful for a teacher to have a bright boy who’s giving them his undivided indifference.”

He did well in exams, which, he says, infuriated the teachers. “One, very memorably – perfectly reasonably in fact – told me: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got an A, but I absolutely hate you.’”

Redemption came in the shape of Mrs Jackie Grice, an inspirational teacher at his sixth-form college. “For the first time I met somebody who authentically believed in me, who said, ‘You know, you are really clever.’” He spurned Oxford to follow in her footsteps to Manchester University to read politics and history, and ended up with the top double first – “It really wasn’t an effort.”

For a long time he toyed with acting. He joined the National Youth Theatre at 14 alongside present-day stars such as Matt Lucas and David Walliams. But his acting career ended abruptly at university when he went to audition for a part alongside another student called Benedict Cumberbatch.

“I though I’d done well, and then I saw him deliver exactly the same lines and it was so different. He had a fizz, a chemistry and an understanding of the text that you just knew was what the writer wanted it to sound like,” he recalls.

He gave up the stage there and then, and took up debating instead. He and Cumberbatch became best mates. In 2013 the actor got himself ordained to officiate at Rinder’s open-air wedding in Ibiza to his husband, Seth Cummings. And Rinder was one of Cumberbatch’s three best men when he married Sophie Hunter last year.

A brilliant record in inter-varsity debates and that stellar degree got him straight from university into a pupillage in barristers’ chambers, “which was super-unusual”. He loved criminal law. “You have to have a passion for it. In the first few years, especially, the pressure was overwhelming… Three cases in an afternoon, barely an hour to prepare, and you’re often paid less than a bus driver. But I sometimes felt like Miss World.” Not exactly Rumpole, then.

He progressed to more serious cases, murder and complex fraud, but you sense the passion flagged. “You’re required to invest a lot of emotional capital and you can go bankrupt very quickly,” he says. “I still loved the law, but was much more excited by the idea of TV.”

In his spare time (“One of the happy consequences of my brain is that I rarely sleep”) he toyed with television formats. It was while he was pitching to do an updated version of the 1970s drama series Crown Court for ITV that his new career happened by what he calls “an exquisite accident”.

ITV wasn’t in the least bit interested in his idea, but the holy grail of daytime TV has been running in the United States for 20 years just waiting to be imitated. Judge Judy features a tough, retired family-court judge, Judy Sheindlin, adjudicating small-claims disputes in a simulated courtroom. It’s long been the highest-rated daytime show in America and earns its eponymous presenter $47 million a year.

Judge Rinder is a faithful copy, right down to the flag and the gavel, which have no place in real British courts. Rinder’s style is different – flamboyantly exhibitionist rather than gritty – but the format is the same. The participants sign up to accept the judgement, fully and finally, and then submit themselves to his cross examination, his banter and the jokes only he is allowed to make.

Among the more curious cases was a rather touching argument between two sisters over a loan, which took off when the lender said she wanted the money repaid so she could give her Chihuahua, Chi Chi, a “wedding to remember”. Chi Chi had already had a £6,000 hen party, complete with stretch limo and smoked-salmon canapés fed to her by a “butler in the buff”. Judge Rinder milked it, a baffled-looking Chi Chi in his arms, before briskly dismissing the pet-pampering as legally irrelevant and awarding the lender her full claim.

Then there was the 74-year-old, toothless busker who put his mankini on upside down with shocking consequences including, it was alleged, depriving his fellow band members of prize money in a talent competition, for which they wanted compensation. The case, like the mankini, didn’t hold up – dismissed, slightly surprisingly, for lack of evidence.

It’s a show, but Rinder says the law is spot on and there are life lessons to be learnt. Like getting things down in writing – “Never trust people, always trust paper. I’d marry a piece of paper if I could.”

He seems oddly lacking in self-awareness. He says he’s not an intellectual snob – indeed, claims for a while that The Only Way Is Essex is as culturally significant as Don Giovanni. But he finished off one case with: “That’s what’s called a Pyrrhic victory. Look it up.” And another: “There’s a lovely phrase and, let me tell you, in Darlington they talk of little else. It’s called caveat emptor.”

He also claims not to enjoy his courtroom superiority, even though he slaps people down with: “Shut up. This is my field. I am in my element. Ooh, I’m in heaven!”

His new series, Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories, is cashing in on a renewed fascination with true-life crime, riding a wave of similar programmes on Netflix and elsewhere. “The public want to understand real cases, to come to a conclusion themselves. They’re perfectly capable. That’s why we have juries.

“Crime drama is popular, but people want authenticity above all else these days,” he says. His new programme mixes old footage with re-enactments and interviews with those involved, all wrapped up with Judge Rinder’s take on it all.

The first episode reprises the cases of Laura Davies, who was murdered by her boyfriend, and the acid attack on Andreas Christopheros. It’s unlikely the programmes will break much new ground. But they have the fascination of true crime, without the tedium of sitting through a real court case, or trying to piece the story together through gobbets of daily news. And Judge Rinder, of course, who may not be a real judge but is clever, unpredictable and outrageous.

He says his legal colleagues like what he does or, at any rate, the “good ones do”, which neatly disposes of those that sneer.

I wonder if he’d like to be a real judge one day? “Oooh, I’d look really good in ermine!”

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Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories is on 2pm Monday-Friday on ITV.