For Jewish Insider Dec 23 2022
It is likely to come as a surprise to those familiar with Robert Rinder — a man almost ubiquitous on Britain’s TV screens — that he still retains membership of his legal chambers, and indeed keeps a pigeonhole in the City of London building of 2 Hare Court.
Because Rinder — and this is a compliment to his essential, sunny optimism — is just everywhere. We spoke as he returned from a quick trip to Morocco, where he had been filming an episode of the BBC’s Amazing Hotels, Life Beyond the Lobby, which he co-presents with chef Monica Galetti.
But no sooner did Rinder arrive back in the UK than he plunged into rehearsals for a Christmas pantomime, a much-loved tradition in British theatre, where well-known faces pop up in an often slapstick family show. Rinder, to his own amusement, is playing the Mirror in a version of Snow White, and there are doubtless many of his well-known eyerolls in the show.
He has an advice column in the tabloid national newspaper The Sun, often touching on his pet subject of housing for the poorer sectors of society (he is an ambassador for Shelter, a major housing charity). He has a regular “anything goes” column in the London Evening Standard. He is a popular presenter on a TV daily breakfast show, and earlier in the year, resurrecting his command of the Russian language, was briefly a reporter on the Ukrainian border with Poland.
And that latter gig came about because — inevitably — Rinder had taken part, very creditably, on Strictly Come Dancing, whose US equivalent is Dancing with the Stars. On Strictly, Rinder’s professional partner was the Ukrainian dancer Oksana Platero, whose family, like so many, came under fire when Russia invaded Ukraine. Rinder wanted to see what he could do to help.
He is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, Morris Malenicky, and his mother, Angela Cohen, heads one of the UK’s foremost survivor charities, the 45 Aid Society. (Malenicky came to Britain in 1945, one of a group of more than 700 Jewish orphans collectively known as The Boys.) Rinder has made two highly-regarded TV documentaries about the Holocaust, painful and personal, drawing on his family’s story. And as a passionate Jew, he is understood to be fronting a major programme next year, which marks Israel’s 75th anniversary by telling the stories, side by side, of three British Jews and three British Palestinians. Rinder strongly believes that “TV has a place in difficult conversations, such as the stories about the building of Israel”.
Besides all this, Rinder has a novel coming out next year, a legal mystery, said to be the first of a series. (He moans dramatically about this endeavour, declaring “hubris is the answer, I didn’t realise how hard it would be. I have a column in The Sun responding to consumer problems, and I think that’s important for people who have limited access to justice in the UK. And I like editing other people’s work. So I thought, well, novels are my pleasure, how difficult can it be? The truth is, very difficult”. His book is called The Trial and he jokes about potentially unfavourable comparisons to Kafka’s work of the same name.)
Oh, and he’s a marathon runner, frequently running for charity. And all this started with a wildly popular series of programmes he made, starting in 2014, called Judge Rinder, loosely akin to Judge Judy, in which he acted as an arbitrator in numerous out-to-lunch cases.
The immediate question, of course, is how does he find the time (or indeed, the energy)? But Rinder, still only 44, bats this aside. His TV appearances, he insists, owe much more to the work of production teams. “They do all the work and I just have to turn up”, he jokes, adding, deprecatingly, that the ability to perform “a good cha-cha-cha” on a light entertainment dancing show doesn’t really rate in the grand scheme of things.
In fact Rinder had an illustrious legal career before any of the public appearances, and might indeed have gone on to become Judge Rinder in real life. “I began as a defence counsel, mainly ‘bog-standard’ [routine] crime. Then a very important solicitor spotted me in court, and gradually my practice evolved into murders, and on to cases involving terrorism and eventually defending soldiers in war crimes cases”.
He wrote a legal textbook and then expanded into cases of large-scale fraud, “chiefly for high-net worth defendants”. In 2010, his chambers — the group of lawyers working in 2, Hare Court — were asked to send someone as an assistant prosecutor to the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are a British overseas territory.
“The government was suspended (because of corruption allegations) and it was decided that we (Britain) should reimpose direct rule”. Rinder was sent out to work with Helen Garlick, then with the Serious Fraud Office. The case is now “11 years in”, with one judge dying as the case ground on, according to Rinder, and may not conclude any time soon.
Even with the apparently endless corruption case, the Turks and Caicos Islands were idyllic. Rinder spent time on the beach and because many of the friends he’d made at university — including Benedict Cumberbatch — had found success as actors, Rinder used his downtime to write a script. (Cumberbatch, incidentally, chose Rinder as best man at his wedding, and conducted a civil ceremony between Rinder and his then partner.)
On returning to the UK Rinder was morosely involved in another case, but admits he had lost motivation for his court work. He pitched his script to a powerful woman in independent television, ITV’s director of daytime television, Helen Warner. “She read it and gave it her full, aggressively undivided indifference,” laughs Rinder, adding that in fact Warner, who left TV to become a best-selling novelist, later told him it was the worst thing she’d ever read.
Undaunted, Rinder wrote back to Warner and this time she asked him if he was qualified in arbitration, because ITV was seeking someone to front a court show. “To be honest with you, because they were all in television, I just assumed they were talking nonsense. People in television aren’t like lawyers. They spend a lot of time in meetings: one person makes the decisions and the rest simply want to cover themselves with glory when things go well, or absolve themselves of responsibility if things are a disaster”.
Rinder freely admits he didn’t really know what he was doing at the start of Judge Rinder. The show was screened in the so-called “dead zone” of weekday afternoons, but became a secret guilty pleasure for thousands of viewers and “captured the public’s imagination”. Rinder’s pithy put-downs and frequent acerbic zingers were greeted with delight, as women lined up to sue their wedding photographers or admitted their secret membership of a vegetable spread society, the Marmiteers. (Cue massive eyeroll from Rinder at the idea of this society.) An example of his put-downs: telling a man who had broken the sunroof control on his friend’s car, ensuring that it remained permanently open: “Sir! Your friend once had a car, he now drives a mobile igloo!”
As Judge Rinder became popular, the demand for the lawyer’s presence in various unlikely guises grew. He pooh-poohs questions about how he finds time to undertake all the various commitments. “I used to work 120 hours a week when I was counsel. The truth of the matter is that behind the Wizard of Oz curtain, very little goes on. When you do TV, everyone else does the work. It’s not really hard work, compared with what so many of my legal colleagues do. It’s a bit like standing by the goal-line in football, everyone else does the work and you push the ball into the goalmouth, then everyone says oh, how marvellous you are.”
Rinder recognises that he is unlikely to appear in court in a jury trial any time soon, because of fear of prejudice for either the prosecution or the defence. But he now uses his high public profile to promote causes close to his heart: “issues where social activism and law intersect with one another. I especially care about housing, and do what I can to answer consumer questions well; and I still teach a little, too”.
He is also aware that the more “showbiz” part of his life can lead people to watch BBC documentaries with a more serious slant. This was proved conclusively with the viewing figures for the two Holocaust films he made, one pulling in eight million viewers and very positive reviews.
Because of his abiding interest in the Holocaust and his family connection, Rinder has had a long pre-fame relationship with survivors and the children of survivors. Two people who know him well in that incarnation spoke warmly of him to Jewish Insider.
Harry Spiro, a survivor who came from the same home town, Piotrkow, as Rinder’s grandfather, Morris Malenicky, first met the adult Rinder during a return visit to Windermere, the English Lake District village where the Jewish orphans from the Holocaust first arrived in 1945.
“He’s interviewed me a few times at various Holocaust-related events”, Spiro said, “and he’s always been very helpful, putting me very much at my ease. He’s not changed a bit over the years. He makes all the time in the world for you. He is a mensch.”
And Maurice Helfgott, chairman of World Jewish Relief — the successor charity to the organisation which originally sponsored the arrival of the Holocaust orphans in the UK — praised Rinder, too. He said: “Rob combines a sharp intellect with tremendous energy, great warmth, a sense of humour and genuine preparedness to put himself out for the people and the causes he believes in. He is particularly involved with Jewish causes, but by no means exclusively. I would say he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is extremely good at connecting with people emotionally”. Maurice Helfgott’s father, survivor Sir Ben Helfgott, also grew up in the same Polish town as Morris Malenicky.
There is an ongoing debate in Britain and America about the position of Jews in the public eye, spearheaded in Britain by the recent book (and subsequent TV documentary) by David Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count. Oddly, Rinder appears to transcend this conversation, because, he says, “I’m not just culturally Jewish. It is the inescapable label placed upon you. But I am also religiously Jewish. I am very publicly proud of being Jewish, and having a Jewish platform and having simcha, or delight, in my Judaism. I’ve never personally experienced overt anti-Jewish racism myself, but have been alongside people who have. I do think, though, that the tragic reality is the sense in which Jewishness is not taken as seriously in the same way as other identities.”
His answer, he says, is to try to introduce people to his faith and hope that they can see the joy he takes in being Jewish — very unusual for a public personality in Britain. In two recent popular TV food shows, for example, one at Pesach and a second at Rosh Hashanah, Rinder appeared and spoke knowledgeably about the festivals and why we observed them in the way we do. “I love festivals and shul-going and Torah. When I try to share that with other people, it’s always through the prism of celebration and inclusion”.
Personally, knowing Rob Rinder, I wouldn’t mind betting that his Mirror, in the Christmas pantomime, peppers his lines with Yiddish.