(This blog post is dedicated to my sister Debbie, who first introduced me to the Sherlock Holmes stories, which led me to the Raffles tales. )
RAFFLES (1975-1977) – A. J. Raffles, the master thief and star Cricket player was created by E.W. Hornung – the brother-in- law of Arthur Conan Doyle. As all Raffles fans know, A.J. and his bumbling assistant Bunny Manders were intended as a tongue in cheek criminal answer to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
The camaraderie was similar, the Victorian to Edwardian Age setting was similar, the use of the sidekick as a device to have the expert character explain things to the reader was similar and good GOD, was the unintended homo-eroticism similar.
Raffles was portrayed by a long line of suave, debonair actors, from John Barrymore in Silent Movies on up through David Niven and others in Talkies. In my opinion, this 1970s British television series served up the best rendition of the iconic character.
Anthony Valentine perfectly embodies the sly, charming bon vivant whose public fame as a first-rate Cricket player helps conceal his secret avocation as a master jewel thief. Christopher Strauli does the best that any actor can be expected to do with the thankless role of the baby-faced, naïve and often inept sidekick Bunny.
The duo mingle with the English upper crust, with Raffles’ fame and skill from Cricket often serving as the entrée to gaudy mansions they would not otherwise be visiting. The title character uses the Cricket matches he plays in as cover to case the homes of his soon-to-be victims.
The story selection for this series was excellent and not nearly as repetitious as it could have been given the dozens of Raffles stories to choose from. The production was … well, was the standard “soap opera lighting” deal that American viewers have come to expect from nearly all British television shows from the 1970s. The outside Cricket scenes are well-executed, though, as are the occasional night scenes of Raffles’ spectacular thefts.
The Raffles stories were all about fun, so the narrative always slants things so that the victims of our hero’s thefts are the type of stuffy bloated rich pigs who deserve to be targeted. And the Cricketer/ Thief is so thoroughly British that when he pulls off a headline-making theft from the British Museum he sends the spoils to Queen Victoria as a gift for her 1897 Jubilee.
Like Columbo and other American productions the main appeal to these Raffles episodes are clever dialogue and very watchable character interaction, especially when figures periodically try to smoke out Raffles’ TRUE identity as a master cracksman.
Valentine really shines in those scenes in which his character uses double-talk and twisted logic to pretend he’s abiding by some sort of chivalrous Code of Thieves as he abuses the hospitality of many of his hosts. “Movable feast” doesn’t BEGIN to cover the ways Raffles justifies his actions to the bewildered Bunny and makes himself seem forever in the right.
I would have loved to see Anthony Valentine in a big budget adaptation of one of the Harry Flashman stories. He’s got the gift of seeming amoral but likable all at once. He probably would have given Sam Neill a run for his money as Reilly, the Ace of Spies.
This show is nearly all about mis-en-scene and the type of “stand-still adventures” that the British do so well. As long as you don’t go into the program expecting wild action, sexually explicit love scenes or cameras that aren’t nailed down you should enjoy Raffles very much.
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