Acorn Media // 1977 // 726 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // June 15th, 2010
"Sometimes I wish I were Robin Hood, to take from the rich and give to the poor. Don't you?"
"Well, yes, sometimes."
A.J. Raffles doesn't give to the poor -- he does, after all, have a lifestyle to maintain -- but the gentleman thief is very good at taking from the rich. The character got his start in Cassell's Magazine in 1898, the creation of journalist E.W. Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Like Doyle's creation, Raffles' story was told by his faithful companion -- in this case, Bunny Manders, a friend from school. However, Raffles is a gentleman thief; he and Bunny don top hats, tailcoats, and white gloves for an evening of breaking and entering. They do wear masks, but with A.J. Raffles' mug constantly in the papers for his cricket prowess, that's hardly enough of a disguise.
Raffles has made several appearances in the movies, dating back to 1905, but his first TV appearance was 1977's Raffles, starring Anthony Valentine, who now resides on British TV's Coronation Street. It was an expensive production, with a Victorian street exterior built for the show.
Raffles: The Complete Series features fourteen episodes on four discs. The long-unseen pilot comes first, so Raffles and Bunny meet up again in the second episode on Disc One.
* "The Amateur Cracksman"
When Raffles (Anthony Valentine, Callan) and Bunny (Christopher Strauli, Only When I Laugh) get an invitation to Cricket Week, Raffles' burglary plans are interrupted by another burglar -- and Inspector Mackenzie.
* "The First Step"
Bunny, despondent over debt, agrees to join Raffles in a burglary. When Bunny gets caught, Raffles does some fast talking.
* "A Costume Piece"
Raffles disguises himself as a beggar and a postman to case an illegal diamond buyer's house, but he needs one more disguise to rescue Bunny, who has been captured by the homeowner.
* "The Spoils of Sacrilege"
Bunny comes up with a plan to rob his own house. Actually, it's the house he used to live in. The place isn't exactly as he remembers it, though.
* "The Gold Cup"
Raffles steals Henry VIII's cup from the British Museum, and then heads to a gathering of criminologists, who suspect that the cricketer could be a thief.
* "The Chest of Silver"
Raffles is leaving his rooms while they're being painted. That leaves a chest of silver that Bunny has to get out of Inspector Mackenzie's path.
* "The Last Laugh"
Raffles gets help from a maid (Marina Sirtis, Star Trek: The Next Generation) in stealing jewels from an Italian embassy party, and she asks him for help in escaping the lecherous ambassador.
* "A Trap to Catch a Cracksman"
An American boxer boasts that he has a trap for "the cleverest cracksman alive." Raffles decides to be extra careful when stealing his silver statue, but he's not careful enough.
* "To Catch a Thief"
Raffles decides to give Inspector Mackenzie a hand in catching a rival whose techniques echo his own.
* "A Bad Night"
A national cricket match could interfere with Raffles' plans to burgle a Dutch millionaire's home, and so could the millionaire's markswoman daughter.
* "Mr. Justice Raffles"
Raffles lends a hand after he catches an old friend forging one of his checks to pay off a moneylender, who decides to pressure Raffles into committing a burglary. That turns out to be a very bad decision.
* "Home Affairs"
The Home Secretary has taken an interest in Raffles' most recent caper, so Raffles takes an interest in the official's home. Yet again, Bunny is trapped at the scene.
* "The Gift of the Emperor"
Mackenzie is Raffles' reluctant accomplice in separating a German diplomat from a very important pearl.
* "An Old Flame"
It's not the law, but love, that threatens to end Raffles' criminal career after he breaks into a house at random and runs into the titular romantic interest.
I found an audio reading of The Amateur Cracksman, the first Raffles collection, on Project Gutenberg, and Raffles holds up to the originals fairly well. Valentine doesn't look exactly as described, but he's dead on. There are some changes -- making the target in the opener a nasty card sharp, for example, and "The Gift of the Emperor" has major changes in the setting and plotline -- but the series is reasonably faithful. The wicked sense of humor that runs through the stories is E.W. Hornung's. Essentially, Raffles is a howdunnit in which Raffles almost always dunnit, and you're waiting for Raffles' explanation to Bunny at the end.
As Raffles, Anthony Valentine looks like Basil Rathbone's evil twin, appropriate for a Victorian antihero. There's a hint of madness in his portrayal, from the way he eyes a jeweled necklace he just must steal to his wicked laughter as he outwits Inspector Mackenzie yet again. When a police inspector says he thinks Raffles is a kleptomaniac, you might see his point. If you're familiar with the character, you know Raffles gets his access to all those jewel-laden homes because of his skill on the cricket pitch. Although his constant need of funding is his surface motive, it appears that Raffles simply graduated to a more thrilling game once he mastered cricket. At one point, he steals a priceless, well-guarded (not that well, actually) object and returns it, abandoning his careful planning when he sees a momentary opening. Most of the time, he's toying with Mackenzie, the criminologists, or the burglary targets. At times, he shows a good heart, helping a beautiful woman in "The Last Laugh" or an old friend in "Mr. Justice Raffles," but the last two episodes, which offer him chances to reform, show that his heart really is crooked.
Christopher Strauli overdoes the bumbling comedy some as Bunny Manders, Raffles' innocent-looking sidekick, but that seems to be a production decision. Otherwise, he and Valentine have good comic timing together.
Raffles isn't always believable. With so many beautiful women figuring out what Raffles is up to, you'd think one or two might have gotten on one of those newfangled telephone thingies to call Mackenzie instead of falling for the gentleman thief, but you'd be wrong. Raffles and Bunny also banter too much for polished sneak thieves, even if their banter is hilarious.
The production looks good in interior scenes, which is most of the time, but the exteriors definitely show their age, with fading, flecks, and grain.
There's a text bio on E.W. Hornung, the creator of Raffles, and some production notes, which set the budget around 5 million pounds for the series.
Even if Raffles was one of the most expensive British productions of its era, the wisdom of spending the money on building Victorian streets is questionable. Rafflesville doesn't add that much to a production that goes heavy on interiors, and it conjures up thoughts of Tativille. I hope, at least, that Yorkshire Television got use out of it again somehow.
Acorn Media has been releasing a lot of good stuff recently, enough that deciding on only a few recent releases would be hard for fans of British TV. I'd make Raffles one of my two or three. The stories may feel familiar today, but the familiar feeling of E.W. Hornung is the one you get from a distinctive classic author -- such as Graham Greene or H.G. Wells or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. If you like capers such as Topkaki or Ocean's Eleven, and rogues like Simon Templar or Lovejoy, you'll enjoy Raffles.
No matter how guilty Raffles is, Raffles is acquitted.
Review content copyright © 2010 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 726 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text Features