Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants to see Bob Uecker announce a cricket match.
"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.
Facts of the Case
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 First Step"
• "A Costume Piece"
• "The Spoils of Sacrilege"
• "The Chest of Silver"
• "The Last Laugh"
• "A Trap to Catch a Cracksman"
• "A Bad Night"
• "Mr. Justice Raffles"
• "The Gift of the Emperor"
• "An Old Flame"
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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