Despite having a rather rich history on the big and small screen, as well as an origin on the printed page, I had never heard of A.J. Raffles before. The creation of Ernest Hornung, Raffles, the gentleman thief, is bound to make viewers think of Sherlock Holmes. Coincidentally, Hornung was friends and later brother-in-law to Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and like Holmes, Raffles had a good life in short stories at the end of the 19th century. Although not nearly as prolific as Holmes, Raffles has had his own share of big and small screen adaptations with the character played by the likes of John Barrymore and David Niven. 1975 though brought one of the most remembered takes on the character, as Anthony Valentine stepped into the custom made shoes of man himself in "The Amateur Cracksman," a 1975 British TV movie. Two years later, due to, what I can only assume was the success of the 1975 production, a 13 episode series was commissioned with Valentine and Christopher Strauli returning as the title character and his assistant, Bunny Manders, respectively.
Acorn Media's "Raffles: The Complete Collection" gathers both the TV pilot and series in a nice six disc set. The first thing worth noting is the 1975 TV movie, is much different than the complete series. First of all, Raffles and Bunny and already established as a partnership. The viewers aren't given any sort of origin story and thrown straight into one of Raffles' heists. It does however introduce Raffles' foil, Inspector Mackenzie (Victor Carin) who pops up from time to time in the regular series. "The Amateur Cracksman" is a much more self-contained story in many ways. You get a good picture of Raffles' thieving side and his charming, social, public side. Likewise his relationship with Bunny feels very natural, with his sidekick often nervously riding the side of caution, only to be shocked to learn his friend is always one step ahead of him, the law, and often other crooks.
The complete series does act as a re-launch, maintaining the main cast, but beginning with the standard origin story showing how Raffles and Bunny came to work together. The only thing I didn't like about the origin is Raffles comes off as lightly manipulative, taking advantage of an old friend in need to help further his own exploits. This is soon put behind us and it's not long before the duo are off and running. The show is formulaic and given the short episode count, there's not much effort put into character development, but all the players make sure they deliver an entertaining performance each episode. Valentine is consistently impressive striking a good balance of cunning, charm, genius, and morality, all topped off with a wicked streak. Despite the character being a jewel thief, Raffles often is the image of morality, using his skills to occasionally help those who have no one else to turn to.
The most enjoyable episodes revolve around a rival thief being the adversary of the week, particularly the eighth episode of the regular season; it highlights what sets Raffles apart from the common thief. He's by no means noble, the characters themselves poke fun at Raffles being like Robin Hood, save for the giving to the poor part. Raffles does have a code and it makes for some exciting escapes and scenes of deception, as opposed to violence and disregard for human life. The writers use this consistency in the hero to throw some surprises at viewers from time to time, that prove even the most skilled and cunning thief is prone to being tricked himself, by those less scrupulous. It is disheartening that Inspector Mackenzie isn't a bigger threat to Raffles compared to the occasional villain of the week. Mackenzie is played more for the sake of reminding the audience their hero is a crook and the law is always behind him. His character does allow for some enjoyable comedic scenes.
Do the accents and limitations of the budget sometimes come off as contrived or hokey? Yes, but they are never deal breakers and the accents do highlight Valentine's skill as an actor. Interestingly enough, Raffles' penchant for disguise works perfectly throughout the series. The costume design and effort in makeup work really sell the idea Raffle is a master of disguise when the need to be arises. The real obstacle "Raffles" faces for modern viewers is it's formula; while the show does finally allow the characters to grow in the final episode, it's merely to wrap things up for a satisfying conclusion. I did wish some episodes found more inventive ways to send Raffles after the spoils of a person of wealth; the notion of Raffles being directly or indirectly insulted by someone, acting as a enough justification to make them a target seemed to become a very familiar plot thread. My only major complaint though lies in the set design which is meant to sell the period look, but is never entirely convincing, due in part to serviceable, but sometimes stiff feeling camera work; it slightly cheapens the quality of the series as a whole.
"Raffles" is a nice walk down memory lane, when TV existed to entertain from week-to-week. The show doesn't need a rich mythology or intricate narrative web. It does formula well thanks to skilled acting and consistent writing; Raffles may not grow tremendously as a character, but each week viewers get the same Raffles without fail. "Raffles" is good fun, nothing more, nothing less.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer comes with a disclaimer from Acorn regarding print damage. Initially the transfer looks, "ok" for it's age and source (British television productions are somewhat notorious for their mistreatment over the years), but once things head to exterior scenes, one can see what Acorn meant, especially in the pilot movie. Exterior shots feel like the contrast knob was cranked a bit too high at times and print damage (when it's an issue) is most noticeable here; not all exterior scenes are like this and later in the series, the issues are lessened. Interior shots still have less than desirable contrast levels and color balance is lacking. This looks like another production transferred from video and the other minor technical hiccups are what one would expect in this instance.
The English 2.0 audio track is clear, with dialogue perfectly balanced as it should be. There's no distortion to be found save for the certain pieces of the score. It's not a dynamic audio track, but that's to be expected given the production's age and source.
The lone pair of extras pop up on the last disc in the set and consist of a brief text biography of Raffles' creator, E.W. Hornung as well as some brief production notes.
"Raffles: The Complete Collection" is a solid release for what I would safely say is a forgotten television series. As stated previously, it's a simpler approach to storytelling, but definitely worth checking out. Fans of mystery and adventure, as well as those who love witty characters, would do well in tracking down the master cracksman and giving him a chance. Recommended.