Tuesday, December 15, 2015

In Memoriam: Anthony Valentine


Anthony Valentine, who died two weeks ago, was one of my first TV crushes. Suave, reptilian, and utterly charming, his charisma swept my teenage self off my feet. Of course, it helped that he was British. I've always had a weakness for our Anglo-Saxon brethren. And even better, he was incredibly funny.

I was first introduced to Valentine through his portrayal of the dashing gentleman thief, A.J. Raffles, on DVD. The show was from 1977, and these days looks rather clunky and dated, but Valentine's performance remains a masterpiece, sparkling with wit and charm. The part was perfectly suited to his talents (Nigel Havers and Ronald Colman don't hold a candle): Raffles is Sherlock Holmes's evil twin - a genius cat burglar in Victorian England, his adventures chronicled by a bumbling, fawning sidekick - Harry "Bunny" Manders (Christopher Strauli). The two men swan about through high society, robbing the arrogant rich to give to the deserving poor (in this case, themselves), dogged by an intrepid, friendly, but stupid police inspector (in this case, Mackenzie), in stories written by a member of the Conan Doyle family (in this case, Sir Arthur's brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung).

Christopher Strauli and Anthony Valentine in Raffles
I must have first seen Raffles in 2011, and sent my very first piece of fan-mail to Christopher Strauli, because I couldn't track Valentine down. Strauli's reply remains, years later, treasured, gathering dust in my email inbox.

Valentine wasn't my last or even my most prominent TV crush, but I still remember the shock of running across him later in a 2005 Poirot episode. It was both sobering and a bit embarrassing. Elderly and rotund, it was difficult to imagine that this plump, grandfatherly man was the same person as the lithe amateur cracksman of the 1970s. But sure enough, despite the girth, despite the thick Italian accent (voices were always a talent of his), there it was: the genuine, devilish Valentine grin.

I'm not really sure there's a point to all this rambling, beyond, perhaps, an observation of how an actor, through the medium of a great character, can become such an important part of a person's life. Reading obituaries, I'm now learning basic facts I never knew: the name of his wife, incidents in his career, how he was nearly killed in the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. But I felt sadness at his death, even knowing so little about who he really was. Maybe that's what art does: tell a common story which connects two people across the boundaries of space and time.

This is also a melodramatic way of telling you to watch Raffles. It's splendid fun, well-written, and Anthony Valentine is a hilariously avaricious anti-hero. Watch him here play a cat-and-mouse game of wits, ethics, and custom with a fellow thief, Lord Ernest (a very good Robert Hardy). Raffles is a show based on pulp fiction, but it's also more than a little bit of a satire on the class system. In Raffles's world, good breeding is all that matters. His defense of his way of life: "We can't all be moralists, and the distribution of wealth is all wrong anyway."



And just listen to the enthusiastic greed in Valentine's voice here:



And here's the first episode:


Longish

6 comments:

  1. Remember he is immortal in his pixelated form. No matter I am sorry for your loss, anyway.

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    1. Have been revisiting old Raffles clips throughout the week. The originality of his line readings always delights me - and that eternal obliviousness to his own greed! I was considering who could play the role today and thought of Tom Hiddleston, but it would be hard to match Valentine's complete ease.

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  2. I should hope as well that you are familiar with Mr. Valentine's work in the TV series Callan, where he played the elegantly callous Toby Meres. It's program also worthy of note for the also not long ago departed actor who played the title character, the quite wonderful Edward Woodward (Breaker Morant).

    Nice tribute to an actor who is always a pleasure to watch. Glad to have read it.

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    1. I'm familiar with Callan, but I haven't sought it out. We came across an old DVD of Raffles at our library, which is where we encountered him. Since then, I've run into him in Poirot and a couple other shows (Sherlock Holmes and The Last Detective, I believe), but I haven't gotten around to his other major roles, partly because I knew very little about them. I'll have to check Callan out - I'm a fan of Woodward's from his terrific performance in A Christmas Carol.

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  3. I have been a fan of Anthony Valentine's for a long time now. He was an extremely underrated actor and I adored him as Raffles - the best by far of all the actors who have played the role. He was also excellent in Callan and superb in Colditz which I most highly recommend. These were all roles which he was playing at roughly the same time as Raffles so you won't get any surprises at how he had aged, as we all do of course.

    In spite of the really nasty psychopathic baddies he has played (Callan and Colditz) he was apparently a total gentleman in real life and by all accounts was a pleasure to work with. There is a site at http://www.raffles-the-amateur-cracksman.com of which I am webmaster - plenty of screen caps if you are in the mood for a browse!

    Thank you for your thoughts about a lovely gentleman who will be so sadly missed.

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  4. I have had the Raffles DVDs on my shelf for some time and only got around to watching them this past winter. Now, I watch the entire series at least once a week! It is so entertaining to watch and listen to Mr. Valentine and Mr. Strauli with the wonderful addition of the period clothing and vocabulary. Raffles is certainly a treasure in my dvd collection!

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