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:

Hannah Long

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