Simon is in Rome in order to attend a charity ball held by the Countess Christina Rovagna (Patricia Donahue). Although it’s ostensibly been arranged to benefit Father Bellini’s charity for destitute children, little of the money collected actually reaches the needy. So the Saint decides to tilt the balance back in Father Bellini’s favour ….
Simon is well aware of the irony inherent in the Countess’ charitable soiree. A group of incredibly wealthy people paying exorbitant sums in order to enjoy the finest food and wines available (secure in the knowledge that their excesses will, in some way, help those less fortunate than themselves). The Saint may be a part of polite society – feted for his notoriety – but he’s also content to also remain an outsider.
This is evident in the way he interacts with the Countess. At first glance she appears to be a pleasant enough person – and a charitable lady to boot – so Simon is happy to flirt outrageously with her. But are his feelings for her genuine, or is he simply dissembling – telling her what she wants to hear? As we’ll discover later, it’s clearly the latter. Simon is always the arch manipulator, content to play along with whatever the current situation might be (although he does seem shocked to discover that the Countess is making such a substantial profit from her charity).
So after learning that only nine thousand out of the fifty thousand dollars raised was donated to Father Bellini (Anthony Newlands) we’re forced to reassess everything we’ve learnt about the Countess to date. Father Bellini is very pleased with this sum though – considering it to be a fortune – so clearly he’s not the worldliest of people ….
In sharp counterpoint to the pampered lifestyle of the Countess, we’re also privy to the miserable existence of a group of street urchins, led by the voluble Franco (Philip Needs). True, they’re all rather grubby, but the dirt looks like it’s been applied by a make-up artist (these children seem just a little too well-behaved and mannered to convince as genuinely feral creatures).
If they don’t quite seem natural when they’re sharing scenes together (although the relationship between Franco and Angelina – played by Loretta Parry – is quite touching) then Franco develops into a more rounded character once Simon and Marco (Warren Mitchell) take him under their wing. Simon instantly feels a sense of obligation towards the boy (Marco less so). The scenes between Moore and Needs are strong ones, with Moore pitching his performance at just the right level in order to ensure that Needs gets a chance to shine.
If he’s good when acting alongside Needs, then Roger Moore really sparkles when he returns to confront the Countess. Also present is Aldo Petri (Nigel Davenport), the Countess’ current companion. Simon delights in explaining to Petri that the Countess Christina Rovagna began her life as Maggie Oakes of New Jersey. She was a vaudeville artiste famed for taking off her clothes ….
The Countess is a cool customer though, not at all fazed by Simon’s full frontal attack. She’s strongly disinclined to hand over the rest of the charity money and reacts with scorn when Simon suggests that she sells her necklace in order to raise the sum he’s requested. So Simon elects to steal it – which meets with her whole-hearted approval. In many ways she’s almost the female version of the Saint – outwardly frivolous but with a core of steel – which makes their battle so entertaining. Had she simply been a run-of-the-mill criminal then the story would be much less interesting. She’s convinced that he’ll fail dismally and be humiliated – but we know the outcome will be somewhat different.
Charteris’ short story was originally published in 1939 (as part of the collection entitled The Happy Highwayman). This adaptation relocated the action from New York to Rome (and added the subplot of the urchins) but otherwise the main thrust of the story – the Saint sets out to steal the Countess’ necklace in order to repay her charity debt – remained intact. In both the original story and teleplay he doesn’t do it in a Raffles-style way though, instead he removes all the jewels from the Countess’ dinner guests at gunpoint. However, the adaptation scores by the way that Simon is able to bring Franco and the others into the dining room in order to show his victims the reason why they should be happy to give up their baubles.
Another good showcase for Roger Moore, The Charitable Countess manages to keep the essence of the original story – featuring the earlier, more criminally-inclined Saint – intact. It rates four halos out of five.