Inspecting Maigret: Rowan Atkinson puts on his thinking hat

As Rowan Atkinson becomes the latest TV version of Georges Simenon’s famous French sleuth, Mark Lawson looks back over six decades of hats, pipes, accordion music and murder

The opening paragraph of Georges Simenon’s first novel about his most enduring character has the feel of instructions to an actor. “Detective Chief Inspector Maigret of the Flying Squad raised his eyes,” begins Pietr the Latvian. And the stage direction soon continues: “He pushed the telegram away, rose ponderously to his feet.” This sense, in the new David Bellos translation for Penguin Classics, that Simenon was writing a camera script turned out to be prophetic because Rowan Atkinson, who assumes the part in a series of feature-length specials for ITV, follows several other small-screen Maigrets, including Rupert Davies and Michael Gambon in Britain, Jean Richard and Bruno Cremer in France and Gino Servi in Italy.

Maigret began as a closeup in the mind’s eye of the writer. While drinking in a cafe, Simenon, a Belgian who had moved to France to pursue a writing career, had an inspirational vision of a Parisian policeman, “a large powerfully built gentleman … a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat”.

This fleeting image, solidified as Jules Maigret, a commissaire of the Brigade Criminelle in Paris, served Simenon in 75 novels and 28 short stories published between 1931 and 1972. A rapid writer who thought novels should be short, he regularly published three Maigrets a year, although these policiers amounted to less than a quarter of his eventual output of around 350 books. Simenon personally preferred his psychological novels without a cop in them but it is Maigret – whose stolid and ponderous manner was a prelude to eventual bursts of thrilling intuition – who has brilliantly outlived him.

While Atkinson is physically slight, he retains the clothing and the smoking, as any other decision would be like playing James Bond without wearing a dinner jacket. Even when Maurice Denham and Nicholas Le Prevost played the role, in Radio 4 adaptations, listeners required the soundtrack to include the rasp of a match, the swish of a coat, the rap of hat landing on rack.

Rupert Davies Maigret
Rupert Davies as Maigret in the BBC series Photograph: George Konig/Rex/Shutterstock

The latest TV actor has also followed Davies (BBC, 1960-63) and Gambon (ITV, 1992-93) in giving the French cop a slightly posh English speaking voice, rather than any trace of a Gallic accent. For this reason, Cremer, who played the role on French television between 1991-2005 is inevitably the most authentic Maigret, both linguistically and in body language.

Only one of the English actors, though, has made any attempt at a French vocal tone. Le Prevost, his surname suggesting Huguenot roots, is the most French of the members of English Equity to have played the part, and he flavours his voice, using a gruff harumph that hints at too much time spent in smoky Parisian atmospheres. That radio version also has the most impeccable French pronunciations of the Anglophone Maigrets, aided by the presence, as narrator, of Julian Barnes. The novelist is one of many Simenon admirers among English writers, others including the late Anita Brookner and David Hare, who has adapted Simenon’s non-Maigret novel, La Main, into a play, The Red Barn, which opens at the National Theatre in October.

The English Maigrets – and perhaps especially one that is being premiered in the runup to an EU referendum – have wanted to appear just the right amount French. The series certainly looks the part, although viewers have been spared frequent sight-checks of the Eiffel Tower, largely because France has generally proved too expensive or too modernised for shooting: both the earlier ITV version and the new one were filmed in Budapest.

The soundtracks, however, have often invoked stereotype. Ron Grainer foregrounded the accordion in a theme tune for the 1960 series that became popular in its own right. Subsequent composers have tended to reach for accordion, mouth organ or zither. A composition for the latest version by Samuel Sim – an apt choice as “Sim” was the pseudonym under which the young Simenon first published – has opted for ominous strings and a Piaf-like song.

In radio productions, we don’t know how much Maigret moves about, but sometimes it’s hard to be sure in the TV adaptations too. Simenon attributed stealth and deliberation to his protagonist – one story is pointedly called The Patience of Maigret – and this has led most actors in the role towards physical minimalism. Cremer often seemed to be ensuring victory in any game of musical chairs that might be sprung on him, while Davies and Atkinson spend a lot of time sitting, thinking, smoking. The exception is Michael Gambon, who chose a characterisation that was outgoing and even jovial, although, in moments of irritation, he chose a booming baritone close to Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. And, whereas the other screen Maigrets emphasised the character’s slowness and repose, Gambon runs across lobbies and skips up steps to his boss’s office.

Gambon is a canny actor and decisions that depart from both Simenon’s descriptions and the performing tradition were a solution to a particular problem of the slot in which he found himself. ITV’s hit policier Inspector Morse ended at the turn of the millennium after 13 years on air, and Maigret had been one of the attempts to find a classy, brainy replacement. There seems to be an oblique acknowledgement of this in the opening episode, when the inspector talks to a colleague called “Moers” but pronounces it in a way that would have sounded oddly familiar to viewers.

Michael Gambon Maigret
Michael Gambon and Geoffrey Hutchings in ITV’s 1992 series, Maigret Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Morse’s creator, Colin Dexter, was an admirer of Simenon, as almost all 20th-century crime writers have been. And, while the Oxford cop, an unhappy bachelor, was domestically the opposite of the comfortably uxurious Maigret, he inherited the French detective’s physical slowness and intuitive approach to solutions. Had Gambon given too much screen-time to silent, glacial ratiocination, he would have bumped into John Thaw’s Morse.

An additional obstacle was that ITV had also just lost, again after 13 years on air, Inspector Wexford, in which George Baker played an investigator who – happily married, taking his time over a case and even inclined to smoke a pipe – was in some ways an English Maigret, as his creator, Ruth Rendell, another Simenon admirer, acknowledged. With the ghosts of both Morse and Wexford over his shoulder, it’s not surprising that Gambon sought some elbow room.

Atkinson is most celebrated for a character, Mr Bean, who didn’t speak at all, and was recently impressive in a West End revival of Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, playing a teacher whose sparse dialogue is punctuated with lengthy, meditative silences. Whether or not either of these portrayals influenced the casting, his performance returns Maigret to slowness and stillness, the latter especially noticeable as the directors seem sensibly to have encouraged the actor to eschew his trademark facial flexibility.

Playing it straight … Rowan Atkinson in Maigret Photograph: Colin Hutton/ITV

Strikingly, all three English versions feature closeups of pipes in the opening credits. Although a precise French detail from the Simenon, this prop is in another way reassuringly English, connecting Maigret to Sherlock Holmes, with his “three-pipe problems”, to which Simenon was nodding in giving his policeman that habit.

When Davies played the part in the 60s, pipes also had a contemporary resonance of reliability. Harold Wilson, the dominant politician of the period, while a cigar smoker in private, toted a pipe in public, even during prime ministerial TV appearances, as this was perceived to make viewers more likely to trust him in his stewardship of the rollercoasting pound. Wilson once won the then fiercely contested “Pipe Smoker of the Year” award, of which the inaugural holder was Rupert Davies at the height of his Maigret fame. Bizarrely, Davies even released a pop single, “Smoking My Pipe.”

Maigret’s way of taking his tobacco also has an intriguing Belgian resonance. In 1929, the year that Simenon conceived the character, his compatriot, René Magritte, exiled to Paris, was painting his picture of a gentlemanly leisure aid with the counterintuitive caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. In another Magritte picture, a succession of images of the same man recede into infinite distance, and Atkinson seems unlikely to complete the line of Maigrets on TV. Nine decades after the lens of an author’s imagination captured that sudden close up of a man with a coat, pipe and hat, the screen continues to picture Jules Maigret.

The Maigret novels are being republished by Penguin in new translations. Maigret Sets a Trap is on ITV at 9pm on Monday.

• This article has been amended as it stated that the earlier ITV version of Maigret was filmed in Prague. In fact it was shot in Budapest.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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