The English Take On The French Detective: Maigret Explored

The long-unseen 1960s BBC adaptations of Georges Simenson’s classic crime novels re-examined.

A few months ago, I happened to catch an episode of ITV’s 2016 reboot of Maigret, based on the Georges Simenson novels. It was an archetypal ITV drama production, the product less of creative thought and more an attempt to find another vehicle for a big name that they have under contract. When in doubt, the ITV motto seems to be, go for a vintage detective show, something with a cosy enough level of nostalgia to allow the murders and associated degeneracy to seem less unsavoury – and which will be a safe enough project to hand to their big name in the knowledge that it probably isn’t going to tax them too much, but will still put them in the frame to win at the lesser events like the National Television Awards. Surprisingly often, these bland dramas will star a comedian – or, more accurately, comedy actor – who has decided that he wants to try his hand at something serious. Not quite vanity projects – because ITV knows only too well that a big name is a big name, no matter how badly cast they might be – these are nevertheless by-the-numbers, interchangeable shows that are not going to stretch the dramatic abilities of someone more used to gurning for laughs. In the case of Maigret, it was Rowan Atkinson – Mr Bean himself – who we were supposed to accept as the great French detective, as spectacular a case of miscasting as I’ve seen lately. It’s not so much that Atkinson can’t shake his comedy past as that he was entirely ill-suited to the role – and that both he and the production seemed to rather miss the point of the original stories, trying to graft 2010s sensibilities onto 1950s novels, because God knows, no period TV show made now can simply reflect the time that it was set; it must somehow act as a blunt-trauma metaphor for the concerns of the present. Suffice to say, the 2016 version of Maigret did not last long because viewers, unlike producers, can spot a dud, and ITV is a ruthlessly commercial operator that won’t stand for dropping ratings for very long.

the character of Chief-Inspector Maigret has had a curious attraction for British TV producers – I say ‘curious’ because French culture in general, let alone French police procedurals, are not exactly the sort of thing that you expect to appeal to British viewers. The French are a nation viewed with some suspicion by the British; even those who would consider themselves virulently anti-racist and pro-European often seem only too happy to stereotype the French in the worst possible ways, and the only time you’ll generally see a TV show set in the country is if it is following the adventures of awful British colonisers turning old chateaus into dreadful hotels for English tourists. Maigret, however, has had something of a universal appeal – he’s perhaps something of a French Sherlock Holmes in that sense, crossing cultural boundaries to appear across the world. There have been Italian, Russian and even Japanese adaptations of the novels, as well as a long-running French TV series. That’s not to mention adaptations for films (French and American), theatre and radio (both British) and comic books (French). As you might expect, these varied versions all reworked the novels – some 72 of them, published between 1931 and 1972, with a further 28 short stories – in various ways, though Simenson (who, just to add more international spice to the mix, was Belgian) was often generous to the various interpretations of his work.

Georges Simenson and Rupert Davies

He seemed especially fond of the BBC version that ran from 1960 to 1963 and it’s easy to see why. Of all the actors to play the character, Rupert Davies seemed the closest, physically, to Simenson’s own description of the inspector as a stocky, gruff but essentially kindly character. Indeed, the author himself said, “at last, I have found the perfect Maigret” of Davies. His thoughts on the actual show are unrecorded, but it’s hard to imagine that he was dissatisfied. Ironically, the role originally went to Basil Sydney who appeared in a pilot episode but was forced out of the part through ill-health.

We tend to think of TV from 1960 – if we think of it at all – as basic, crude, perhaps even barely watchable in technical terms. At least, I do. I’ve seen later shows from the BBC and ITV archive where the collision of poor quality videotape footage – often ghosting, always blurry – and the stilted, stumbling, never-stop-unless-you-have-to shooting style lifted from live broadcasts or theatre sometimes makes for difficult viewing. British TV, until relatively recently, had a depressing theatrical fixation. Television drama ought to be more like film, because other than the display medium, what is really the difference? But in Britain, it felt like televised stage performances for a long time – actors projecting to the seats at the back, shoddy sets, shows being ‘by’ the writer with the director shuffled off to the back of the closing credits. And the cost-related mix of 16mm film being used for exterior shots and videotape for the studio interiors often gave shows a split personality – scenes changed dramatically in quality, depending on where they took place. The quality of video camera recording in the early 1960s was terrible and a lot of shows from that time are hard going when seen on modern TVs. It’s notable that the bigger shows of the era – the independent productions with an eye on international sales like The Avengers – would shoot on entirely on film and so look as good now as they ever did. But that was not, by and large, the BBC approach.

Interestingly, the 1960 – 1963 version of Maigret looks a lot better than it should, and some of this is certainly down to some painstaking restoration work. You can only do so much and of course, there is still a bit of blurry image shifting – but by and large, the shows look good. How good might depend on the size of your TV – but it certainly doesn’t seem odd for the series to have been issued on Blu-ray and I couldn’t say that for some shows made at the time or even several years later. We should also be grateful that the BBC didn’t wipe the original tapes of the series for a snooker tournament, a fate that has been handed out to many other series of the era. Miraculously, the whole of Maigret has survived.

If you watch the show now, several things strike you. One, of course, if how much it is of its time in terms of production – characters flub lines, corpse and come in too quickly, but they keep going regardless and manage to get back on track. If there was a plus side to the live TV era – and the penny-pinching insistence that productions carried on as though they were live productions for several years afterwards – it is that you get an accidental naturalism coming through. In real life, people get tongue-tied, talk over each other and have to repeat themselves or forget what they were about to say. This is a series about people under pressure, people hiding the truth and try to mislead – and the fumbling moments don’t feel that out of place. It takes a cast who know how to dig themselves – and their fellow actors – out of a hole, of course, and Maigret certainly has that. But it gives an unlikely sense of realism to things and that’s an unexpected pleasure.

Other moments I didn’t expect: the neat touch of having characters only speak with French accents when they are supposed to be speaking English. It’s a constant conundrum that if you make an English-language drama about non-English speakers, how do you then deal with those characters if they have to speak English? I hope you are all following this because I’m aware that it’s very confusing. In one episode, Maigret visits London and starts to speak with a French accent, in slightly broken English. But when set in France, the show smartly avoids having its characters speak with ‘Allo ‘Allo-style outrageous French accents, because why would they? We have to buy into the fantasy that they are all speaking French, and therefore so are we.

I was also struck by the frankness of the show. It’s a curious thing, but British TV was ahead of the film censors throughout the 1960s in many ways – you could see frontal nudity on television before it became a thing in cinemas and in this series, there is a matter-of-fact sexual frankness that you can’t imagine seeing on the big screen. Let’s not get too carried away – I’m not talking about anything even vaguely explicit. But this is a series where strippers and prostitutes turn up in every other episode and every murder suspect and victim seems to be having an affair, made several years before the Sixties began to swing. Of course, being set in France helped make this less shocking, because if there was anything that the average Briton thought about the French (and, for that matter, about foreigners in general) back then – and possibly still does – it is that they are all morally bankrupt. A show set in England might not have had as much leeway. But the lack of judgementalism in the narratives and the characters is refreshing and unexpected, and little moments still surprise – a wall full of topless photos of exotic dancers seems interestingly frank, for instance. It’s rather depressing to think that if Maigret ever turns up on Talking Pictures TV or any other British channel, they’ll probably blur or completely cut those images if the show is broadcast before 9pm. What was family viewing in 1960 is now too risque for pre-watershed showing and has a BBFC 12 restriction.

The series reduces Maigret’s ‘faithful four’ team of colleagues to three – all the better for costs and managing a returning cast. Removing the character of Janvier does no harm, and the three remaining detectives offer a good mix of characters – the smooth Lucas, played by Ewen Solon, is Maigret’s right-hand man and gets the lion’s share of the action scenes – his punch-ups again show the unexpected plus points of the production style, being shot mostly with a static camera, no cutaways and no music, all of which gives them a sort of clumsy, frantic reality. Solon’s performance is witty and light, and he makes a good foil for Davies, who is more thoughtful. Neville Jason is the young Lapointe, a new recruit looking to make his way in the force and often the butt of good-natured humour; he also plays a significant role in the first episode. And Victor Lucas is the rough-voiced Torrence, who often seems to be on the receiving end of punches and scratches from feisty female suspects. As for Davies as Maigret – he certainly feels like perfect casting, puffing casually on his pipe, cynical and tough but also willing to sympathise with the villains – even to the point of allowing them to go free when there seems no point in arresting them. One of the great strengths of the stories – and I guess we should be thanking Simenson for this, as well as the ten different writers who worked on the show for not bastardising his work – is that there is a lot of moral ambiguity at work, with the murderers not always the one-dimensional villains that you might expect. Maigret is not a one-dimensional cop, and Davies does a fine job of making him rounded, believable and likeable.

BBC dramas have never been noted for their limitless budgets and you might expect a show based in France to have as few exteriors scenes as could be managed – or at least for those exteriors to be suitably ambiguous in their scenery that they could be handily filmed just down the road from the studio. During the early episodes, I did joke that the cast and crew must’ve had a day out in Paris to get as many location shots as possible and there’s probably a degree of truth in that – but the show has enough recognisably French streets to suggest that a decent amount of shooting was done over there, and it definitely adds authenticity. It certainly convinced the French, where the series was shown, dubbed – something of a seal of approval for a British interpretation of their local hero.

Maigret lasted for 51 episodes between 1960 and 1963 (along with a one-off feature-length revival in 1969) – an impressive run by any standards, making it all the odder that it slid into relative obscurity, perhaps a victim of changing technology as much as anything. Looking at it now, I’m impressed at just how well it has held up – a period piece, certainly, but one that already feels less dated and more watchable than the more recent version. Perhaps there is a lesson in that – cast to the character and not to the whims of contract stars, and don’t have the arrogance to believe that you can improve on classic stories.

DAVID FLINT

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