Rowan Atkinson takes on the role of one of the 20th-century’s best-loved fictional detectives
★★★½ ITV, Easter Monday, 28 March, 9pm
ROWAN ATKINSON thought about accepting the role of Chief Inspector Jules Maigret for three months, then turned it down. It’s a big ask to breathe life into one of the most popular fictional cops ever, and even as super-successful a performer as Atkinson had to weigh it up carefully.
‘I read it, thought about it for three months and then decided I didn’t want to do it,’ he says. ‘Which is the kind of thing I often do. Not because I didn’t want to do it but because I wasn’t sure I could do it.’
He was offered the role again a year later. ‘Even then I had to think about it for some time because I had to believe I could play it.’ He admits the idea of playing a TV detective ‘felt like a bit of a cliche’.
Will Maigret succeed for ITV as Poirot did?
So what clinched it? ‘The odd thing about him as a character is he’s not much of a character,’ Atkinson says. ‘He’s fairly bland. He hasn’t got a French accent or a limp or a lisp and he doesn’t love opera. There isn’t a tremendous amount to get hold of in character terms. He’s just an ordinary guy doing a slightly extraordinary job in a quite unpleasant world.
“The thing I thought I could do was his thoughtfulness. That it’s his ruminative, thoughtful and quite compassionate side, I suppose, which is interesting. Because he’s definitely not an egotist, he’s not a performer, he’s not an eccentric, he’s not a weirdo.’
So, how does he do in the role? After all this is a big deal for ITV and would be a terrific new franchise for the network following the conclusion of Poirot.
Does Rowan Atkinson work as Maigret?
I would say he’s fine without being great. Part of the problem is that the pipe-smoking sleuth is, as Atkinson says, a bit bland and low-key. There is also the awkwardness of getting over our expectation that he’s going to pull a face at any moment.
However, the first film of two, Maigret Sets a Trap, is two-hours long, so there is time to get used to him in a straight role. He’s helped by the opener being a pretty good story, set during a Parisian heatwave in 1955 as a serial killer of women terrorises Montmartre.
The detective is under huge pressure from the press and politicians to capture the killer before he can claim a fifth victim. The city (actually Budapest) and period are lovingly recreated, and the production values are high, as you’d expect these days.
Lucy Cohu as Madame Maigret
The cast is also strong. Lucy Cohu is very good as Madame Maigret, a character that’s more accomplice than arm candy in this version. Shaun Dingwall is Maigret’s right-hand man Janvier, while Aiden McCardle is Maigret’s boss, Judge Comeliau.
To its credit, the film captures some of the night-time sleaziness – strippers, prostitutes, seedy clubs – but overall this is a friendly period drama that should delight ITV’s mainstream constituency.
Georges Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels, which have sold around a billion copies worldwide. Maigret Sets a Trap will be followed by Maigret’s Dead Man later in the year. Who knows – we may one day find it hard to remember Rowan Atkinson’s funny faces.