MAIGRET - Christopher Stevens, The Daily Mail

Posted on 29th Mar 2016

This must be one of Baldrick’s cunning plans. The stars of Blackadder are swiping all the best roles in serious telly drama.

First there was Hugh Laurie, once the nice-but-dim Lieutenant George in Blackadder Goes Forth, slithering like a malevolent cobra through the Sunday night spy thriller The Night Manager.

Now Rowan Atkinson has seized the blockbuster Bank Holiday slot, playing Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris police force, in ITV’s sumptuous and atmospheric adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, Maigret Sets A Trap.

Maigret has been a much-loved TV detective since the Sixties, when he was played by the marvellous Rupert Davies. He’s the French equivalent of Inspector Morse, the brilliant mind who can outwit any criminal while driving his superiors to distraction.

The last time Maigret was seen on British screens in the 1990s, he was played by Sir Michael Gambon. ‘The Chief’, as his loyal officers call him, ought to be a safe bet.

But as this two-hour special made us uncomfortably aware, his methods haven’t aged too well.

Where Sherlock Holmes relied on his ability to unravel fiendish clues, and Hercule Poirot produced ingenious deductions from scraps of detail, Maigret uses psychology. In his world, men are controlled by their animal lusts. And women are men’s biggest problem.

This notion sits uneasily with modern audiences. We expect our heroes to see women as human beings, not demons sent to torment their menfolk.

The detective exists in a demi-monde, haunting the Paris nightclubs, strip bars and whorehouses by night – constantly tempted, but too strong to give in.

Maigret Sets A Trap sees The Chief trying to lure a serial killer into the open by using policewomen as bait. One is attacked but the silly girl forgets to look at his face. Fortunately, Maigret realises the murderer must be a well-dressed man of taste, who is beset by hateful women.

Maigret is the ultimate father figure. He is decent, strong, honest and kindly. He knocks back beer and shots of liquor all day and night, but he is never drunk. He puffs on his pipe, calm and wise but constantly alert. No criminal can escape him. As long as Maigret is guarding us, we can sleep at night.

Atkinson is on the slight side for the role. The Chief is supposed to be a barrel-chested bear of a man. But the Mr Bean actor has a superbly expressive face that crinkles with compassion or hardens into an implacable wall of determination with the flicker of a few muscles. That face has been the basis of all his comedy, because it can be so wildly contorted. Yet it is also capable of real subtlety.

His voice is rather light and reedy – Maigret ought to rumble, like a storm in the distance. But he has the most splendid pair of eyebrows, like two woolly strips of rug, that give him all the authority he requires.

So this stand-alone special was poised between success and disaster. On the one hand, we feel a natural sympathy for a much admired actor. There hasn’t been such a protective police presence on screen since Dixon Of Dock Green. But we don’t feel reassured, because Simenon’s spite seeps through.

What saved this show was its richly imagined vision of Paris in the Fifties. Though it was actually filmed in Budapest, it captured the cobbled streets, the tenements hung with washing, the jazz clubs and the buzz of the outdoor cafes.

This was like a Gallic version of Call The Midwife, the past vividly conjured – though instead of starched aprons there were louche glimpses of stockings and silk underwear.

Best of all, a cloud of pipe smoke hung over it all. The fanatical anti-smoking brigade could have prevented that – though the idea of Maigret without tobacco is like James Bond without Martinis. Thankfully, Atkinson constantly had a briar in his mouth, putting a match to the bowl in a contemplative gesture, and it was this above all that gave the drama its slow-burning attraction.

He returns this year in a two-hour special, Maigret’s Dead Man. Whether more will be made depends on public reaction: I suspect that, however good it looked, the aftertaste of Simenon’s bitterness will discourage ITV from commissioning a full series. 

But Atkinson can be proud. He was a match for Michael Gambon, and few actors can boast that.

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