It’s the return of Georges Simenon’s Maigret this Easter Bank Holiday Monday, with Rowan Atkinson this time donning the hat and pipe for a new, feature-length adventure. I managed to see it at the press screening a few weeks ago and was impressed at the way the production team had realised 1950s Paris in such glorious, slightly tatty detail. And then there was Atkinson himself, whose appointment as the detective has raised some eyebrows among fans. I thought he was pretty good, but I’d be interested to hear what you, the readers and watchers, think. In the meantime we managed to get hold of an interview (quite a long one actually) with the man himself – who comes across as highly intelligent, considered and quite shy – so read on after the jump…
The Killing Times: How did this role come about?
Rowan Atkinson: ITV sent the script of the first film. I read it, thought about it for three months and then decided I didn’t want to do it. 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. It was mainly because I didn’t really want to do it in the year in which they wanted to make it. Then, of course, a year later you don’t know whether they’ve already found someone to play the part or not. But it was still there when I woke up to it again and I was re-offered the part. Even then I had to think about it for some time because I had to believe I could play it. Because the odd thing about him as a character is he’s not much of a character. 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, he hasn’t really got a bad streak in him. I’m not claiming any of those things for myself, but I felt I could probably portray a lot of the aspects of him that did exist. Particularly that quietness. I think I’m quite good at not doing very much on screen. So that drove me to say yes. We decided to make two films and that’s what we’ve done.
TKT: Were you actively looking for this sort of role?
RA: Not particularly. Anyway, the idea of playing a TV detective felt like a bit of a cliche. It felt like a bit of a road down which many have trodden. In particular I’m always quite nervous about playing characters that have been played before. I think it’s in many ways more fun to create a character from scratch. But then if everyone followed that rule, no-one would ever play Hamlet or any of the other great roles that exist. Indeed the first time I’d ever played a role that had been played before was probably Fagin in Oliver, which had definitely been played many times before I did it on the West End stage five, six years ago. Actually I didn’t mind doing that because in the end you create your own version and that’s what people either come to see or don’t. I thought Maigret was totally and definitely different to any other TV detective. It’s not really Morse and it’s not A Touch of Frost and it’s not Midsomer Murders. It’s really none of those things. The period helps and the setting helps and just the tone of Simenon’s writing is very interesting. Quite dark, quite seedy, quite sleazy. Harder nosed I would say than an awful lot of TV fiction. Not detective fiction, of which there’s an awful lot of extremely unpleasant stuff out there. But in terms of what you see on TV, I think it has a unique tone to it. Whether we’ve captured it or not is for others to judge. But I liked the fact it didn’t feel like any other TV detective show that I knew currently. So I wasn’t particularly looking to play this sort of role. In many ways because it was a TV detective I was slightly put off it. But I quite liked the fact that I’m rather old for it because he’s supposed to be around 50 and I’m definitely around 60. In fact I am 60. But I felt as though I could probably carry it off. Because he’s not an old man, he’s supposed to be a vigorous middle aged man. But still, at least it was something that I wasn’t too young for. Let’s say that for it. And as such it felt like an appropriate thing to do.”
TKT: When did you first encounter Maigret?
RA: I didn’t see the Rupert Davies’ Maigret TV series in the 1960s. We didn’t have a television at home until I was 14. So that meant, for whatever reason, that I didn’t see much TV. But I’ve seen bits since. And I’ve also seen the Michael Gambon Maigret. But, again, I don’t remember either hearing about it or seeing it in 1992. It passed me by. I do remember reading some Maigret books when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I remember they were enjoyable and I’ve read far more since. I’ve read about eight more books since this project, mainly from the early eras.
TKT: Do you think Maigret, although set in 1950s’ Paris, is relevant to a modern day audience?
RA: Yes, I think it is. Maigret’s humanity is important and it’s admirable. It’s enjoyable to watch somebody witness and having to deal with great inhumanity and at the same time they are able to display such compassion to all those involved in these extremely messy and violent situations. He conveys this calm at the centre of sometimes very stormy stories.”
TKT: Maigret takes a huge risk in the first film. Did you view taking this role as a risk?
RA: Everything is a risk to a certain extent. But like all risks you make a judgement in order to reduce the risk. So you don’t play any part that comes along, you play the parts that you think you’re going to do best. And then you’re in the lap of the gods to a certain extent. But yet again you make judgements about producers, about directors, about casting. You make a judgement about everyone with whom you come into contact and you decide whether it feels like the kind of thing you want to do. And in the end in the creative world your instinct is the only real skill you have. It’s the only real quality that you can lean on. And my instinct historically has been okay, I think. So you’ve just got to carry on trusting your instinct. That’s all you’ve got.
TKT: Was there a moment wearing the hat and coat and smoking the pipe when you felt this was ‘My Maigret’?
RA: He hasn’t got a limp but he has got a pipe. So that’s a start. The first couple of weeks on the first film I found very, very difficult. The main problem being not the fact the part is serious but that the character is very low key and his whole delivery is decidedly untheatrical and naturalistic. I think it’s the naturalism of the character and of the performance that is of the kind required by modern television drama – that you can’t do anything too big or silly or theatrical. Generally speaking even the serious characters I’ve played on stage have been far more characterful than Maigret is. Whereas with him it’s just this very low key, almost inflection-free delivery which is how you’re supposed to do an awful lot of television drama. It’s not Henry V. And that I found very difficult. I’m used to, in many ways you might say, milking every word for all the value, whether it’s comic or serious, that you can get out of it. And you’ve just got to let it flow. It’s got to tell the story in the most low key naturalistic way. So it was the low key naturalism that I found tricky.
TKT: You decided to smoke real tobacco in the pipe?
RA: That was more a practical thing than anything else. Real tobacco stays alight for much longer and also it doesn’t burn.
TKT: Maigret never drives himself. Is that frustrating for a car enthusiast?
RA: Yes, I do find it frustrating, actually. The first character I’ve ever played who is in close contact with a car, who doesn’t drive it. But no, he’s always chauffered. So be it. In a Citroen Traction Avant Light 15.
TKT: Have you had to curtail your motor racing activities due to the insurance requirements that always come with a role like this?
RA: A little bit. I couldn’t do anything at Goodwood this last September. I usually like to race at the Goodwood Revival. But I’m used to that. That’s happened several times on movies, on Johnny English movies and things. Not only are you not allowed to motor race during the shooting, you’re not allowed to motor race for three months before the shooting. So it can be very restrictive and has been over the years. All eyes are on Maigret as he leads an investigation. As a ‘globally renowned actor,’ are you able to go about your business without being bothered? Or are there places and situations you have to avoid? I’ve lived with recognisability for several decades now. You get used to it. And you get used to dealing with it. The modern era of the smartphone…10, 15 years ago things changed quite significantly. The fact that people very rarely ask you for an autograph now. It’s always a photograph. But at the same time I’m certainly not a recluse. I lead a normal life in a normal way. But you learn. If you’re going to travel by tube – which, surprisingly I do quite a lot – you know where to stand, where to face and what time of day to go.
TKT: Presumably it’s that ‘in plain sight’ factor. People don’t expect to see you?
RA: Yes, exactly. If you turned up to a building in a fleet of limos with nine bodyguards you’re going to attract more attention than if you don’t. Maigret is often under pressure.
TKT: Do you enjoy the responsibility of being the leading man at the head of a production?
RA: Actually, no I don’t if I have to be honest. I try not to set myself up as a team leader too much. I leave that to producers like Jeremy Gwilt on Maigret. All I want to do is the job. And my job is the same as any other actor, which is just to play the part and make it credible and tell the story. Which is the only job an actor really has. And that’s what I focus on. Also I tend to take the work extremely seriously. This is not because it’s a serious part. I’m afraid I’m the same with all the comic stuff I’ve done. I’m quite a dull person to work with because I’m very absorbed in the work I do. But I hope I’m always polite and nice to people. Which I think I am.
TKT: You’re doing a job just like anyone else?
RA: Yes. The job of acting. Yes, absolutely. It’s just a job.”
TKT: What has the experience of filming in Budapest been like?
RA: Budapest is a nice place to be. I tended to go home a lot because I don’t like being away from home, if I have to be honest. I like to be in my own bed every night rather than somebody else’s. I got away every weekend. But it’s a very nice city. It’s quite calm. In fact it’s rather Maigret-esque, actually, compared to some other places like Prague, which are a little more stag party in their flavour – at least certainly at weekends and evenings. Well maybe there are stag parties going on in Budapest and I have been blissfully unaware of them. It’s not that kind of city. It’s a beautiful city and perfect to portray Paris in the 1950s. We needed a European city, and a European city that was, I’m afraid, slightly behind the times. You can still find cobbled streets with grass growing between the cobbles in Budapest. You’ll never find that in Paris.
TKT: Did you film any scenes in Paris?
RA: They did film there. I didn’t go. It involved a chase involving several people. We were supposed to be going on the Tuesday after the Bataclan theatre attacks. Then, of course, all the filming permits were rescinded and we never went.
TKT: How would you describe the relationship between Maigret and Madame Maigret?
RA: In the books the relationship is relatively undeveloped. Having said that, there’s a book I read in which Maigret spends the entire story in bed and Madame Maigret is running around doing everything at his bidding. But generally speaking the relationship is what you might call very old fashioned. In that it’s very calm and not overly-demonstrative but I think a very loving and genuine relationship. I think Maigret appreciates that calm and the normality of it. In contrast to the frequently, I’m sure, traumatic nature of his work. We’ve tried to develop the character of Madame Maigret. I think she’s more present in these stories than she would have been in the equivalent stories in the novels. Because you have to cast these things and you’re going to get better people the better and more fulfilling the role is. Lucy Cohu is extremely good. We’ve tried to give her a definite presence in these stories.
TKT: How would you sum up the appeal of Maigret?
RA: I just hope we’ve done a decent job of telling some interesting stories. I think the world of Maigret is very interesting. Paris in 1955 and the characters and the crimes. I think it is different. Merely the fact they carry guns and don’t have lawyers present when they interview people. A very different world to our own. And yet humans and the human characteristics and characters are still there as much as they would be today. So I just hope people find the stories engaging. And I think they will.
Maigret Sets A Trap: Monday 28th March, 9pm, ITV