Earlier this year, Rowan Atkinson made his debut as Georges Simenon’s classic, Golden Age(ish) French detective Jules Maigret. Eyebrows were raised when Atkinson was cast, chiefly because he’s obviously well known for his comedy acting, but Atkinson did a relatively good job in the new version. It was just that this new version wasn’t much of a revamp – it was just another straight-batted re-telling of oft-told stories. In fact, you could argue that it was too straight-batted – Atkinson’s Maigret was quiet, taciturn and sometimes difficult to engage with (exactly like the Maigret in the books, to be fair). Thankfully, Dead Man was better than Sets A Trap.
It’s interesting to note that elsewhere, another Golden Age crime legend has been getting a revamp, too. Sarah Phelps did a remarkable job with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None last Christmas, and she does so again in tomorrow night’s The Witness For The Prosecution, amping up the menace and much more flesh on the bone when it comes to characterisation and social context. (Look out for our review tomorrow night.) Phelps has hit the jackpot when it comes to maintaining a beautiful balance between the mechanical, clockwork-like tick-tock-tick-tock of the quintessential Christie whodunit components and making the human stories behind the characters feel fresh and new.
This is not the case with Maigret – it feels like a slightly plodding, reverential re-telling of Simenon’s stories. And who can blame the likes of writer Stewart Harcourt? Simenon’s Maigret is still one of the most popular detective characters around.
In Dead Man, it wasn’t so much Atkinson’s appointment that was raising eyebrows, it was ITV’s decision to schedule it on Christmas Day, against the likes of the BBC Christmas juggernaut – this move was either very bold or an admission that Maigret wasn’t much cop and was ‘expendable’ in terms of ratings.
Still, it was great to see a slab of Golden Age crime drama on our screens on Christmas Day and the good news was that I felt it was much better than Sets A Trap. Early on, when Albert Rochain’s body was dumped outside Maigret’s office (after having called Maigret several times, telling him they had met once before and he needed his help… some men were following him and intent on killing him), his faithful sidekick Inspector Janvier commented to young Inspector Lapointe that ‘this one will get under his skin’.
And so it proved. Maigret took a personal interest in this case, not just because of the personal connection with the victim, but because Rochain’s death was somehow connected to the slayings of three wealthy farming families in the Picardy area. Brutal, senseless slayings that tugged at the heartstrings.
And off Maigret went, finding out that Rochain was a proprietor of a bistro. In a strange, slightly unintentionally comical segment in the middle of this feature-minute episode, Maigret and the immaculate Madame Maigret (Lucy Cohu) decided to go undercover and pose as bistro owners, taking over the deceased place in a bid to flush out the murderer(s). (Atkinson’s withering Blackadder look was employed to good effect here.) This ploy seems to be popular in the two Simenon stories so far – putting something up as bait in order to tempt villains out into the open, the inference being that these ne’er do wells are nothing more than narcissistic, slightly stupid people who can’t resist showing themselves when prodded.
While the first half was plodding and pedestrian, I found myself enjoying the second half much more. Maigret was emotionally engaged in this case, and as the gang behind the Picardy and Rochain murders was revealed there was genuine disgust and hatred on Maigret’s face as he caught them and put them away. A team of malleable, addicted Slovaks were at the story’s heart, and Maigret showed by steely resolve and compassion when dealing with doomed Maria – an addict who gave birth to a baby.
So, better. But I do wish they’d have the courage of Phelps and really soup this Maigret up a bit. (And before you say it I know Simenon and Christie are different beasts.) I don’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater and destroying something so many people have enjoyed, but just tinker with it slightly and amp things up a bit for a new generation, because the foundations are certainly there.
There were no real twists in Dead Man, no huge reveals; just an interesting story that revealed itself bit by bit. It certainly didn’t feel like a decadent Christmas Day treat (even though mid-century Paris was once again beautifully realised), but neither was it a disaster.
For our review of Maigret Sets A Trap, go here