Maigret is every bit 
as fascinating as Sherlock – but why is now the time for another TV adaptation?

ITV and Rowan Atkinson are just the latest in a long line of programme makers drawn to the French detective. Mark Lawson tracks down the character's history

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The two male detectives to whom British television has most frequently turned are Sherlock Holmes and Jules Maigret.

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The current incumbents of these roles – Benedict Cumberbatch and Rowan Atkinson – follow an impressive line of actors: Ian Richardson and Jeremy Brett previously played Holmes, while Atkinson, whose third appearance as French policeman Maigret is screened by ITV this Easter, stands in the footprints of Michael Gambon (ITV, 1992–93) and Rupert Davies (BBC, 1960–63, 1969).

Apart from both smoking pipes, the two sleuths have little obviously in common. Holmes is a private investigator, Maigret a commissaire, a rank equivalent to inspector, in the Paris version of the flying squad.

While the Baker Street resident is a bachelor loner, the Frenchman is a devoted husband, a species rare among fictional detectives. They even solve crimes differently: Sherlock through lightning flashes of inspiration thanks to a genius-level IQ; Maigret by a process of methodical elimination that leads colleagues to underestimate him as a plodder.

But the fact that Holmes and Maigret head the charts of the most-acted TV male sleuths (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tops the women’s list) is perhaps because these investigators of mysteries are themselves mysterious, leaving space for interpretation by different actors.

No one has yet been able completely to own the roles of Holmes or Maigret in the way that John Thaw and David Suchet did respectively with Endeavour Morse and Hercule Poirot. (Shaun Evans, playing the young Morse in Endeavour, had to convince viewers at the beginning that he could grow into and become the man portrayed by Thaw.)

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Atkinson’s Maigret made his debut last year in Maigret Sets a Trap, and this weekend returns in Night at the Crossroads, where he struggles to solve the murder of a diamond merchant. Impressively, Atkinson is able to find an original take on Maigret, even for those who have seen Davies and Gambon in the part. And Bruno Cremer, whose 54 outings as Maigret for French TV (1991–2005) are available on DVD in Britain, was different again, and in turn distinctive from the work of another French TV interpreter, Jean Richard, and an Italian one, Gino Cervi.

The variety of interpretations that the character draws from actors is slightly surprising because Georges Simenon (1903–89), the Belgian-born novelist who created the policeman, was unusually precise about how Maigret looked and moved.

The precision of the picture created – and the character’s subsequent popularity on screen – may owe much to the character having come to the novelist as a vision. Simenon published at least 350 novels, 75 of them featuring Maigret, sometimes at the rate of one a month – and, as a result, he was free to spend a lot of time smoking and drinking in cafés. During one such break from the page, mellow on tobacco and schnapps, Simenon found himself joined by an imaginary fellow drinker.

This woozy arrival was, the author later recalled, “a large, powerfully built gentleman”. Visitors from the literary subconscious often come clutching their biographies, and Simenon knew that he was seeing a detective in the Paris Sûreté. “As the day wore on,” the writer noted, “I added various accessories: a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar. And since it was cold and damp… I put a cast-iron stove in his office.”

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When the writer, sober at his desk, summoned up a second visit, the image intensified. The opening pages of Pietr the Latvian, the first Maigret novel, are full of sentences that read almost like stage directions to the numerous actors who would come to play the part.

On page one, Maigret (in David Bellos’s 2013 translation for Penguin, which is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels) rises “ponderously to his feet”. It often helps an actor to have a physical prop, and Simenon immediately provides a pipe, the stem of which Maigret, at times of concentration or concern, “bites hard between his teeth”. And, although he was writing a novel, with no knowledge at the time of how frequently the screen rights would later be sold, Simenon offers helpful notes to the wardrobe department. Leaving his office, Maigret “took his jacket off the hook and slipped his arms into it, then put on a heavy black overcoat and a bowler hat.”

From the beginning, the writer provides the kind of precise physical detail for which character actors are prone to badger playwrights in rehearsal. Maigret, we are told, is always self-conscious about his tie-knot because, for some reason, he never learnt to do one properly in his youth. In other asides, we learn that the cop “shaved every day and looked after his hands”, and that “He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there.”

As his creator saw him, the commissaire was a “big, bony man” with “iron muscles”, so large that, when he stands on a platform at the Gare du Nord, waiting for a train that holds a corpse, other passengers have to walk around him as if he were “a wall”.

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Michael Gambon as Maigret

While Davies and Gambon embodied this physicality, Atkinson notably breaks the mould, although careful use of camera angles and the relative height of other actors makes him look bulkier. But Atkinson’s slightness doesn’t prevent him from fulfilling Simenon’s vision of a man who can command a room simply by being in it. He captures, too, the novelist’s portrait of someone precise about his dress, toilette, gestures and speech. Occasional nervous checks of the neckline suggest that Atkinson is aware of the tie-knot insecurities that the cop’s creator gave him.

Completely suppressing one aspect of his celebrated character Mr Bean – facial mobility – Atkinson sensibly draws on his experience in that role of sustaining long silences on screen. He gives the impression, as described by the novelist, of quietness, stillness, deliberation, a mind and investigation working at a pace decided by Maigret himself. Whereas some fictional cops are action heroes – chasing after clues and suspects in cars – Maigret is a hero of inaction, thinking things through; on the same spectrum, in that sense, as Sherlock.

The 270 or so non-Maigret novels by Simenon were mainly psychological stories: one of them, The Hand, was recently turned by David Hare into an adultery drama, The Red Barn, at the National Theatre. Psychology is also key to the Maigret tales – the character is a sort of investigator-shrink, solving crimes by solving people. This empathetic listening Atkinson entirely gets, gently telling a frightened witness, in Night at the Crossroads: “I understand.”

The prolific range of Simenon’s writing career meant that he never became bored with his character, in the way that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, and so maintained quality across 40 years of writing about the Paris cop. Night at the Crossroads, the basis for the new Easter Day drama, was the seventh in the Maigret sequence; last year, Atkinson appeared not only in the 48th novel, Maigret Sets a Trap, but also in the 29th, Maigret’s Dead Man.

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Rupert Davies

As well as creating, in Maigret, a gift for an actor, Simenon also gave future screen directors the prize of Paris. Location matters as much in TV crime as in estate agency. All of the top TV cops can offer the cameras a distinctive landscape: whether it’s Morse’s Oxford, Vera’s Northumberland, Sherlock’s London or Wallander’s Scandinavia. (As the main suspect in Night at the Crossroads is a Danish émigré to France, the story, first published in 1931, can be seen as an early example of Scandi-noir.)

For reasons of Parisian modernisation or French civic filming logistics, though, modern TV Maigrets have usually walked the streets of a substitute city. All the ITV versions (a fourth is filming) were extensively shot in areas of eastern Europe (Prague, Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary) where the architecture remains convincingly 1950s Parisian.

Across the nine decades since Jules Maigret walked into the mind of the tipsy Simenon in a café, more than a billion copies of the books have been sold, with the character appealing to successive generations in numerous countries.

And there’s a particular irony in Maigret running on British television now. The opening chapters of Pietr the Latvian, introducing the cop, stress how much his investigations owe to cooperation between European police forces. Reports on the criminal come to Maigret from multiple capitals via the International Criminal Police Commission (the ICPC).

As the supply of data between international agencies has become one of the issues in the Brexit negotations with the EU, some viewers may come to look at this depiction of European policing with nostalgia. They will certainly hope that the broadcasting of this enduringly fascinating character will survive the political readjustments between London and Paris.

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Maigret’s Night at the Crossroads is on Easter Day at 8pm on ITV