Maigret: the complete series. Blu Ray Box set 11 discs (Network).
The BBC TV Maigret series was hugely successful. It ran from 1960 – 63. In 1960 I was eleven and my parents let me watch a few episodes. I was instantly captivated by the character of inspector Jules Maigret with his pipe, wine drinking and wearing of a trilby. I partly identified actor Rupert Davies with the look of my father, another pipe-man, but not a policeman nor a drinker. A familial bond was created: as Maigret, in the opening credits, struck a match against a wall and lit his pipe; followed by a close–up the paternalistic Davies, with vigilant eyes, accompanied by the jaunty Gallic accordion music of Ron Grainger. I had to ask the question what brand of tobacco did Maigret smoke? My dad’s was called Condor. I wondered if the BBC had Maigret smoke a Parisian brand to add to the authenticity?
Even to ask such a question reveals the strength of Davies’s acting. It mattered that this British actor got everything right. Well he did for the public and his creator Georges Simenon. For it’s a definitive piece of casting – on first meeting Rupert Davies Simenon declared he’d be the perfect Maigret. This year Network has reissued, after many years of being unavailable, all 52 episodes plus a Play of the Month called Maigret at Bay. Now my question is not now about a policeman’s tobacco but has this series overridden mere nostalgia and stood the test of time?
Yes, Davies, his co-actors, script, studio sets and filmed exteriors have all proved to still be wonderfully entertaining (I can overlook the occasionally late, or fluffed, line of dialogue and clumsy camera movement). This is never a cosy detective series like a Murder She Wrote but a passionate and gritty affair more concerned with psychological disturbance than physical violence. There are chases, fights and guns in Maigret but they are secondary. It’s the astute revealing of character that matters: Simenon’s insight and veracity about good behaviour gone madly astray or turned horribly bad are admirably realised by script editor Giles Cooper and other writers.
Maigret’s assistants Sgt. Lucas (Ewan Solon), Lapointe (Neville Jason), Torrence (Victor Lucas) and Madame Maigret (Helen Shingler) are as equally fine as Rupert Davies: managing to create a collective endeavour – carrying out, with a marked seriousness and good humour, their hunt for criminals. Suspects are rounded up, politely or rudely brought in, to be interrogated with punchy style and verbal wit (Clean, direct Maigret questions on show not Dirty Harry insults): information’s collated in police rooms, bars, nightclub’s and Maigret’s flat, all built with 1960’s BBC production values that were a virtue, never a hindrance – I came to enjoy the black and white realism of those sets as much as the storylines. And when we cut to filmed exteriors it really was a Paris probably filled with Nouvelle Vague filmmakers in one arrondissement of Paris and the BBC in another – though never the twain shall stylistically meet. Not a case of Maigret appearing old fashioned but these days perhaps a little televisual noirish: both solidly of its time, yet plot wise timeless.
The stories are so good. So many to choose from. Take Murder in Montmartre (episode 1, Series 1). A stripper at a club / bar is strangled. Maigret casually observes the strong hands of the manager. He’s not his man. Yet direction and acting subtly convey Maigret’s intense mental curiosity to consider all possibilities. No accusation is made. It’s a small point in a brief scene that doesn’t draw attention to itself yet immediately establishes Margret as an intelligent detective. And at the end, with the crime solved, Maigret consoles the detective Lapointe, crying over the death of the stripper, who he’d met before she’d passed information on to the police, and wanted to get romantically involved. ‘You’ve loved your first love, killed your first man. There will be others.’
No ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ cowboy platitude voiced here but an expression of the compassion and empathy of Maigret’s unsentimental and matter of fact determinism that prefigures his character in the episodes to follow. Our sympathy for Maigret, burdened with often thankless police-work, is concisely established. The brilliant Maigret becomes a celebrity, even a legend, for his many successes. But it’s not for vanity; more that interesting puzzles and flawed humanity engage his talent.
In Murder on Monday Maigret is curious about the inexplicable murder in the street of a married middle aged clerk: only to discover that he had a double life – was involved in a shady thieving and spent long afternoons with his mistress. This is typified by the clerk’s change of clothing – far too well dressed for Maigret’s description of him as a ‘typical breadwinner.’
The Liars has Maigret on duty at the seaside trying to discover who murdered, with a shotgun, a nuisance neighbour. The local schoolteacher is accused and two schoolchildren (including the teacher’s son) lie about what they saw just prior to the shooting. The main reason why Maigret takes on the case is gastronomic – he wants to be near the sea and sample the oysters. After a violent struggle with the killer and case now solved it’s still no oysters again but rabbit stew on the menu. The constant references, throughout the Maigret series, to good food and drink here assume a lightly comic touch. And in a touching climax Maigret is able to help the teacher’s son to respect his innocent father again.
Voices From the Past, sees Maigret investigating the murder of a count only to discover it was a covered up suicide. This places the chief inspector in unfamiliar social territory, dealing with the aristocracy and matters of honour. When the case is ended Maigret expresses his relief, ‘Let’s go and get some beer and find some real criminals.’
The Play of the Month extra, Maigret at Bay (six years on and now a full-length play) is technically the best looking of all the Maigrets but the weakest. The script never quite explains why Maigret is being set up by a powerful political state. “A parallel police force” concludes Maigret. Our chief inspector is wrongly accused of escorting a distraught young woman to a hotel and raping her (that untrue event being filmed in a clunky manner where Rupert Davies’s looks ill at ease). More successful is its serial killer / dentist sub-plot, morphing into a main plot, about young women who were killed and buried in his garden. It’s a gripping enough story but maybe the BBC should have called it a day.
Apart from some slight misgivings about Play of the Month the standard of interest and engagement I found from the main series was very high. The avuncular detective holds his place high with such other greats like Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe.
Network should be highly praised for restoring Maigret. A TV classic returns.
Alan Price © 2022.