Rowan Atkinson: It's hard to play an ordinary man
'Mr Bean' star Atkinson is famous for playing eccentrics. But, as he tells Jasper Rees, he couldn't say no to unassuming French detective Maigret
Publishers often get it wrong. No publisher was ever more wrong than Artheme Fayard when Georges Simenon, a young Belgian novelist who had already dashed off 200 novels under more than 20 pseudonyms, submitted a new book.
"Your detective is a man just like anyone else," harrumphed Fayard. "Not particularly intelligent, who sits for hours on end in front of a glass of beer. He's disgustingly commonplace. How do you hope to sell something like that?"
Despite misgivings, in 1931 Fayard consented to put out Pietr-le-Letton, featuring a pipe-smoking commissioner of Paris's Brigade Criminelle. Seventy-five novels, 28 short stories and 853 million sales later, Inspector Jules Maigret, by the time the series ended in 1972, was quite as loved as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, despite his lack of eccentricities.
This Easter on UTV, the "disgustingly commonplace" Maigret appears in a surprising new incarnation. Pipe clamped in his jaws, raincoat draped nonchalantly over his shoulders, Rowan Atkinson takes to cleaning up the infested streets of Paris in two Maigret mysteries.
First comes Maigret Sets a Trap, in which Maigret is nearly thrown off the case for failing to catch a killer who randomly murders women in Montmartre. Later in the year comes Maigret's Dead Man, featuring a series of low-life gangland killings.
If the notion of Mr Bean in a role last played on British TV by Michael Gambon sounds like a stretch, that's roughly how it seemed to Atkinson too. He shied away from Maigret when the part was first offered.
"I don't think you can decide to play a mainstream role in an ITV drama without being reasonably certain you can play the part as well as it can be played," he says. "The demand of modern TV drama is very low-key and naturalistic. Directors constantly tell you, 'Don't act, don't try'. It's inflection-free acting and I wasn't really sure if I could do it."
In fact, he has done low-key onstage. Theatregoers warmed to his quiet turn as a po-faced nobody in Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms in the West End in 2013. But television viewers have never seen Atkinson not pulling rubbery faces.
Only when ITV came back to him many months later did he relent. In the first two weeks of filming - the films required five weeks apiece - his fears were reinforced. "I found it a difficult way of being," he says. "The character is an ordinary man doing an extraordinary job, and I tend to play rather odd men. Maigret hasn't got a limp or a lisp and he hasn't got a French accent or a particular love of opera."
He does, however, have a pipe which proved a godsend, and fortuitously Atkinson had had some practice at it as a 20-year-old student ("of which I'm not proud"). The hobby for which he's better known - driving fast cars - proved less useful. Much to Atkinson's chagrin, Maigret is driven everywhere.
Atkinson's other career-long rule used to be never to accept a role that someone else had played before. But he broke his habit in 2009 when he took on Fagin in Oliver! and then followed in others' footsteps as St John Quartermaine. And with Maigret, in no previous role have there been so many shadows cast by other actors.
No sooner had Maigret been born than the great director Jean Renoir cast his brother Pierre in Night at the Crossroads in 1932. The first Maigret to speak English was Charles Laughton in The Man on the Eiffel Tower in 1950, then the Welsh actor Rupert Davies played him more than 50 times for the BBC in the early 1960s. Simenon was a fan. "At last, I have found the perfect Maigret," he inscribed to Davies in a copy of a book.
Of more recent memory is Michael Gambon's conversion from singing detective to smoking detective in the early 1990s, a less eccentric corrective to Richard Harris's unlikely turn in the part in 1988.
Like Davies, Atkinson can call on the imprimatur of a Simenon. The author's son John Simenon is one of the executive producers and continued to give chase when Atkinson turned the job down because he saw in him three qualities integral to Maigret: "His humanity, his empathy for the victims and, to a large extent, also for the criminals, and a touch of vulnerability." He adds that Atkinson also "smokes the pipe pretty much the way my father used to".
So Atkinson convinces as a ruminating and insightful cop who knows his Freud. But that's not the only trompe l'oeil in these new Maigret films.
The opening frame of Maigret Sets a Trap is filled by one of the Notre Dame's gargoyles gazing over panoramic Paris from its lofty eyrie. In fact, the action was shot entirely in Budapest. The former second city of the Austro-Hungarian empire makes for a remarkable double. The winding lanes of Buda, with tufts of grass poking between cobbles, stand in for Montmartre and the grand boulevards of Pest for the formal beat of the prefecture and the judiciary.
The reason for the switch is partly budgetary, but also because modern Paris bears scant resemblance to the city which only a decade earlier had been occupied by the Wehrmacht - in that respect the BBC series of the 1960s came along just in time.
The Frenchness of the production is lightly underscored in other ways. Although clearly ITV would never shoot in French, viewers here have been trained up in the habit of reading subtitles of crime dramas from elsewhere in Europe. Thus, an opening montage of newspapers reporting murders in Montmartre are in French, with translations stylishly sliding across the screen. (In a Hitchcockian cameo for the final scene, John Simenon can be seen on a park bench reading Red Rackham's Treasure to a child. Tintinologists may wish to know that the edition was in neither French nor English, but Hungarian.)
As for the novels chosen, Maigret Sets a Trap (1955) finds the detective devising a plan to lure a serial killer out into the open. It was first filmed three years after its publication with Jean Gabin in the lead - the dreadful English title was Woman Bait.
With 74 other novels to choose from, it is picked so often because, explains John Simenon, "it is a good introduction to the whole universe to what Maigret stands for, to the pressure that he can live under, his relationship with his team, with the judge, with his wife". The latter two are played by Irish actor Aidan McArdle - of Mr Selfridge fame -and Lucy Cohu.
Another Maigret film is in the pipeline and Atkinson talks tentatively of continuing in the role. Perhaps he wants to prove a thing or two. "It is quite weird the way that the arts community has a long-lasting cynicism of the artistic value of comedy," he says. "Whereas as soon as you play a serious role, 'Aha! Now you're an actor'. I feel I'm using exactly the same skills as when I play something more obviously comic."
Thus far, the gumshoe fits.
@The Daily Telegraph