March 6, 2024

The New Top Ten: Maigret

The first time I saw Maigret on television, I was young and impressionable and didn't know the ways of the world. It was 1993, and Maigret was running on Mystery!, the anthology series on PBS. Michael Gambon was playing Maigret, and I suppose I was attracted to the series because I'd seen and liked Gambon in The Singing Detective a few years before; I'd never heard of the character Jules Maigret, the famous French detective created by Georges Simenon. (I'd never heard of Simenon either, for that matter.) 

The first thing that puzzled me was that Maigret and all the actors were speaking British English, with no French accent, and I found this tremendously disorienting. As I say, I was a naif when it came to things like this; I was used to American television, and wasn't familiar with the British practice of having actors speak naturally, without trying to put on phony accents, French or not. I kept checking to make sure this was set in France, and that they hadn't moved the action to England or something like that, and frankly it distracted me from following the stories. I can't even remember if I saw all of the episodes. Did I mention that I was also stupid back then?

The years passed, and while I didn't pursue Maigret any further—either the series or the books on which it was based—I didn't forget about it, either. When Rowan Atkinson took his turn as Maigret in 2016, I was intrigued—The Black Adder, you know; it seems as if I was always coming to Maigret through some other series the lead actor had appeared in—and recorded it with the intention of watching it later. Well, you know what they say about intentions; by the time we could have gotten to it, we'd moved, and I lost all the episodes that were on the DVR because we changed cable companies. Oh well; c'est la vie, as Maigret would have said.

But for some reason unknown to me, either then or now, I started looking into Maigret more seriously. I even caught an adaptation of a Maigret story that was produced on Studio One back in the early 1950s; "Stan, the Killer," it was. The actor playing Maigret (Romney Brent) didn't leave that much of an impression on me, which was understandable, I suppose, since Eli Wallach was the star. But—and here's what remains a mystery to me—I started researching various versions of Maigret, trying to find which version critics considered the definitive one, if such a thing existed. 

And that's how I stumbled onto Rupert Davies. Maigret had been played by many actors both in the movies and on television; even Charles Laughton took his turn, as the first English-language Maigret. Bruno Cremer played him in the 1990s into the early 2000s and those were well-reviewed, but the versions online didn't have subtitles, and since they were all in French, they were useless to me. But the Davies version—almost everyone with an opinion thought his was the best, or one of the best. Georges Simenon himself said, "At last, I have found the perfect Maigret!" Well, that was good enough for me. Davies had played Maigret on the BBC for four seasons, from 1960 to 1963, and, remarkably for the Beeb, all 52 episodes still existed.  And eventually, as so often happens if you're willing to be patient and keep your eyes open, the series popped up on YouTube and the Internet Archives. (It's also on DVD, but it ain't cheap.)

By this time I'd gotten to know the character a little better. I still hadn't read any of Simenon's books—that would come later—but I was familiar enough with him to know that Maigret was no knuckle-dragging savage, of which no better example exists than Law & Order: SVU's Elliot Stabler; or a smart-ass know-it-all, as in every investigator who's ever appeared on NCIS. He's a shrewd judge of character, puffing on his ever-present pipe with a world-weariness offset by wry good humor, and a blunt, direct style of questioning; he's able to sense when things don't add up, skeptical when the pieces fall into place too easily, and not easily fooled. He's also experienced in the human condition, with an ability to look beyond the surface, and an unwillingness to condemn people based on imperfections in their past lives. 

Indeed, the impression that Davies-as-Maigret gives off is an overwhelming sense of humanity; he displays a particular ability to put himself in place of the victim and see where it leads him, which imbues in him an extraordinary sensitivity toward those he investigates. Even the satisfaction of solving a case comes with a particular cloud, for he knows that when he wins, someone loses his liberty, or his life. People complain that I'm too soft on criminals, he notes in one episode, but unlike the magistrates and prosecutors—bureaucrats, Maigret dismissively views them—he lives in the world of crime, and understands the human drama that plays out within. 

In her essay, "Maigret's Law," sociologist Susan S. Silbey notes that "Maigret is a believer in sociological justice [who] works to repair the torn fabric of social relations to recompose the troubled lives that end in murder." Oftentimes, "he arranges outcomes in which the guilty person feels the need to confess, or to execute their own punishment." While the bureaucrats are eager to categorize and name everything as soon as they come across it, Maigret "simply lets it register; the sorting, the understanding comes later." But then, to the bureaucrats, crime is a form waiting to be filled out, "'satisfied that [they] had done [their] duty' if they named the rules and issued notices, willing to let others do the work." For Maigret, the human element is never far from the surface; perhaps it remains there all the time, in plain sight for those like Maigret who understand it. Is this what is so often missing from American police stories? Perhaps. . .

If all this sounds terribly dense, as if one needs an advanced degree of some kind to enjoy it, forget it. The 52 episodes, all taken from the Simenon's fantastic oeuvre—he wrote 75 Maigret novels, and 28 short stories—do an impressive job of condensing the often-complex narratives into 50-minute timeslots. The cases are always interesting and the outcomes not always predictable, but the pleasure is in watching Maigret solve them—and it is a real pleasure.

What else? The location shots, all done in France, the music, and the use of colloquial French terms throughout—Maigret is always referred to by his subordinates as patron, or chief—establish the setting admirably; no concerns here that the actors don't speak with French accents! The supporting cast is led by Ewen Solon as Maigret's loyal number two, Lucas, a man with the unique ability to combine cynicism and good humor; Neville Jason as young Lapointe and Victor Lucas as muscular Torrence round out Maigret's closest associates. Helen Shingler plays Maigret's devoted wife Louise, who understands him all-too-well; as a couple, they compliment each other perfectly, and Maigret himself knows he would be an incomplete man without her.

In the end, it was very easy to come to the conclusion that Maigret should be part of the new Top Ten. I was sold on it from the first episode. There was a warmth I felt toward him—toward both the character and the actor, really; that warmth being a reciprocation of the warmth which emanates from Rupert Davies himself as he projects Maigret's inner humanity and desire for justice. Indeed, as I look through this, I find that I might have used the word "justice" many more times than I have, since justice is the unifying aspect that joins Maigret to so many of my favorite characters on television: the justice that Judd seeks for his clients, the justice that Dr. Baxter searches for in the diagnoses of his patients, the justice that is (seemingly) unattainable for Dr. Richard Kimble, the justice that is an overriding concern for the Doctor as he travels in his Tardis. And why not; the dictionary tells us that "justice" comes from the Old French justitia, which in its Latin root meant "righteousness and equity." It's a companion to the Latin justus, meaning "upright and just." The well-drawn character can demonstrate such justice, but it requires the actor to bring it out, to project it on the screen.

There had to be a reason, after all, why Simenon considered Rupert Davies the "perfect" Maigret. And while there are other Maigret stories to be told, other actors to play him and other series to watch, he'll always be Maigret to me. TV  


  1. I watched the Maigret from the 80s you mentioned on Britbox a few years ago. It just didn't 'grab' me enough to watch anymore. I tried again with Rowan Atkinson, if anything just to see him do drama, and I had same reaction.
    However, from what I have seen of the B/W Rupert Davies episodes on YouTube, it looks pretty good. I'll have to check them out.

    1. I'll be interested to see what you think. I believe that (at the moment) all the episodes are on YouTube.

  2. To let you in on a secret...those British accents were adopted by the cast especially for filming. When nobody's watching we speak American English, except for when we're intime chez nous when we speak French. But don't tell anyone.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!