With its haunting Ron Grainer theme tune and classic opening sequence showing Maigret striking a match on a wall before lighting his pipe, Belgian novelist George Simenon's Parisian detective came to life on British television screens in 1960 and soon became a firm television favourite.
Already immortalised in some 150 stories and having previously been given a cinema release in a 1957 France/Italy co-production starring Jean Gabin ('Maigret Sets a Trap'), Simenon approached the BBC with a view to selling the TV rights for his famous policeman on the grounds that they were the only company that could do it justice.
Cast in the part of the down to earth Surete detective, a compassionate yet implacable hunter who worked the streets of Paris among the squalid bistros and sordid apartments, was ex-prisoner of war hero Rupert Davies, a choice that Simenon himself wholeheartedly approved of. Remembering the role in a 1964 interview Davies said "When Andrew Osborn, the producer of the show, offered me the part on Good Friday in 1960, I knew very little about Maigret. I knew he was a famous French fictional detective, but that was all." Rather than read the books to get the character Davies thought it would be much better to meet Maigret's creator and hear from him what he was like. The BBC agreed and a meeting was set up with Simenon in Luasanne.
"The moment Simenon saw me he shouted: "C'est Maigret, c'est Maigret. You are the flesh and bones of Maigret!" Recalled Davies. "That was a wonderful beginning. Then he drove us to his lovely chateau in the village of Enchandens, where I met his wife. Later he began to coach me in Maigret's idiosyncrasies." Some months later, with the completion of thirteen episodes, Davies took two films over to Simenon for his first view of the series. "Both Georges and his wife were delighted," exclaimed the actor. However, Davies was to be disappointed by the BBC's inability to sell the series to America. "It seems we were too naughty for them," he said. "They considered Maigret too casual about sex. One American TV boss said that a sexual sin must never be shown to pay and that this was not emphasized in Maigret. Ladies of easy virtue were shown as quite delightful young people and Maigret not only spoke to them politely, he even bought them the occasional drink. I'm afraid the Americans thought Maigret's manner much too free and easy, and they were quite shocked when he would ask a girl a straight question like: "Did you go to bed with this man?" So although the Canadians bought the series the American's didn't."
Davies was keen to break away from the terminal (in career terms) type-casting that his three-year stint on the show had brought him, claiming that he felt as though it had made him a prisoner for the second time in his life. However, it was a part that he reluctantly returned to in 1964 as host of the series Detective and in spite of a disastrous attempt to make another cinema release (Davies walked off the set in disgust) he returned to the role yet again for a one-off 1969 production (Maigret at Bay), and prior to that he supplied the voice of Professor McClaine in the Gerry Anderson puppet series Joe 90. Rupert Davies died in 1976 just 60 years of age, having given life to one of television's most famous and enduring detective creations. And to this date it his portrayal has been the definitive.
The character was revived for two ill-advised TV revivals, the first an HTV produced 120 minute TV Movie starring a disastrously miscast Richard Harris and then as a short-lived series from Granada in 1992, starring the usually excellent Michael Gambon. However, this series suffered from changes to the character, which transformed the implacable hunter of criminals into little more than a stolid, workmanlike and uninspired plodder. Often described as the thinking man's detective, and vividly drawn in the Davis interpretation of the character, Maigret solved crimes (aided and abetted by his sidekick Lucas) by analysing character, interviewing his suspects and getting to know every aspect of them intimately.
John Thaw recreated the same style years later to great effect with his memorable performance as a certain opera-loving, crossword solving Oxford Chief Inspector. But before there was Inspector Morse and murder amongst the dreaming spires of the great university city of Oxford, there was Rupert Davis' definitive portrayal of the pipe smoking, relentless hunter of post war Parisian crime.
Maigret's striking of a match on a wall not only represented the light of justice being brought to bear on the darkness of crime, but for millions of avid television viewers in the sixties, it also gave the promise of superlative BBC produced crime drama of the highest order. As creator George Simenon so accurately pronounced: "C'est Maigret, c'est Maigret", indeed.
Published on January 2nd, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (2002) for Television Heaven.