Rowan Atkinson plays the French detective Maigret in a new series

If the notion of Mr Bean in a role last played on British television by Michael Gambon sounds like a stretch, that's ...
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If the notion of Mr Bean in a role last played on British television by Michael Gambon sounds like a stretch, that's roughly how it seemed to Rowan Atkinson too.

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.

Rowan Atkinson is the latest, surprising incarnation of the "disgustingly commonplace" Maigret
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Rowan Atkinson is the latest, surprising incarnation of the "disgustingly commonplace" Maigret

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Now 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. If the notion of Mr Bean in a role last played on British television 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 a 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 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.

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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 period interiors are beautifully realised, too.

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.

More Maigret films are 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.

Maigret  8.30pm, Sunday, TVNZ1.

 - The Telegraph, London

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