He’s played a policeman in BBC sitcom The Thin Blue Line, a hapless spy in Johnny English and the inimitable Mr Bean. Now Rowan Atkinson is starring as the pipe-smoking Chief Inspector Jules Maigret in ITV1’S feature-length episodes of Maigret, based on t
Rowan Atkinson on his pipe-smoking role as French detective Jules Maigret.
What attracted you to the role of Chief Inspector Jules Maigret?
It wasn’t my idea to play the role or to redramatise Maigret for the 21st century, and it took me a long time to decide to. I don’t think you can decide to play the leading role in a mainstream ITV drama without being reasonably certain you can play the part, at least as well as it can be played. If you think, well, I can have a halfhearted stab at it, let’s give it a go and see what happens, I don’t think that’s a good way of approaching something of this importance. Rightly or wrongly, I thought I could do more than have a go at it, so I had a go at it.
Was there anything you found particularly challenging about the part?
Jules Maigret is a very ordinary man, and generally speaking I haven’t played
many ordinary men. I tend to play rather odd men, people with a slightly eccentric or more particular attitude to life. Maigret hasn’t got a limp or a lisp, and he has no particular love of opera or those other things people tend to attach to many fictional detectives. He’s just an ordinary guy, doing an extraordinary job in a very interesting time. Paris in the mid-’50s was a very interesting place: it was only 10 years after the Third Reich had left, a city awash with guns and crime and racketeering and all sorts of interesting hangovers from a very difficult time in French history. It’s an interesting time to be a policeman.
What do you think are Maigret’s defining characteristics?
Maigret’s humanity is important and it’s admirable. It’s enjoyable to watch somebody having to deal with great inhumanity who is able to display such compassion to those involved in these extremely messy and violent situations. He conveys this calm at the centre of sometimes very stormy stories.
The Maigret in Maigret Sets A Trap was quite a sober fellow. Will he lighten up a bit in the second film, Maigret’s Dead Man?
Maigret is very internal and selfcontained at the moment but I think if we made more films I might let him out a bit. In the second film you’ll see him be a little more ironic from time to time, but that’s just a work in progress. The character is likely to change and develop and I wouldn’t like to say he is perfectly formed right out of the box. But I think it is what I would call an optimistic start.
Maigret and his pipe have always been inseparable. Was there any suggestion of him smoking less, in line with modern sensibilities?
The pipe is definitely an important part of Maigret and his world and his attitude and his time, so there was certainly never any attempt to excise it. He is a very thoughtful, ruminative
“MAIGRET’S HUMANITY IS ADMIRABLE. HE CONVEYS CALM AT THE CENTRE OF SOMETIMES VERY STORMY STORIES”
person, so having the pipe as a prop is quite good from an acting point of view. In the process of it, sometimes I used real tobacco and sometimes I used herbal. I used to smoke a pipe when I was 20, something of which I am not proud, so I knew vaguely what to do and how to do it.
As a noted car enthusiast, how did you feel about Maigret not being allowed to drive?
The great frustration about this is that if there is one thing that Maigret never does, it is drive. He is always driven, or he gets the train or he gets the bus. I was saying, maybe we might ring the changes for the 21st century and stick him in a car. They were like, ‘Well, you can if you want but there will be lots of Maigret devotees and followers who won’t like it’. So he’s a non-driver.
The storytelling of Maigret Sets
A Trap was quite old-school and traditional. Is that how you intend to continue?
It is very linear storytelling and maybe that is not the fashion. But what I would say is that the Maigret stories are all very different and not at all formulaic. I’ve read about 10 of the original novels, and one has Maigret in bed for the entirety of the story and his wife running around solving the case. Simenon could be very brave like that; you never quite know what you’re going to get. Certainly in the second film, it is a more unpleasant and dark story with a different tone and feeling.
Maigret’s Dead Man will air on ITV1 later this year, followed by a DVD of both films.
Rowan Atkinson puffs on the iconic pipe ofchief Inspector Julesmaigret.