'One impression above all remained with him, though he could not have explained why. Having crossed the Place de la Bastille, he was passing a little bistro on his way down Boulevard Henry IV. The door, like the door of most cafes on this cold morning, was shut for the first time for months. As he went past, someone opened it, and Maigret's nostrils were assailed by a gust of fragrance which was forever to remain with him as the very quintessence of Paris at daybreak: the fragrance of frothy coffee and hot croissants spiced with a hint of rum.' -- George Simenon's Cécile est morte (Maigret and the Spinster) ( translated by Eileen Ellenbogen)
I asked for a review copy of this from Wellspring because I had been reading Maigret and the Spinster and remembered in a somewhat hazy fashion the Granada series from when it ran on American Public Broadcasting here some ten years ago. I wondered if they were as good as I remembered them being. About a week after I requested them, they showed up along with a Balzac television series featuring Gérard Depardieu as Honoré de Balzac. Donna and I decided to watch all twelve episodes in a row so that we could get the feeling of this ever-so-French series. Would a quintessentially French series filmed entirely on location in Budapest feel French? Could an Irishman, Michael Gambon, pull off playing a French senior police inspector? Would the mixture of Hungarian and English actors be too jarring? Hell, could material taken from arguably the most successful detective series in any language (save possibly Sherlock Holmes) be rendered faithfully into the form of film? All these questions and possibly a few more were on my mind as I set down to watch this series.
Now let's assume that you've never heard of Maigret. What do you need to know about him? According to sources I looked at, this is his story. Jules Amedée François Maigret was born on February 13, 1887, in Saint-Fiacre, near Moulins, in Central France. His father, Evariste Maigret, who worked on a estate as a bailiff (stewart on the property) died in 1908. After leaving medical school, which did not appeal to him, Maigret moved to Paris and married Louise Léonard in 1912; the couple soon moved from the Place des Vosges to their permanent address, 132 Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in the 11th district of Paris. Maigret's first investigation was at age 26 in 1913. He was promoted Inspector at age 35 in 1922, then to Commissioner in 1928. His work during World War II in the Free France remains untold as George Simenon avoided writing novels set in that sad period It is generally estimated that Maigret retired at 69 and/or c. 1956 to his holiday house in Meug-sur-Loire, where he and Madame Maigret lived happily ever after -- though he's still active in solving several mysteries long after his retirement!
He has a highly refined sense of honor, dresses well, like good food and drink, smokes a pipe, and generally abhors violence. Maigret is what almost everyone, including his wife, addresses him by. Oh, and he both loves and adores his wife. I'd say that he's not a terribly complex man, nor has he anything that marks him as one of those darker detectives that show up so often in English mystery literature like P.D. James' Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh or R.D. Wingfield's Detective Inspector Jack Frost. No, Maigret, if he has an English counterpart, would find kin in Chief Inspector Thomas Barnaby, a man who well could be drawn upon the character Simenon created. (There may well be dark shaded detectives in French mystery literature but I don't know enough of that language to research this question.) Though the websites I visited were not terribly fond of Gambon as Maigret, but most of those sites were admittedly by Francophones!
What I'll say is that what you get with a Hungarian/English/Irish cast filming in a Central European location is a sort of really neat post-war (these are set in the 50s as far as I can tell) atmosphere. Neither French nor not French, it's damn fine look at life after the war. It feels authentic -- the French signs simply makes it ever so slightly fixed in place. It could be Paris, it could Budapest, it could be Hamburg. But I, as the viewer, was quite willing to accept that this was Paris as the stories themselves feel French. Michael Gambon does a magnificent acting job of recreating Simenon's famous pipe-smoking Parisian sleuth, Inspector Maigret, in these twelve episodes of mystery and subtle comedy of manners. For me, he is Maigret -- slightly rumpled, pipe smoking, and always caring.
What you get here in twelve superbly filmed EPs is, as one reviewer noted, 'the finest detective series from Britain's Granada Television since the late Jeremy Brett gave us his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 1980s.' Most sources agree that the Inspector Maigret mysteries have had at best a checkered history with even the French productions varying widely in quality. Not surprising given that there have been at least twenty-five actors playing Maigret: Louis Arbessier, Harry Baur, Herbert Berghof, Kees Brusse, Gino Cervi Bruno Cremer, Rupert Davies, Jean Gabin, Michael Gambon, Richard Harris, Charles Laughton, Maurice Manson, Henri Norbert, Albert Prejean,Pierre Renoir, Jean Richard, Heinz Rühmann, Vladimir Samoilov, Michel Simon, Abel Tarride, Boris Tenine, Jan Teuling, and Eli Wallach!
Maigret in this incarnation had a fairly small acting ensemble Geoffrey Hutchings (Sgt. Lucas), Jack Galloway (Insp. Janvier), James Larking (Insp. Lapointe), Ciaran Madden (Mme Maigret), John Moffat (M. Coméliau), and Barbara Flynn ( as the second of the two Mme Maigret). The opinion of both my wife Donna and myself is that Barbara Flynn made a more interesting, less sweet wife than the pearl wearing, neatly dressed, and ever-so-polite Ciaran Madden did. Other than that casting error (though you may like her), the rest of the cast was perfect -- quite believable as French police officers. Indeed they work far better as characters who are supposed to be French than Budapest as the city of Paris does!
There are twelve stories here, mostly set in France with a few excursions elsewhere.
There's no connections between the EPs of this Maigret series with the only
notable difference being the two actresses playing the wives. All of them are
quite wonderful, so I'll not detail the tales here as you'll discover which
are your favorites without me spoiling the charm of you seeing them without
me detailing them for you. Certainly they were good enough that we're keeping
the attractively packed set so that we can re-watch them again -- something
that we rarely do!