Maigret on Screen: The BBC Series

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Georges Simenon was a notorious publicity hound. Biographies are filled with accounts of stunts and statements designed to ensure newspapers ran a story. By the 1960s he was effectively creatively bankrupt. Way past his creative peak, the author was all too aware that the majority of his sizeable income was generated from the sale of film and TV rights.

The unveiling of a statue in the Dutch town Delfzijl offered one last moment of public glory for a writer who must have been aware that his books were delivering diminishing artistic returns. The town was reportedly the place where Simenon started writing the first Maigret novel although more recently published biographies have disputed this fact. To celebrate the region’s connection with a literary phenomenon a statue of Maigret was commissioned. At the unveiling Simenon once again demonstrated that he was a supreme self-publicist. Instead of standing alongside local dignitaries or noted literary figures he recognised the power of television and embraced a never again repeated opportunity to generate press coverage across the continent. At this time Simenon’s works were increasingly known via the television adaptations being beamed into people’s homes each week. Standing at the base of the statue in front of Europe’s media the author surrounded himself by actors who were portraying Maigret on television, Heinz Ruhmann, Jan Teulling, Gino Cervi, and Simenon’s personal favourite Rupert Davies.

In his memoirs, Simenon declared that Davies was best non-French Maigret. If we are to believe Simenon’s account, considering that he was an unreliable narrator, the BBC had previously attempted to acquire the rights to adapt the Maigret novels only to be rebuffed. Why did the author say yes to this request?

Contemporary records contradict information about the contract between Simenon and the BBC printed in biographies. According to Simenon the terms of the agreement stipulated the rights were sold for twelve years. The BBC was not allowed to export film prints to America in case it jeopardised attempts to launch a Hollywood series. The proposed American version never materialised. Sales reports contradict statements made by Simenon and conclusively prove that the BBC series was offered to American networks. The decision not to purchase is reported to have been due to network executives being uncomfortable with what they considered to regular displays of loose morality.

The series was aggressively marketed to overseas broadcasters and according to surviving records it was sold to Australia, Canada, Germany, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Kenya.

Simenon would later claim that his contract with the BBC contained a clause requiring the broadcaster to destroy all prints at the end of the twelve-year licence. Wiping TV was standard practice in an era before broadcasters recognised the value of exploiting their back catalogue. Simenon’s statement may have been made when no copies were known to exist. Today, only the pilot episode is believed to be lost. Dubbed versions of all surviving episodes are now available on German DVD.

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Ask viewers of a certain age who they most identify with as Maigret and the answer will invariably be Rupert Davies. Today forgotten except by Simenologists is the first BBC Maigret, Basil Sydney.

With the rights secured to adapt any Maigret novel of their choosing, the BBC elected to trial the series with a pilot that was broadcast as part of the Saturday Night Theatre strand. Despite a mixed critical response, viewing figures were strong enough to convince the BBC to commission a full season.

Viewers accustomed to seeing lavish location filming on ITC series produced for ITV may have been surprised when the previously predominantly studio-bound BBC drama department attempted to compete on an equal footing with its commercial rival. Two days of location filming in Montmartre were scheduled to ensure the adaptation was an authentic recreation of Simenon’s novel. As was standard practice back then, interior sequences were recorded “as live” in a BBC studio.

Actors from that period frequently talk about the experience of working in a TV series. Television drama was effectively filmed theatre. Actors would rehearse over several days in a youth club, church hall, or at the BBC’s facility known as the Acton Hilton. After four or five days of rehearsal, the cast would relocate to a studio and commit the production to tape. For a twenty-first century viewer looking at 1960s television drama, the number of mistakes immediately becomes apparent; fluffed lines, boom microphone shadows, camera equipment and production personnel suddenly appearing on screen. Editing technology was available albeit in the primitive form of a razor blade and adhesive tape. It was estimated that a tape could only withstand three edits before being considered permanently unusable and so consequently the transmitted programme contained many mistakes.

The prospect of working all year round under these conditions was a key factor in Basil Sydney’s decision to relinquish the role after a single episode.

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Tasked with finding a new actor to play Simenon’s detective, the producer remembered an actor who had appeared in 1950s series Sailor of Fortune alongside Lorne Greene the future star of Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica. Unusually, Rupert Davies didn’t learn his craft at drama school or via being a member of a repertory company. During the war, he was captured by German forces and spent five years in Prisoner of War camps. Incarcerated in the notorious Stalag Luft III the future Maigret took up acting to alleviate boredom. After his release, Davies balanced a career on stage with character roles in the then-emerging medium of television. By the early 1960s after appearances in Emergency Ward 10 and Quatermass II he was a recogisable face to most viewers.

Already familiar with Simenon’s novels, Davies auditioned for the role and was subsequently flown out to Lausanne for a meeting with Maigret’s creator. Simenon famously gave the actor a novel inscribed with the dedication: ‘At last, I have found my perfect Maigret.’

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Over three years the BBC produced fifty-two episodes. The series reached a natural conclusion when the producers ran out of books to adapt. At its peak, the series was seen by 14 million viewers. Davies was voted British actor of the year in 1961 and also won the Pipe Smoker of the Year award.

In 1965 Rupert Davies returned to his most famous role in a stage production of Maigret and the Lady. The play opened in Manchester before transferring to the Strand Theatre, London. Reviews were mixed. Jeremy Kingston, a reviewer for Punch, wrote ‘The justification of all this is the opportunity to see Rupert Davies’ gruff avuncular figure and wrinkled dumpling face in the real. He doesn’t come on at the beginning and strike a match against a Watney’s wall, but when he does light up, curls of tobacco smoke (genuine Maigret pipe tobacco) waft across the footlights for all to share. It’s just a pity he and the rest of the cast weren’t given a better play.’ Play and Players reviewer Frank Cox was more positive and wrote that he had enjoyed a ‘satisfying evening.’

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