INTERVIEW: Even Rowan Atkinson is not a fan of his new show Maigret
It’s bad news when even the star of a show has nothing good to say about it.
When we met up with Rowan Atkinson to speak about his latest role in Maigret, we were struck by the Blackadder actor’s reluctance to promote the new ITV show. Having seen the first feature length instalment of the programme, entitled Maigret Sets a Trap, we can’t say we blame Atkinson for his negativity towards it. The new adaption of Georges Simenon’s iconic detective novel was utterly bland and predictable, with one-dimensional characters and nary a trace of narrative suspense. Completely unenthused about, and putting little effort into, solving the case at hand, central detective Maigret’s attitude seems to reflect Atkinson’s own attitude towards the production.
To be followed up by second feature Maigret’s Dead Man, ITV is clearly pinning high hopes on its new commission for the Sunday night spot. Atkinson, on the other hand, revealed that the reservations which originally led him to turn down the role ended up to be ‘justified’ once he changed his mind and went ahead with the production a year later. Saying that the writing lacked courage, and that he found it tricky to find his feet with the character, he apologised for his ‘reticence in terms of promoting the programme’. Scroll down for more of what he had to say.
How did the role come about?
Rowan Atkinson: “ITV and the production company contacted me and asked if I fancied playing the role. It took me a long time to decide to do it. In fact, I decided not to. I thought about it for some weeks, and thought ‘perhaps not’ and it went away for a while, and then it sort of came back. They said ‘Are you sure you don’t want to play him?’, so I thought about it for a lot longer again, and eventually decided that I would.
“The decision to do it was related to the fact that the character is a very ordinary man, and generally speaking I haven’t played very many ordinary men. I tend to play rather odd men. People that are slightly odd or eccentric, or have a more particular attitude to life. The problem with Maigret is he hasn’t got a limp, and he hasn’t got a lisp, and he hasn’t got a French accent, or a particular love of opera… or all those other things that 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 ten years after the Third Reich had left, and the city was awash with guns, and crime, and racketeering, and all sorts of hangovers from a very difficult time in French history. So it’s an interesting time to be a policeman. The job is interesting, and the task is difficult, but the man is just a decent man doing a very ordinary job. It was the challenge of that that I found daunting, but also engaging and interesting.”
“I like to relish words and sentences, and phraseology, and there’s not much facility for that in this … so my worries of many months before I think had been justified”
Can you tell us more about why you turned down the role initially?
Atkinson: “It’s the demand in many ways of modern television drama – it’s very low key and naturalistic, and, generally speaking, the characters that I’ve played have not been low key and naturalistic. I like to relish words and sentences, and phraseology, and there’s not much facility for that. What directors of television drama constantly tell you is ‘Don’t act it. Don’t try. Don’t emphasise that word’. Whereas with someone like Blackadder, even though he’s a relatively low key character in a way, he did relish the lines that he had and the words that he was given, with a lot of inflection. This is sort of inflection-free acting, and I really wasn’t sure if I could do it – you make your mind up on whether I’ve succeeded or not. But yes, I found it difficult when we were shooting; it was a couple of weeks before I settled into not worrying – to finding a way of delivering those lines – so my worries of many months before I think had been justified. I found it a difficult way of being.
“It is very linear storytelling, and I think that’s not so much the fashion. I was watching a new drama the other night which was extremely non-linear, where you flash back and flash forward in ways that certainly keeps you on your toes as the audience. There’s not much of that courage with the storytelling in our Maigret film.”
“The arts community still has a long lasting cynicism of the importance, or the artistic value, of comedy. Comedy is just farting about for money”
Would you say this role marks your move towards more dramatic acting?
Atkinson: “No, I don’t really have plans like that. You sort of go with the parts that are offered. I would never wish to say that I’ve finally waved goodbye to any character, it’s just that the emphasis tends to shift. I don’t think you should be too absolutist about what you play and what you don’t play…
“The one thing I would never wish it to be thought is that you play serious roles in order to achieve some sort of respectability which you can’t if you’re playing comedic roles. I think it is quite weird the way that the arts community still has a long lasting cynicism of the importance, or the artistic value, of comedy. [From their perspective] comedy is just farting about for money, whereas as soon as you play a serious role, ‘Aha! Now you’re an actor! Now you’re doing something of meaning!’ Art is something that nobody laughs at and nobody makes any money out of is the attitude, which I would dispute. Which is why I’m not looking for anything other than an interesting role to play. When you play a serious role, as far as I’m concerned, I feel I’m using exactly the same skills, whatever they are, to play the role as you do with something more obviously comic. It’s slightly different muscles, but the same skill set.”
“For me, no glass is anything other than half empty, so I apologise for my reticence in terms of promoting this programme”
“[Maigret] is more internal. I think if we made more of these I might let him out a bit. He’s terribly self-contained, not that I would ever wish him to be any more comic, particularly, but in the second film we’ve made you see he’s a little more ironic from time to time. But as I say, that’s just work in progress. The character is bound to change and develop, and I wouldn’t like to claim that we are perfectly formed straight out of the box. I think it’s what I’d call an ‘optimistic start’. As you know, for me, no glass is anything other than half empty, so I apologise for my reticence in terms of promoting this programme.”
“The first couple of weeks of filming were quite tricky for me to find my feet with the character, which wasn’t helped by the story that we were telling”
Georges Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels and 28 Maigret short stories in his lifetime. Why start with Maigret Sets a Trap?
Atkinson: “That was always going to be the first film, and it seemed to be quite a nice story. But of course it meant that here I was playing this new character for the first time, in a place where he had been a relative failure, as all these people had been murdered and the pressure was on. Rather than starting optimistically with his pipe in front of the fireplace, he was in quite a difficult place. So it meant the first couple of weeks of filming were quite tricky for me to find my feet with the character, which wasn’t helped by the story that we were telling.
“The Maigret stories are all very different in terms of the content and the way that the stories are told. They’re not what I would call formulaic. I’ve read about eight or ten of the original novels, and one of them is where Maigret’s in bed for the entire story! His wife is running around and solving the case! He gets shot in the opening chapter, and then he spends the rest of the time in bed, and he solves the case. But Simenon could be very brave like that. You never quite know what you’re going to get or how the story’s going to be told. Certainly in the second film, which is quite a more unpleasant and darker story, it’s quite different in tone and feel.”
You’re known to have a great love of cars… Did filming Maigret rule you out of presenting Top Gear?
Atkinson: “No, I would never be a television presenter. It’s not something I could ever do. Although the great frustration about this is the fact that there’s one thing Maigret never does, and that’s drive. He’s always driven, or he takes the train, or he gets the bus. I was saying ‘Well, why don’t we ring the changes for the 21st Century, and stick him in the car?’. [Executive Producer and son of the author, John Simenon] said, ‘Well, you can if you want, but there’ll be lots of people who won’t like it’. So he’s a non-driver … But no, Top Gear was never a consideration for me; and neither was I asked.”
At the moment, I’m certainly not thinking ‘never again’, but neither am I thinking ‘I can’t wait to play that part again’. I’m somewhere in between.
Is this a role you see yourself in for a long time?
Atkinson: “I don’t see myself in it for any length of time – long or short. We haven’t made any particular decision, I haven’t been asked if I want to carry on with it. All these things are a matter of whether you feel as though the idea is developing and whether it’s still interesting to play. At the moment, I’m certainly not thinking ‘never again’, but neither am I thinking ‘I can’t wait to play that part again’. I’m somewhere in between. It’ll depend on what ITV [wants], whether it goes down well, whether audiences like it, whether people watch it… All those sorts of things.”
Maigret is inherently French, set in France with all French characters. Does the conversion to the English language feel like a compromise for you?
Atkinson: “It’s difficult because you can imagine these programmes may get shown in France, and then it’s rather peculiar for the French to be watching French stories dubbed into French. But in the end you’ve just got to decide what your convention is, and stick with it, and hope that the story is told as well as it can be within the convention that you’ve established. English words with English accents, but French newspapers with French headlines; that was a decision we made early on. In the first draft, the newspapers had English headlines, and the decision quite rightly was made not to do that. One of the conventions that I always liked was Doctor Zhivago, where everything that’s written on the screen is in Russian but everyone speaks English. That seemed to me to be quite a good convention to follow, so that’s what we have done. I’m sure that a French production of this would be different. For better or worse, who’s to say, but probably not very good for 8 o’clock on ITV.”
The first instalment of Maigret airs Sunday March 27th on ITV.