Classic BBC detective show is finally available to international audiences
Jules Maigret from George Simenon is a classic detective character who’s been a huge influence on the detective genre of fiction–but perhaps less so in English, mainly because he’s French his being French. But this wasn’t always the case. Back when Simenon was writing new Jules Maigret stories, the BBC produced four 13-episode seasons of Maigret now available on MHz Choice for the first time to international audiences- on a streaming service anyway. A sufficiently dedicated Jules Maigret fan could have figured out how to smuggle in DVDs of Rupert Davies’ black-and-white run on the detective.
Having played from 1960 to 1963, Jules Maigret also occupies a fairly unique niche in BBC television history for being one of the few shows from this period that survives intact. The original Doctor Who series is the most notorious example of a BBC production forever lost to time because of poor preservation procedures. But we lost Maigret to time in far subtler ways. Most obviously, it’s not a whodunnit. More subtly, Maigret defies a lot of stereotypes about France and the early sixties that we now take for granted.
The whodunnit format is a fairly simple one. A crime happens, usually a murder, with the bulk of the story being about some lead detective character trying to solve that murder. The format is so universal today it’s difficult to associate detective work with any other genre, aside from noir, which these days doesn’t really revolve around detectives that much either. But Maigret isn’t a noir. The Jules Maigret stories were more closely related to Sherlock Holmes stories in style and structure–a bit of a misleading analogy since Sherlock Holmes stories today are almost always epic-styled procedurals, while the original stories tend to revolve around cute gimmicks and logical quirks.
Maigret doesn’t do that either, though. The best way to describe Maigret is as a sort of working detective- which is to say that he tends to spend more time taking police reports from concerned citizens than actually solving crime. Indeed, Maigret isn’t just a different form of mystery procedural than what we now–he straight-up represents a different form of policing, where his job is to prevent crime. While he doesn’t generally succeed, Maigret often wraps up the case quite quickly once someone commits a crime, because he’s been paying attention enough to all the major players that few plausible theories remain by the end. The murderers in Maigret are more impulsive than monsters, and he takes them out with a whimper rather than a bang.
The result of this is a surprisingly empathetic perspective to detective work, paying close attention to minor details that aren’t necessarily relevant to the plot, and which sound far more lurid out of context than they show or books present them. Maigret makes constant use of exterior shots to establish that the story takes place on the streets of Paris, for example, but the show does this so casually so as to feel mundane in Maigret’s own world. Though the victim in the first case is a stripper and a person of interest in the second case sells lingerie, in both cases the show consistently presents these as just regular jobs that have surprisingly little ultimate relation to the crime. We can see how Maigret’s method of hearing people out and not making assumptions is so key to his deductive process.
This creates an impression of a mature, adult world, rather than a titillating one. One particularly dark scene in the first episode discusses one character who died from a botched abortion. There’s a banal feeling of tragedy in this exposition that works so much better than the bombast in modern socially conscious work. The ultimate point the show makes is that these are the lives of real people. Yes, they might be French– but even the French accents in Maigret are startlingly subdued. Not exactly British, different enough to feel foreign, yet all throughout, they spark with humanity.
Every so often in our brand-obsessed pop culture landscape, there’s talk of bringing Jules Maigret back in a new show. The classic Maigret show on BBC shows that this is foolhardy, not because such a show would be impossible to make, but because you can’t just slot him in as a generic genius detective, which is almost certainly the only way anyone is pitching any reboot. Simenon defined Jules Maigret by his sense of patience and empathy, a style significantly different than the more methodical approach of Perry Mason that, in the long run, proved more influential.
That means the Raymond Burr version of the character, not the HBO Max Matthew Rhys reboot, which treats Perry Mason as more of a Phillip Marlowe style noir detective. Perhaps it’s for the better that later Maigret series were unable to make much of an impact. At least when I discuss Maigret, I don’t have to constantly clarify which version of the character to which I’m referring.