Peter Haining, "The Complete Maigret" p. 85-91

 

on Richard Harris as Maigret

Only one more actor was to play Maigret on television while Simenon was still alive, and it is very unlikely that he saw this performance at all. The actor was the reformed hell-raising Irishman, Richard Harris, who appeared in a two-hour drama screened on 21 May 1988, entitled, simply, Maigret, which, it was hoped by the producer-writer, Arthur Weingarten, would be the first in a line of similar annual productions.

Like Rupert Davies, Harris had not been first choice for this particular production. It had originally been hoped that Richard Burton would play Maigret, and according to Weingarten, the great Welsh actor had already done some preparatory reading for the role when he died suddenly in August 1984. As a long-time friend of Burton, Harris seemed like a good replacement.

Weingarten, just like the BBC thirty years earlier, said he had been pursuing Simenon for the TV rights for years. In his case, however, it was a writer who helped rather than hindered his mission to secure the author's approval: Graham Greene being a mutual friend who introduced the producer to Simenon.

'He really wasn't anxious to do a deal,' Weingarten recalled later. 'After all he was worth 115 million dollars with royalties of seven or eight million dollars a year. His first words when we started talking business were, "There isn't enough money you can pay me." He was a tough old bird and struck a hard bargain. What made him change his mind was when I offered him something he had never had before - a guaranteed showing in America where his books sell "only" 300,000 copies a year.

'His eyes lit up at that - and once we had made the agreement he didn't want to know what stories we would do or how we would film them or even what changes we proposed to make. He did ask who would play the part, though, and when I told him Richard Harris he said, "I would never have thought of him in a million years." The only other question he asked was how Harris would look. When I told him he would be in old clothes with a duffel coat and hat without a stiffener inside he seemed to be quite happy.'

Weingarten then obtained backing for his project from HTV in Britain and Coca-Cola in America who agreed to a budget of 3 million dollars and location shooting in Paris, the West Country and on board a luxury liner off the Canary Islands. Patrick Dromgoole, the managing director of HTV, and himself a Simenon fan, was enthusiastic about the potential of the project. Speaking in November 1987 he said:

'We are getting sick of "Miami Vice"-style violence. The original Maigret stories were marvelously-crafted detective programmes which had an enriching, noble quality about them. Our programme will be the sort that will bring us back from the direction that "Miami Vice" and the rest have taken us. We need good, intelligent drama with attractive people rather than repulsive ones.'

The production team then set to work on the new Maigret full of optimism. Weingarten's script was drawn from several Maigret novels and relates the story of how the inspector takes a special interest in a case where a former police colleague has been murdered on a train and his body hurled into the Seine. The mysterious reasons for this murder are further complicated when Maigret comes into conflict with an American billionaire recluse named Kevin Portman who has just reappeared in public to visit his two sons in Paris, where they run part of his shipping empire, in order to persuade them to sell back their shares in the company

Despite the firm-makers' initial worry that Harris might prove too expensive for their production - or would not want to play Maigret - they soon found themselves talking to a real fan who had long fancied the role: as the actor himself explained later while at work on the picture.

'I had been introduced to Maigret back in 1972 by John Huston,' he said. 'I was instantly hooked and read sixty or seventy of them. It has been an obsession of mine to play him ever since. As I read the stories I became him in my head. The clue to Maigret is that he watches everything, and throws people into psychological confrontations to get their reactions. I also knew exactly how I would look and what I would wear.

'I think they were surprised when I said I would do it. Then they said they couldn't pay my full salary. So I said, "I don't have a salary. There is no price for me. If I like it and you can pay me, fine. If not, I'll still do it because I'll enjoy it."'

These might well have seemed like surprising words from a man who had been born in comparative poverty in Limerick in 1932. After studying for the stage in London, and playing small parts in a number of films, he had become an international star in the award-winning movie This Sporting Life in 1963. Several more spectacularly successful films followed which, along with his drinking and womanizing, kept him constantly in the headlines. It was, however, a stake in the musical film, Camelot, plus a decision to quit drinking in 1981, which subsequently made him, as he put it, 'rich enough to choose what I want to do'.

Harris' appearance as Maigret wearing an ill-fitting suit and cardigan buttoned up the wrong way - in order to make his wiry six-foot frame look bulkier - was not the only liberty taken with the original. The setting was also moved to the 1980s, although the inspector remained essentially a man of the 1950s: avoiding the phone if at all possible and having nothing whatsoever to do with police computers. Harris did, though, want to retain Maigret's shambling walk - and found the solution by wearing size fifteen shoes instead of his normal nine and a half!

I wanted to invent something totally different from Rupert Davies' Maigret,' he added. 'So I made him a sort of lower middle-class fellow, although I did try to retain Simenon's concept of Maigret as the perfectionist.'

When filming was complete, Harris, twice married, had something interesting to say about Maigret and his single marriage: 'Do you know that in all the Simenon books about the detective, his wife is seldom mentioned and only once by her first name, Louise. He never referred to her by that name. It is always Madame and he was Monsieur, and in all the years they have been married, he-never observes the changes in her or in their relationship.

'So in this story while he tries to solve the murder of an old friend, he is also seeking clues to what happened to their marriage. It has soured - like a love affair that has gone to sleep.'

Playing Madame Maigret was Barbara Shelley, famous for a string of roles in Hammer horror movies, with Andrew McCulloch as Sergeant Lucas.

The reception for the production, though, was universally bad. Peter Waymark in The Times speaking for the newspapers in general said: 'For those of us who admired Rupert Davies as Simenon's ruminative, pipe-smoking detective in the BBC Maigret series in the sixties, anyone else attempting the role must seem like an impostor. Even so, Richard Harris seems to have gone out of his way to make his portrayal as least like Davies' as possible. The trouble is that he is not much like Simenon's Maigret either. As played by Harris, he is a big, shambling figure, with a battered hat, glasses, scruffy blonde hair and a croaky Irish accent. Harris even gives him an Irish name, McGrey. He also calls his Peugeot a Pewjo.

'Since most of the other main characters are American, a squabbling family of rich industrialists lifted straight from Dallas/ Dynasty, the Frenchness which was the charm and essence of the Simenon stories is all but obliterated. We are left with a conventional and none-too-gripping cop show, with lines like, "Inspector, if you'd like to tell me what this is about . . ." and reaching its finale on a luxury liner which is supposed to be in the sub-tropics but looks as if it is anchored off Skegness in February.'

The Daily Mail was one of several other papers whose Letters Page received complaints from readers about the production.

'Why for goodness sake was the action set in modern times?' F. R. Wilson of Orpington in Kent demanded, 'and why did Richard Harris find it necessary to portray Maigret as a shambling, scruffy individual with his trousers hanging down, his shirt hanging out, often wearing his hat back to front and needing a good haircut?

'And in the many Maigret stories which I have read, Madame Maigret rarely refers to him by his first name, but when she does it is as "Jules" and never as "Juley". Also his staff address him as "Patron" and not "Inspector".'

Another reader, Helen Graham from Basingstoke, Hampshire also referred to what she called 'Maigret's French farce' end went on: 'As a travelogue it failed as I noticed none of the exotic backgrounds we were promised. Simenon is dead (sic) otherwise I am sure the author would protest strongly at this truly appalling characterization of his French detective.'

TV Times received a similarly unhappy postbag, and selected one letter from Joe Wright of St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex to represent a great many more: 'How could Richard Harris ever have played Maigret as he did after apparently reading Simenon's books? He said that he aimed at something different from the character played by Rupert Davies in the classic TV series. He certainly achieved that - but at what cost! Simenon's books show the detective and his wife as totally rooted in the French way of life. This is the extra dimension - the mysteries are solved because Maigret knows his way round the French character. To project him as a comic Irishman is an absolute betrayal of the life's work of a fine writer.'

The Editor of TV Times invited Harris to comment on this letter and the actor replied: 'I have played Maigret in my head for twenty years. Inevitably, my characterization was different from that played by Rupert Davies in the old TV series which I never saw. But I don't see why an Englishman should be considered more suitable than an Irishman to play a Frenchman.'

Harris' last point was, in fact, a more relevant one than he could have realized at the time. For although he himself has not returned to play Maigret again on television, his successor on British TV, Michael Gambon, is, of course, an Irishman . . .


(cartoon by John Jensen, Punch, June 3, 1988.)