But it is fair to say that the comic chameleon's decision to return to drama twenty-one years later by way of stepping into the shoes of Georges Simenon's intrepid Parisian detective, Maigret, was a surprising one. For a start, Atkinson is no one's idea of the avuncular, pipe-smoking, barrel-chested Chief Inspector. He's naturally stringy, with a reedy thin voice to accompany those famed rubbery features. Normally, this would only really matter to those of us - myself included - who has picked up one or two of Simenon's 75 novels, but the shadows of Rupert Davies and Michael Gambon, previous actors to portray the character, loom large over this effort. And that's just the British adaptations (I'm choosing to ignore Richard Harris' scarecrow turn from 1988 and you'll be wise to do so too) Simenon's native France have been treated to no less than Jean Gabin and (my own favourite) Bruno Cremer undertaking the role.
Admittedly it's a big ask, and it took me a while to block out my expectations of seeing Atkinson indulge in his Mr Bean burblings and accept instead his rather still, meditative and mournful performance. Like the BBC's version of Wallander (which they infuriatingly insisted on pronouncing with a W rather than a V and a stress on syllables) this adaptation seemed to believe foreign meant brooding and melancholic. It's a real shame they didn't dare draw on the wonderful dry and gentle humour to be found within Simenon's novels - especially given the casting of a comedian in the lead role. Clearly, Atkinson wanted to give us his tears of a clown instead.
Maigret Sets A Trap is the first of two ITV movies (with Maigret's Dead Man to follow later in the year) It's a straightforward tale which sees Maigret on the back foot, trying to catch a serial killer who is already responsible for the deaths of four young brunette ladies before the credits have stopped rolling. Focusing on the psychology of homicide, the story explores the notion of men who are controlled by their animalistic passions with women as figures of torment. Sex simmers on the streets of '50s Paris, from the jazz dens and smoky cafes to the whore houses and strip clubs, with Maigret our decent guardian beyond reproach. The period is well captured, with Budapest standing in for Paris, and some lovely costumes and set design, making this a clear challenger to the channel's illustrious Poirot and Foyle's War (both now concluded) but it remains to be seen whether the public will take to Maigret enough to want more than these first two cases.
Atkinson with the ever-glamourous Lucy Cohu as Madame Maigret, the detective's loving wife
Going off this one, I'd say it may be unlikely. There's slow-burning and there's just plain boring and lifeless and sadly this adaptation veers more towards the latter. It may look good and we may find ourselves rooting for Atkinson to impress but the production needs to fully embrace all that Simenon can offer and up the stakes in terms of entertainment to make this a new jewel in ITV's crown. For the time being, Atkinson has a long way to go before he can join his old Blackadder co-star Hugh Laurie as a dramatic force to be reckoned with (the recent adaptation of The Night Manager being a peerless joy with Laurie's villainous Roper being suitably skin crawlingly good) but he's already usurped fellow funny man David Walliams' woeful and offensive attempt to play it straight in the adaptation of Agatha Christie's Partners In Crime.