Rowan Atkinson as a French Detective? It's as weird as it sounds

Maigret Sets a Trap and The A Word reviewed.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Zut, alors! What to say about ITV’s Maigret? More specifically, what to say about the casting of Rowan Atkinson as the French detective? His performance is bizarre. At first, watching the first of the two films in this adaptation (28 March, 9pm), I thought: ah, I see, he’s doing understated here, the better to make the point that he’s not seulement un comedien, le originale Monsieur Bean. But twenty minutes in, it suddenly struck me that his face had not moved. At all. Yes, he blinked now and then; sometimes, too, he would open his mouth half an inch, to clamp a pipe in it. Otherwise, rien. Around him, the other actors seemed to be gurning and flouncing and frowning ever more desperately. Was I just imagining it, or were they as baffled as I was?

And then there’s his voice. “Take me to the showgirl who found the body,” he said, in much the same tone as he might have asked for a citron pressé. Showgirls! Bodies! Surely a note of excitement or urgency might have been permitted here? His monotone was so odd, I wondered if he wasn’t taking the piss.

Interviewing a woman who’d been attacked by the serial killer stalking the streets of Montmartre, he asked her what kind of ring the man had been wearing. Wedding, or signet? “A signet ring would be thick with a flat top,” he said. Granted, this isn’t the finest line of dialogue ever written, but his delivery – straight out of Rain Man – was something else. I half expected the cast to corpse.

Thanks to Atkinson, everything else – up to and including the plot – was pretty much irrelevant. If M Maigret is un catastrophe, then so is your film. I was excited to see David Dawson, my favourite young actor by a mile, turning up as Marcel, the effete mummy’s boy who’d taken to slitting the throats of young women in the dead of night. Yet not even he could save the show. Though he wore his flashy silk dressing gown – and, later, a chic collared cardigan with leather buttons – with all his usual elfin aplomb, he arrived on the scene too late, with the inevitable result that farce swiftly skewed into gruesome Freudian melodrama. At one side of a police cell, he and his mother (Fiona Shaw, in the most terrifying pair of spectacles known to man) wailed ever more hysterically, while at the other, a robot with heavy eyebrows sat quietly, keeping his android cards close to his chest.

And so, the BBC, for all its troubles, cleans up. The A Word (Tuesdays, 9pm), Peter Bowker’s new drama, isn’t Happy Valley, but clearly it has learned lessons from Sally Wainwright’s other hit, Last Tango in Halifax, by which I mean that it is flinty and warm and a bit soapy (in a good way) with a keen sense of place (we’re in the Lake District) and a determination to make its minor roles as convincing as the major ones. (Also it has no weird hang-ups about class, and isn’t worried in the slightest that a couple of the most important characters – even, shock, its female characters – are not terribly likeable.)

I worried it would be a bit single-issue – the A word in question is “autism” – but in fact it’s as much about the isolation of the 21st-century adult world as it is about the failure of one small boy to connect. The writing is fantastic – deft, natural, sparky – and so is the casting. Max Vento, who plays Joe, the five-year-old newly diagnosed as autistic, is wondrous, while Christopher Eccleston was surely born to play his grandfather Maurice, a right northern know-it-all whose face even his relatives long to slap. I also adore Greg McHugh (of Fresh Meat fame) as a cuckolded brewer. His paunch is deeply affecting.

All in all, I think the BBC drama department could be forgiven for feeling a touch smug right now. I can’t go along with all the adoration for The Night Manager, which is now coming to an end. I still think the casting – with the notable exception of Tom “Secret Smile” Hiddleston – was dodgy, the plot implausible, the dialogue ropy. But, like everyone else, I sucked it up: the glamorous locations, the silly spook-speak and, above all, Jed’s superb haircut. It gave us the feeling (didn’t it?) that we can still do spies better than anyone else in the world and, perhaps, even television, too.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail