On the 20th January 1962, The Guardian published an article Maigret in Paris, which stated that it was ‘incredible that an actor so British in temperament should have established himself so completely as the famous French detective’. The extensive CV of Rupert Davies included television, films and West End theatre, but for millions of viewers, he was now “le patron”. A BBC audience research report cited one viewer as saying, ‘In our house, everything stops for Maigret’ and Georges Simenon himself reputedly exclaimed, ‘Maigret – c’est Maigret!’ on meeting the actor.
Rupert Davies was not the first screen incarnation of Jules Maigret, nor was he the first British actor to portray the Parisienne detective. In 1949, Charles Laughton starred in The Man on the Eiffel Tower, and on the 6th December 1959, Basil Sydney appeared in the BBC TV Sunday-Night Theatre production of Maigret and the Lost Life. There were plans for an entire series, but Sydney was unable to take part, ostensibly due to an injury, and so the producer Andrew Osborn re-cast the Commissaire’s role with Rupert Davies.
The BBC Maigret series commenced on the 31st October 1960 with Murder in Montmartre, and at that time, Davies had been an actor for 15 years. He was born in Liverpool on the 22nd May 1916 and joined the Merchant Navy on leaving school, achieving his ‘second mate’s ticket’. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Davies was commissioned in the Fleet Air Arm, and in 1940 his Swordfish plane crashed off the Dutch coast. He spent the next five years as a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft III.
During his incarceration, Davies participated in many of the camp’s theatre productions. The Tatler of the 6th January 1943 featured a photograph of Davies appearing in Dover Road, a caption explaining the cast made ‘all the furniture, props etc.’ The actor’s son Tim Davies describes his father as:
‘A combination of the highly practical and the dreamer. My take on his theatre work in the Stalags was his survival method – a retreat into his imagination. What helped enormously was that the Fleet Air Arm were treated as flyers, and the Luftwaffe ran their camps. The commandant, Friedrich von Lindeiner-Wildau, was an old-school WWI flyer, and he protected the inmates from the SS and the German army. ’
Shortly after his release in 1945, Davies was invited to join the revue Back Home at the Stoll Theatre. Talbot Rothwell compered the ex-POW show with Peter Butterworth appearing as a sketch comic and Davies singing Jet Propelled Jive. He was to tell one journalist later that ‘I realised then I had always wanted to act’, but Tim observes:
‘During the War, government propaganda suggested that Prisoners of War were being very well treated. When the POWs returned, the public had the mistaken belief that they had been in a holiday camp. Many never talked about their experiences.’
Over the next fifteen years, Davies’s career encompassed the Birmingham Repertory Company, the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, the BBC Repertory Company and the Old Vic. By 1955, TV viewers could see him as the MP Vincent Broadhead in Quatermass II and as an Italian ship’s engineer in the Anglo-Canadian series Sailor of Fortune, supporting Lorne Greene. As the 1950s progressed, critics acclaimed Davies’s leading performances in television plays. The Stage praised ‘a great personality with a voice capable of flattering, bullying, cajoling’ in a BBC adaptation of The Magnificent Egoist.
Maigret was to receive similar plaudits – The Observer’s reviewer stating, ‘The more I see of Rupert Davies’s flexible, underplayed Maigret, the more I like him’. The Corporation produced 52 episodes between 1960 and 1963, with Davies making the character his own. Tim thinks ‘he came to be closer to my father, and I have a large number of scripts that he virtually re-wrote’. Maigret never resorting to a cod-French accent was Davies and Andrew Osborn’s joint decision, although Tim does say ‘my father was a good mimic. When we holidayed in France, officials sometimes mistook him for Swiss-French or Provençal.’
Tim also recalls his father complaining about the BBC’s poor treatment of actors. The cast undertook rehearsals in the unheated East Acton Drill Hall; these Spartan conditions were said to be the real reason for Sydney’s departure. Robert Gillespie, who appeared as Gerard in The Flemish Shop, reflects in his forthcoming second volume of memoirs of Davies’s ‘astonishing attention to detail so as to enrich his characterisation of Inspector Maigret’. He further remembered ‘the curiously unhelpful attitude of the TV floor management when he asked for substitute props. The meticulous craftsmanship of his work seemed to escape them’.
Equity took up the battle for proper rehearsal rooms, and the eventual facilities were unofficially known as “Rupert Tower”. However, Tim notes that Davies had made quite a few enemies in the BBC, and a 1963 interview with The Stage is unlikely to have been well received in Shepherd’s Bush. ‘The system is laid down among the rubber plants on the upper floors by executives who have never actually had to do things they are telling other people to do’. When the series concluded in that year, there was no formal party – ‘my father had to send for some cases of wine, and the cast and crew staged their own celebration.’
The BBC aired the final episode, Maigret’s Little Joke, on Christmas Eve 1963. Davies initially suffered from type-casting, but Tim believes while this was a problem ‘it was a very happy legacy. My father reverted to being a jobbing character actor, and although it was a challenge to re-adjust, he did enjoy it’. In 1965, he portrayed The Cardinal of Bologna in The Successor, (one of his favourite stage roles) in an Anglia Television version of the Reinhard Raffalt play. The Guardian lauded ‘an extremely convincing ecclesiast, with great warmth and humanity in his performance.’
The actor’s later career included becoming the first cinematic George Smiley in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and starring in The Uncle, a thoughtful and ambitious film helmed by Desmond Davis. Variety’s critic stated the director was fortunate to have ‘a cast that is entirely excellent’. Davies also appeared in Michael Reeves’s The Witchfinder General, and in 1968 he was the second lead in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Tim remarks that his father was very polite about his Hammer Films work, ‘even if it was not what he was used to.’
Rupert Davies died on the 22nd November 1976, and the box-set is a testament to a rare talent. Tim witnessed Simenon telling his father, ‘for me, you are Maigret’, and his performance truly encapsulates the great detective’s ethos – ‘I’m not judging you. I’m trying to understand.’
With Thanks To: Tim Davies and Robert Gillespie
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA