In real life, murder is a hum drum squalid crime of violence. As depicted in UK TV drama, it is sometimes of the Scandinavian noir variety – that is squalid but not hum drum – or more usually it happens in a rustic middle class la-la land where the houses are straight out of Country Life, the village green is carefully mown and the lower orders are only admitted by kind permission, as domestic servants, shopkeepers and tradesmen, on strict condition of knowing their place at all times.
ITV’s Maigret’s Dead Man (based on the 1946 novel by Georges Simenon ‘Maigret et Son Mort’) screened on Christmas Day (of all days!) was altogether different. On the face of it, it was good TV drama, well written, well acted and well filmed. Yet underneath was something dark and sinister: a sort of apologia for the holocaust.
Consider a brief outline of what we saw on our screens (avoiding any spoilers).
A gang of illegal immigrants goes about the French countryside torturing and murdering farmers, their wives and children. The murderers are not just from abroad, but from a part of the world (what is now Slovakia) where, so we are told (by an official from the Czechoslovakian embassy no less), the people are uneducated, almost animals. On top of which they are dirty, addicted to hard drugs and they all have sex with the one female member of the gang. Even decent French gangsters are disgusted and offer their assistance (which Maigret is happy to accept on a confidential basis). The gang-leader’s honest French tart is so appalled when she discovers how he really came by his money that she dumps her furs and diamonds on Maigret’s desk.
There is a final, nasty twist in the story. The solution to the mayhem wreaked by the illegal immigrants, once apprehended thanks to the detective genius of Commissaire Maigret, is capital punishment. But wait – is not Maigret a man of compassion and humanity? So he is.
It happens that the female gang member has just had a baby (no wonder – what with the frequent attention paid her by male colleagues). It also so happens that the widow of one of the victims is childless. Well then, suggests Maigret, once the baby has been judicially orphaned (Mme la Guillotine operating on the principle of strict gender equality) the baby can be given to the widow, so that, as he puts it, some good may come out of the affair. Cue credits.
The curious thing is that the story, as told by ITV, goes well beyond Simenon in emphasising the awfulness and otherness of the gang. Simenon can understand the deprivation and poverty that drove the gang to behave in the way they do. ITV offers us no extenuation or explanation: this is just how foreigners of this sort behave. In Simenon the gang is driven by hunger – with ITV it is dope. The disgust evinced by other gangsters and the leader’s tart is entirely an invention of the ITV. Simenon’s Czechoslovakian embassy official does not refer to his compatriots as animals.
Why did ITV hype up the racism and xenophobia implicit in Simenon’s story? Perhaps it was inadvertent, to make the story more entertaining. It can hardly have been to bring the xenophobia into the open, to better condemn it. There is no condemnation. The whole point of the story is to celebrate the success of Maigret in hunting down the awful foreigners who are quite clearly guilty..
Imagine the same story told in a contemporary UK setting – a gang of dope-fuelled Syrian refugees perhaps, pillaging the Home Counties. How would that be acceptable Christmas day viewing and why is the same story, transposed to a notional 1940s France any more acceptable?
In fact, set in a historical context, the story told in the way that ITV has told it becomes even more shocking.
Simenon wrote Maigret’s Dead Man in December 1947 in Tucson Arizona, having gone to the USA in 1945 to avoid enquiries into his alleged collaboration with the Nazis (a subject of controversy to this day).
When Simenon had last lived in Paris in 1938, illegal immigration must surely have been a significant issue. Most of the immigrants would have been trying to escape the Nazis. Many of them were Jewish. In his journalistic youth, Simenon had written a series of strongly anti-semitic articles. He does not say that the villains in Maigret’s Dead Man were jewish. Nor does ITV, though it does tell us they were uneducated, almost animal, dirty, drug addicted, promiscuous and preyed on decent French people. Parisians of the 1930s and 1940s would have understood the innuendo – even if a modern TV audience (to its credit) would not.
Between 1942 and 1944 – not long before Maigret’s Dead Man was written – it is estimated that 43,000 jews and foreign undesirables were rounded up by the Paris police and handed over to the Germans for transport to Auschwitz and other death camps.
Racism and xenophobia did not come to an end in Paris in 1945. In 1961-62, during the Algerian war, the Paris police undertook an extensive and systematic repression of foreigners (mainly Algerian, but including Moroccans, Tunisians and even some Italians and Spanish, victims being identified by appearance). There were tens of thousands of arrests. The precise number of deaths has never been established – it is thought that on the night of 17th October 1961 perhaps as many as 300 were murdered by the Paris police.
(To point out these historical incidents shows no disrespect to the very many French men and women who opposed and resisted them, sometimes at great personal cost. On the contrary, it should increase our admiration and gratitude. It is not so easy to oppose cruelty and oppression when these are institutionally ingrained and, in the case of the deportation of the jews, supported by a large foreign army).
It turns out that ITV’s Maigret is just as much an inhabitant of la-la land as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Whimsy. The particular fantasy of Maigret’s world, as constructed by ITV and set in its historical context, is a form of holocaust denial. In this world there are no jews as such – just illegal immigrants bent on criminal mayhem. There are no gas chambers – but the guillotine is there for the illegal immigrants when Maigret has caught them. Being criminals, the immigrants deserve the guillotine, so that Maigret can remain decent and humane in despatching them for decapitation, rather as Himmler (in his own mind) retained his decency and humanity in organising the holocaust.
This la-la land is not like Disney World, a place round which you can wander for a few hours of innocent entertainment and then exit content and satisfied via the gift shop to the reality of the car park. You either sign up as a full time subscriber or you do not go there. For many of Simenon’s contemporary readers it will have represented hard reality rather than pleasant fiction, amongst them perhaps the policemen who tossed Algerians over the Pont Saint Michel in 1961 to drown in the Seine.
A modern UK audience should be left with a feeling of discomfort and a bitter aftertaste.
ITV should know better.