You think a man like me can never change?
Do you hear the people sing? Yes, rather too much. For the past three years, my 16-year-old daughter Lola has been a massive fan of Les Misérables. For an old punk dad, reared on the Clash and the Sex Pistols, this was a little disappointing: my daughter was into middle-of-the-road musicals. Shouldn’t she be hanging around shopping centres, drinking illicit cider and generally being a bit more anti-social? I associated musicals with saccharine singalongs and dancing Dickensian urchins. Was her love of musicals something to do with the X Factor generation? Why would she enjoy Anne Hathaway crooning I Dreamed a Dream in the film version? But now it’s happened: through some form of weird parental osmosis, her football-loving, beer-drinking dad has become a fan of Les Mis, too.
It’s been a long journey. When we went on a family trip to the seemingly never-ending film of Les Misérables, I nearly fell asleep during Cosette’s love songs. It was undoubtedly well done, but even so, it went on for two and a half hours. Les Mis is the world’s longest-running musical – and it sounded like it. The film also brought flashbacks of enduring the mammoth stage version with my sister (what is it about women and musicals?) some 15 years earlier.
Yet my elder daughter’s devotion to Les Mis was strangely impressive. Lola has seen the musical three times, and in the course of her GCSE music studies took to playing the songs on the house piano. On My Own, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and Do You Hear the People Sing? were constantly echoing up the staircase. She saved up and bought herself a “Prisoner 24601” Tshirt (for the uninitiated, it’s Jean Valjean’s prison number). I’d greet her in the morning with an entreaty to, “Wake up Prisoner 24601!”
Unlike Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier in the film, I was no longer Master of the House. Lola played the Les Mis soundtrack endlessly in the kitchen. She has DVDs and CDs of all the various productions and she insists there’s a great difference between the 10th anniversary show and the 25th. For her 15th birthday we bought her a Les Mis backstage tour of the Queen’s Theatre and watched her and several other musical wannabes perform a song in the theatre bar.
Family outings took in other musicals such as Miss Saigon, Once, Wicked, War Horse and a free concert of musical stars at Covent Garden Piazza – though Lola never quite forgave me for falling asleep during West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells. But it was always Les Misérables that she returned to. Where could she have got her obsessive gene from? Clearly not from me, even if I do have a massive collection of West Ham programmes in the attic, a Wainwright-bagging wall chart and every Doctor Who DVD ever made.
My wife, Nicola, had a blackspined copy of Victor Hugo’s original novel in our library, which Lola discovered. Astonishingly, she got through it all. It was undeniably an achievement to have read 1,200 nineteenth-century pages at the age of 15. We thought she might have skim-read sections, but she knew every scene. She took the book to the stage door at the Queen’s Theatre and got most of the cast to sign it. They were impressed by how well-thumbed it was.
On holiday we visited Waterloo in Belgium and she could recall all the battle details from the account of the sunken lane in Les Mis, so I had to admit that Victor Hugo was proving an aid to her historical knowledge.
When she insisted that, “You have to read it too, Dad, it’s better than Dickens!” I agreed, in the interest of bonding with my teenager and in belated acceptance that she’d been radicalised by a dead French novelist and now wanted to mount the theatrical barricades.
The first hundred pages were slow, but once I got used to the pace of the book and Jean Valjean arrived out of the French nick with a chance of redemption, it just got better and better (and there were no songs!). When Valjean saves the life of Javert, the surly policeman is forced to re-evaluate his entire life system. Now, rather like Javert, I was having to reassess my feelings about Les Misérables.
Those drunken students on the barricades seemed very modern – and Marius was almost Russell Brand-like in his search for both revolution and love action. As Valjean mused upon losing his surrogate daughter Cosette to Marius, I began to wonder how I would cope when some Marius figure lurked in the garden to lure my own daughter away. And songs from the musical kept playing in my head at key plot points.
Then I found my daughter’s touching handwritten message at the back of the book saying it was the most haunting thing she’d ever read.
Hugo’s book is undoubtedly a masterpiece. It’s a book of big passions and dramatic emotions. And if you can’t enjoy big ideas about love and redemption and revolutionary politics when you’re young, when can you? Mine probably come from Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten, while my daughter’s come from Victor Hugo and Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Eddie Redmayne as Marius. That doesn’t seem so bad.
So I sat down with my daughter and watched the DVD of Les Misérables again. Just for half an hour. But that seemed like five minutes. Maybe an hour, then… We watched the whole film through in one sitting.
She sang along, word perfect, to every song. And despite the odd over-sugared number, I found myself singing along too and (spoiler alert) a little moist-eyed by
Visit a television fan convention: dad goes forTomBaker-era Doctor Who while daughter goes for Matt Smith.
Watch a vlogger together: dad gets to discoverwhoZoella is and appreciate six million teenagers’ abilities to take in beauty tips, takeaways and tickle fights.
School quiz night: daughter learns benefits of not discussing emotions as they bond over trivia. Dadgets to admire daughter’s knowledge of modern lyrics and The Big Bang Theory.
Goto a women’s football match: dad gets football fix, daughter gets to see positive role models forwomenin sport.
Plait her hair: involves amore complex formula than even Brian Cox could contrive, but daughter will enjoy dad trying to do it.
Watch her riding: dad stands in a windyménageamonghorseymums watching daughter jump and trying to understand what makes a “good seat”.
Take taekwondo classes: daughter gets to learn self-defence skills. Dadgets to improve mobility of dodgy back.
Country walks: dad gets to look fearless in fields of cows and daughter enjoys sweets and pub dinner at the end.
Shopping trip: dad learnsnewskills of patience while daughter appreciates his role asATMand burrito dispenser.
Enjoy a forbidden food: visit a greasyspoon café and eat egg, chips and beans – food hermumwould never allow.
Metal detecting: almost trendy thanks to TV’s Detectorists. Dadindulges his inner anorak, daughter has incentive of finding treasure trove hordes, or at least the odd50por bottle top.
Ride a cycling path: dad and daughter both get to wear Lycra, only daughter looks a lot better in it.
Drystone walling classes: dad gets tomakerock-star jokes while daughter learns skills from pre-mobile phone era. the time Jean Valjean dies. It’s really very good, even with Russell Crowe singing. And I have to admit that setting that book to music is a fantastic achievement by writers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil.
Now I’ve offered to take Lola to the theatrical version of Les Misérables yet again. Against all crude stereotypes, I’ve become a heterosexual dad who likes musicals. Soon we’ll be on the barricades waving a red flag.
A man like me can never change? Thanks to my daughter, it seems that I’m starting to hear the people sing.
Pete May is the author of The Joy of Essex (The Robson Press)
Revolutionary: Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne star in the 2012 film; below, Pete is a ‘Les Mis’ convert, thanks to daughter Lola, 16