LA VIE EN PROSE Andrew Davies waves the flag for his new BBC production of Les Misérables
A dynamic small-screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables explores the epic dimensions of the classic novel
Andrew Davies is forthright about the parallels he sees between the France of Victor Hugo’s historical novel Les Misérables and the world we live in today. Davies recalls a visit to Paris made in order to raise funds for his adaptation – a mission that was clearly successful, as the lavish six-part series will be seen on BBC One this month. ‘The number of destitute people hanging around on the streets struck me very powerfully,’ he says. ‘And you can’t miss it in London, either. It does seem like we are living in a society divided between people who go round in chauffeur-driven cars and people who go to food banks.’
Davies is a staggeringly energetic 82-year-old; he’s on record as remarking that he hopes the next 10 years will be his busiest decade. He has been writing for television since the 1970s, with his successes including Pride and Prejudice, Tipping the Velvet and House of Cards. War and Peace, starring Paul Dano and Lily James, captivated the nation and sent us all scurrying back to Tolstoy; now he’s set to do the same for Hugo’s doorstopper, a book set in tumultuous 19th-century Paris. Yes, the musical adaptation – running in the West End since 1985 – has been seen by millions, but that hardly begins to get to the heart of the story of Jean Valjean and his nemesis Inspector Javert; of Valjean’s nurturing of Cosette, the daughter of poor, oppressed Fantine.
‘I was kind of on a mission to rescue the novel from the musical,’ Davies says, having seen the show only very recently. ‘There’s a lot more to the book than you could get into a two-and-a-half hour musical.’ And he’s keen to stress that it’s an uplifting tale as well as one of poverty and strife. ‘It’s very much a story about love and redemption; how this extraordinary character Jean Valjean’ – played by Dominic West – ‘who has been brutalised by two decades in prison, manages to turn himself round, not just once but two or three times. He turns himself into a rich but beneficent factory owner, who feels responsible when Fantine (Lily Collins) is dismissed from her job. He has to go back to the beginning to redeem himself; and thanks to his love for Cosette, Fantine’s little girl, he really learns to be a father.’
Cosette, eventually cared for by Valjean after a terrible childhood, is played by Ellie Bamber, who talks easily of how much she loved the role. She immersed herself in the novel right away, she tells me, and memorised one of Hugo’s descriptions of her character: ‘“Cosette was not very timid by nature,”’ she recites. ‘“There flowed in her veins some of the blood of the bohemian and the adventuress who runs barefoot. It will be remembered that she was more of a lark than a dove. There was a foundation of wildness and bravery in her.”’ It was that sense of adventure that appealed to Bamber. ‘Every door Cosette sees, she bounds through it. Even though she’s been abused and neglected by her carers – and in the novel she’s violently abused – she meets life with a courageous foot forward. And if anything, it’s a coming-of-age story, as her relationship with Jean Valjean changes, and he has to learn that she’s growing up. The story is so epic,’ she says, ‘there’s something in it for everyone.’
And it was this scope that also appealed to David Oyelowo, who stars as Valjean’s adversary Inspector Javert and along with Davies is one of the series’ executive producers. It’s fair to say that Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma, is often cast as the good guy: he liked the stretch of finding his way into Javert’s ruthlessness. ‘When I first read the script I didn’t know how to play him,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘His fastidiousness, his never-ending driven desire to capture and curtail Jean Valjean; I found the psychology behind that incredibly interesting. I knew I’d have to find a way to make sense of that for myself and the audience. That was a real challenge to me.’ He admits that the book itself was a bit testing (‘I’m not the biggest reader on the planet’) but he was ‘blown away by the nature of the redemptive story, how ambitious it was’ – and how perfectly Andrew Davies captured the story’s breadth and depth.
Oyelowo also remarks on just how relevant this classic seems to our present-day situation, echoing Davies’ thoughts. It’s a piece, he says, about ‘the rise of revolution, the discrepancy between the working class and the upper class, about political turmoil – but that’s a backdrop to a very personal story that the audience can very much relate to.’ That was Hugo’s great gift: to allow his convictions to shine through his immortal characters. Andrew Davies’ drama will find Hugo an audience for a new century.
‘Les Misérables’ airs on BBC One in December.
Lily Collins as Fantine in ‘Les Misérables’. Below: Josh O’Connor as Marius and Ellie Bamber as Cosette