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

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By ERICA WAG­NER

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

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