Putting the fizz back in Les Mis

Out goes the singing, in comes the ro­mance. For the new BBC adap­ta­tion of Les Misérables, writer An­drew Davies – the man who sexed up War and Peace – thinks he might have told the tales of Fan­tine, Jean Val­jean et al bet­ter than Vic­tor Hugo him­self. Ben

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Ben­jamin Secher vis­its the set of the new BBC adap­ta­tion of Vic­tor Hugo’s Les Misérables and finds a wholly dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Spoiler alert: no one sings

ON A SUM­MER’S MORN­ING in a park out­side Brus­sels, one of Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture’s most wretched char­ac­ters is hav­ing a laugh. In Vic­tor Hugo’s gar­gan­tuan 1862 novel Les Misérables ,the naive young Parisian seam­stress Fan­tine is dealt a rot­ten hand: she loses her wealthy boyfriend, her daugh­ter, her job, her hair, her two front teeth and her life – all within the book’s first act. If you are one of the 130 mil­lion peo­ple to have en­coun­tered Fan­tine in the world-conquering stage mu­si­cal (or 2012’s big-screen in­car­na­tion of it, in which Anne Hath­away en­acted the char­ac­ter’s misery through an Os­car-win­ning out­pour­ing of tears), you will know her as a fig­ure of ab­ject tragedy.

Yet here she is in the Bel­gian sun­shine, as played for the cam­eras by Lily Collins – the 29-year-old daugh­ter of mu­si­cian Phil – bon­net off, flirt­ing on the lawn with her lover, Félix (Johnny Flynn), while her gig­gling girl­friends lark about on a swing, like a Frag­o­nard paint­ing come to life. In her pale em­pire-line dress, hair plaited with flow­ers, she looks al­most bridal: un­trou­bled and in love. Later this month, you’ll have a chance to meet this un­fa­mil­iar Fan­tine for your­self, in the first episode of the BBC’S lav­ish new six-part se­ries. With a screen­play by An­drew Davies, it at­tempts to show us an as­pect of Hugo’s clas­sic we’ve never seen drama­tised be­fore; one that is, well, less mis­er­able.

Un­til last year, the di­rec­tor – 50-year-old Tom Shank­land, best known for the lost-child drama The Miss­ing – was ‘one of those few peo­ple in the uni­verse who didn’t know much about the mu­si­cal or the film’, he says. But af­ter re­ceiv­ing Davies’ screen­play, he plunged into the novel and found a story bristling with ‘so much life and drama and

vi­o­lence and tragedy that the la­bel “cos­tume drama” just can’t con­tain it’.

Set­ting out to make a ver­sion that would ‘bring a level of 21st-cen­tury psy­chol­ogy to the realm of 19th-cen­tury melo­drama, keep­ing one foot in then and one foot in now’, his spir­i­tual guide would be David Lean, who, in cine­matic mas­ter­pieces such as Lawrence of Ara­bia, proved ‘so bril­liant at judg­ing when to be in­ti­mate and when to be epic. I think that was al­ways go­ing to be the game with Les Misérables: how not to lose our he­roes against this vast his­tor­i­cal canvas.’

It’s day 79 of the 89-day shoot and sit­ting in front of a mon­i­tor – head­phones clamped to his ears, an ap­prov­ing smile on his face – Davies is the first to ad­mit to be­ing no fan of the mu­si­cal. ‘I hated it,’ he tells me, ‘couldn’t bear it.’ Yet when he first read Hugo’s book six years ago, he was struck by a sophistication that, he felt, no adap­ta­tion had come close to cap­tur­ing. In the sprawl­ing saga, set in a na­tion dis­com­bob­u­lated by Napolean’s de­feat at Water­loo, Davies says he found ‘such a lot of res­o­nances with our time now. There are the haves and have-nots, the ex­treme strata of so­ci­ety in terms of riches and poverty. I thought how good it would be to show that on tele­vi­sion.’

At the mo­ment we join the nar­ra­tive, in 1815, he says, ‘France thought it’d had a rev­o­lu­tion, now it’s got a monar­chy again and it’s back to the bad times. So while peo­ple like Fan­tine can have fun for a bit, they are al­ways in dan­ger of drop­ping through the cracks. There is no safety net, no wel­fare state. If you take one wrong step, you’re f—ed, ba­si­cally.’

To any­one else, the prospect of re­duc­ing Hugo’s 1,500-page leviathan to six hours of prime­time drama would have been daunt­ing. But to

Davies – who, at 82, is Bri­tish tele­vi­sion’s undis­puted doyen of the lit­er­ary adap­ta­tion, as the brains be­hind such mem­o­rable se­ries as 1995’s Pride and Prej­u­dice, 2005’s Bleak House and, in 2016, War & Peace – it was an itch that just had to be scratched. ‘I felt it had never been done prop­erly be­fore,’ he says. ‘But then I al­ways think that. “Hmmm, you need my ver­sion of it.”’

His first step to­wards re­claim­ing the story from the mu­si­cal (‘a very par­tial ver­sion of the book, more concert than drama’) was to in­tro­duce the viewer to Fan­tine not when she is plum­met­ing into the abyss, but, as Hugo does, be­fore she has the slight­est inkling of her fate. ‘As for Fan­tine, she was pure joy,’ writes the au­thor early on. ‘Her mag­nif­i­cent teeth had clearly been given her by God with one pur­pose only, and that was to laugh.’

Dur­ing a break in film­ing, Collins, tow­elling dress­ing gown now slung over her dress, tells me she spent her child­hood sum­mers in Switzer­land (‘where I would dream in French’) and begged the film­mak­ers for an au­di­tion the mo­ment she heard the pro­ject was in the pipe­line – with Davies’ em­pha­sis on this happy phase of Fan­tine’s story part of the ap­peal. Not only did it free her from the spec­tre of Hath­away’s por­trayal, it also deep­ened her sym­pa­thy for the char­ac­ter. ‘Be­cause you get to see just how in love she was with Félix; it height­ens the heart­break.’

The re­sult con­trib­utes to a telling of Les Misérables that the bullish Davies sug­gests may rank as ‘the most psy­cho­log­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing ver­sion there has been so far of the book’. Hav­ing set out to im­prove upon the mu­si­cal, he now finds him­self won­der­ing if, in places, he’s also sur­passed the novel. ‘We tell Fan­tine’s story more fully than I think Hugo did,’ he says. ‘We’ve ex­plored the Javert and Jean Val­jean re­la­tion­ship more deeply, too.’

If Fan­tine is the book’s emo­tional heart, then the in­tense cat-and-mouse strug­gle be­tween Jean Val­jean – the con­vict who serves 19 years’ hard labour for steal­ing a loaf of bread be­fore re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing him­self as the mayor of Mon­treuil – and In­spec­tor Javert (David Oyelowo), his jailer-turned-stalker, is its moral cen­tre. While the law­man is a mon­strously rigid in­car­na­tion of the un­bend­ing prin­ci­ples of jus­tice, Val­jean, who works his way back from bru­tal to be­atific, rep­re­sents the pos­si­bil­ity of grace.

Oyelowo, the Bri­tish ac­tor who made his name in BBC drama Spooks and forged a Hol­ly­wood ca­reer with such ac­claimed per­for­mances as Martin Luther King in Selma (2014), was the first cast mem­ber to sign up for the new Les Misérables ,on which he also served as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. ‘Partly why I re­ally wanted to play Javert is that, hav­ing read An­drew Davies’ script and then the book, he re­mained enig­matic to me,’ Oyelowo says, speak­ing over the phone from his Los An­ge­les home about a char­ac­ter of­ten dis­missed as more archetype than man. ‘I didn’t see him as a sim­plis­tic vil­lain, but as a very com­pli­cated hu­man be­ing. I felt there was a lot of work for me to do in or­der to ex­plain some of what one might call his malev­o­lence, his drive, his am­bi­tion and es­pe­cially his at­ten­tion to­wards Jean Val­jean. I found some­thing pri­mal in his fas­tid­i­ous, con­tin­u­ous, in­ex­orable need to get hold of this man.’

Back on set in Bel­gium, I spot that man – or at least the ac­tor who plays him, Do­minic West – loi­ter­ing in his breeches out­side Vil­vo­orde prison. With its brick-vaulted ceil­ing and cracked paint­work, the aban­doned 18th-cen­tury build­ing south of Brus­sels is an at­mo­spheric place. Shank­land says it has a ‘melan­cholic aura’; a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant says it smells of ‘dead rat’.

In­side, in a recre­ation of the book’s Mon­treuil bead fac­tory, Collins’ Fan­tine is sit­ting with her fel­low grisettes (among them Lily New­mark and Erin Do­herty) at long wooden ta­bles strewn with black beads, wait­ing for make-up de­signer Jac­que­line Fowler to give them the once-over. This seems to in­volve her mak­ing sure they haven’t washed be­hind their ears. ‘I like to see sweat,’ she ex­plains after­wards. ‘And neck hair. None of the girls have make-up on to­day; it’s a very nat­u­ral, re­al­is­tic look.’ Later, the cos­tume de­signer Mar­i­anne Agertoft says that she, too, favoured a pared-down style, so his­tor­i­cal pedants had bet­ter be­ware. ‘We’ve kept bon­nets off the women quite a lot of the time, even at mo­ments when they would have worn them then,’ she tells me. ‘Why? Be­cause they can very much get in the way.’

Out­side, West (also an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer), who slot­ted in Jean Val­jean be­tween shoot­ing sea­sons four and five of Amer­i­can melo­drama The Af­fair, ad­mits he found Tom Hooper’s 2012 film of Les Misérables so ‘bloody aw­ful’ that he walked out of the cinema be­fore it fin­ished. So when he was first ap­proached for the new se­ries, he hes­i­tated. ‘I thought, “It’s a mu­si­cal, it’s been done, we’ve just seen the film and why do it again?”’ he ex­plains, while Fowler (pre­vi­ously seen ap­ply­ing her make-up brush to the abs of Poldark’s Ai­dan Turner for his no­to­ri­ous to­p­less scyth­ing scene) at­tends to his stick-on side­burns. ‘Then I read the book and it just knocked my socks off. Best thing I’ve ever read.’

West is sim­i­larly en­thused by his char­ac­ter, whom he de­scribes as ‘the great­est su­per­hero in lit­er­a­ture, a strong­man who spends the whole time res­cu­ing chil­dren and sav­ing en­tire

‘You get to see just how in love Fan­tine was with Félix; it height­ens the heart­break’

com­mu­ni­ties’. He trea­sures Jean Val­jean as an anom­aly in tele­vi­sion drama: a pub­lic ser­vant cel­e­brated as a fig­ure of high moral stand­ing. Isn’t it also pretty rare, I sug­gest, for West, a 49-year-old Old Eto­nian who sealed his rep­u­ta­tion play­ing a morally du­bi­ous Bal­ti­more cop in The Wire, to be the good guy? ‘It is,’ he says. ‘I’ve played a lot of vil­lains and I don’t want to do it any more. [Por­tray­ing] Iago and Fred West in one year was an­ni­hi­lat­ing. To live with Val­jean, as I have for six months, is in­vig­o­rat­ing: it opens your soul.’

Oyelowo ac­knowl­edges that there will be those sur­prised to see him cast in ‘the kind of role which, to be per­fectly frank, even 10 years ago prob­a­bly would not have been af­forded me’. Born in Ox­ford in 1976 to black Nige­rian im­mi­grants, he says, ‘Some­thing I have found prob­lem­atic with pe­riod drama over the years, in terms of what we have done in Great Bri­tain, is to deny just how long peo­ple of colour have been part of the fab­ric of Bri­tish life – and Euro­pean life as well, as it pertains to Les Mis.’

To those view­ers who strug­gle to rec­on­cile him with Hugo’s ‘slimy spook’, Oyelowo would say, ‘I am sure a lot of French peo­ple think it’s not right to trans­pose Les Mis on to Bri­tish cul­ture, which is what we’ve done by hav­ing the char­ac­ters speak English and talk in Lon­don or posh English ac­cents. But if you are go­ing to make some­thing that doesn’t stink of moth­balls, you’d bet­ter be speak­ing to the world that we live in. And I think the show that we have cul­ti­vated ab­so­lutely does that.’

For all that the se­ries strives for con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance, it also re­mains an epic feat of his­tor­i­cal re­con­struc­tion that re­quired a rov­ing six-month shoot across Bel­gium and north­ern France, a prin­ci­pal cast of more than 100 (which in­cludes Olivia Col­man and Adeel Akhtar as the das­tardly innkeep­ing Thé­nardiers, and Sir Derek Ja­cobi as the ir­re­proach­able Bishop of Digne), a ta­pes­try maker, a horse han­dler and 3,000 ex­tras. For pro­ducer Chris Carey, the high point of the process – its lit­eral pièce de ré­sis­tance – was the episode at the bar­ri­cades, in­spired by the 1832 French up­ris­ing which, in Hugo’s words, ‘turned the cen­tre of Paris into a sort of colos­sal, im­pen­e­tra­ble ci­tadel’.

To shoot those scenes, says Carey (whose last pro­duc­tion was the thriller Ap­ple Tree Yard), ‘We used a real street in a real French town, Sedan in north­ern France, which looks how Paris looked pre-hauss­mann. And we blew it up over the course of two or three weeks. You can imag­ine the com­pli­ca­tions of keep­ing the town happy and on side when you are run­ning through the streets at 5am with bay­o­nets and can­non fir­ing.’ I can also imag­ine such an op­er­a­tion burn­ing through a bud­get the likes of which most BBC dra­mas could only dream of. ‘You can’t do that stuff on a shoestring,’ con­cedes ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Faith Pen­hale, ‘but I won’t tell you a fig­ure.’

West gives a less guarded as­sess­ment. ‘In terms of Amer­i­can bud­gets, this is noth­ing. This whole se­ries is prob­a­bly cost­ing less than an Amer­i­can pilot would cost,’ he says. ‘We do these things very cheaply, which is not a good thing… For what we have to do, it’s peanuts.’ Does he in turn re­ceive a sig­nif­i­cantly smaller fee for a drama like this than for some­thing like The Af­fair? ‘I couldn’t pos­si­bly tell you,’ he says. Per­haps be­cause they’ve blown a size­able chunk of bud­get on the ser­vices of a cer­tain Mr West? ‘No, they have not,’ he yelps, be­fore of­fer­ing an an­swer to my pre­vi­ous ques­tion: ‘Yes, I do, very much less.’

If money is in rel­a­tively short sup­ply in Les Misérables, then so too is sex. One of the most cu­ri­ous as­pects of Hugo’s book is that, al­though it was writ­ten by a man known for his erotic ap­petites (it is said that on the day of his fu­neral, on 31 May 1885, the brothels of Paris pulled down their shut­ters as a sign of re­spect to a val­ued client), sex scarcely gets a look in. ‘It’s odd,’ says Davies. ‘We had this sud­den re­al­i­sa­tion when talk­ing about it that both Javert and Jean Val­jean ap­pear to be vir­gins.’ You might have as­sumed that Davies, who has long since had a rep­u­ta­tion for sex­ing up the clas­sics, would set that right – he is, af­ter all, the man who in­jected incest into War and Peace and whose Pride and Prej­u­dice planted the im­age of Colin Firth’s Darcy in a fig­ure-hug­ging wet shirt in the na­tion’s con­scious­ness – but no.

‘I don’t have to have sex all the time in things,’ he laughs. ‘I’m an old gen­tle­man now.’ And in­deed, al­though Fan­tine is taken to bed by Félix more than once in the first episode, their scenes to­gether are char­ac­terised by a coy­ness that bor­ders on prud­ery. In fact, the only real nu­dity to speak of in the drama’s first hour – which opens with jaw-drop­ping aerial views of the bat­tle­field of Water­loo, a grim patch­work of uni­formed corpses and dead horses – is a dis­arm­ing shot of Jean Val­jean’s bare bot­tom. ‘Yeah, when I leave prison I get stripped off and thrown my old rags, so we thought it was a good ex­cuse to get my ass out – some­body did, any­way,’ West tells me with a wolfish grin. ‘Let’s hope they can CGI it all right.’

Talk­ing of ideal forms, be­fore I leave the set I ask Davies if at any point in the process he felt the story of Les Misérables had al­ready found its per­fect ex­pres­sion in Hugo’s pages, and that the act of wrestling it on to the screen was al­ways doomed to feel like a suc­ces­sion of com­pro­mises? ‘No,’ he says, with un­wa­ver­ing con­fi­dence. ‘It’s just finding its per­fect medium now. If TV had been around at the time Vic­tor Hugo wrote, I be­lieve he would have made it as a six-part tele­vi­sion show.’

Les Misérables starts 30 De­cem­ber, 9pm, BBC One

‘To make some­thing that doesn’t stink of moth­balls, you’d bet­ter speak to the world that we live in’

Above The scene is set for Jean Val­jean and Cosette’s ar­rival in Paris (por­trayed by Ghent, Bel­gium)

Right Félix and Fan­tine at a bar with friends

Be­low, from left Col­man and di­rec­tor Tom Shank­land on set; An­drew Davies

Left Collins with her daugh­ter Cosette’s cruel on-screen foster par­ents, played by Adeel Akhtar and Olivia Col­man

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