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
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