Interview: Dominic West, Lily Collins and David Oyelowo on the BBC's new adaptation of Les Miserables
We go behind the scenes of the new six-part BBC series to grill the cast about getting into character for this modern retelling of the famed epic
Dominic West strides across a 19th century square packed with horses and carts, carriages, and authentic market stalls. Given he is playing Jean Valjean and this is a new version of Les Miserables, you half expect West to stop, remove his extravagant hat, and blast out the former convict’s famous tune, Bring Him Home. But this is a very different Les Miserables. It’s an ambitious six-part BBC drama adaptation that draws heavily on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel – a tale of redemption and revolution, which, somewhat controversially, features no singing.
The story of a book
“It’s unrecognisable from the musical, to be honest,” admits West on set, after his scene is finished. “We’ve got six hours of television to tell the story of a book, which I think is the best I have ever read. It’s absolutely epic.”
Still, attempting a straight re-telling of Les Miserables is a gamble given how widely the musical, and Tom Hooper’s award-winning 2012 film, are adored. With atmospheric smoke billowing across Brussels’ picturesque Place du Beguinage – which stands in for Paris in the BBC version – director Tom Shankland admits that Les Miserables done “straight” could easily be serious and sombre. It is, as he puts it, “a story of characters going through unbearable events and then dying.”
But this is an adaptation by Andrew Davies – of Vanity Fair, Pride & Prejudice and War & Peace fame – so there’s a lightness of touch, wit and levity amid the tragedy and a youthfulness and freshness of tone, too.
Fantine steals the show
“People will be able to fall in love with the story all over again because we’re telling it in a completely different way,” adds Shankland. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the character of Fantine, played by Lily Collins. Any fans of the film will remember this tragic figure selling her hair and teeth to support her daughter. The scene Collins is about to shoot, however, sees Fantine hanging out with her girlfriends and having fun.
“I think what’s different about this is that you get to see Fantine have a good time,” she says. “In most other renditions you start at the bottom and she’s already suffering. But this shows what it would have been like to be surrounded by other young women. It’s a fun time, sunny, and I get to fall in love!”
It’s something of a relief, given Collins had to film the end of Fantine’s story first. “It was snowing, there was wind and rain, and I was wearing next to nothing,” she recalls. “My head was shaved, I had no teeth, and Fantine has to beg for her life. I had to go manic and be like an animal, almost, to get that scene right. There was no vanity involved; it was raw, visceral, grotesque, even. I had to leap at it, it was so intense.”
A modern retelling
Fantine’s character arc is probably the best indication of the ambition for this version of Les Miserables; intense and gut-wrenching, yet tender and engaging. It draws on all the best traditions of a BBC period drama, but is cinematic in scope, and never cosy.
“Some people have asked why we aren’t making a modern version of this story, but in some ways we are,” says West. “Valjean is like the best, baddest, strongest superhero. He’s done 20 years hard labour, he chooses the hard path every time because he wants to be a virtuous man. It’s hard to make a righteous person interesting, but the way Hugo wrote him, we see this man struggling daily with doing the right thing. Also, it’s a more racially mixed cast than it might have been historically. We’re playing it like it’s modern-day London, in a way.”
It’s incredibly refreshing, certainly, for Jean Valjean’s nemesis, Inspector Javert, to be played by David Oyelowo – and elsewhere Adeel Akhtar is the evil Monsieur Thenardier. “The cities I’ve lived in – Lagos, London, Los Angeles – are places full of different kinds of people, so I want to reflect that in anything I do,” says Oyelowo. “For too long we’ve had a very narrow point of view, but one of the things I’m most proud of in this show is that it’s a reflection of what Europe actually looked like, as opposed to an entirely white world.
“Hugo doesn’t write about race, he writes about humanity, that we all engage in and with. The thing I’m really proud of is that I grew up in the UK watching period dramas, with images that didn’t necessarily reflect who I am, but were resonant to me. Now, my 12-year-old self can have the same experience, but more so. Modern-day drama has to be inclusive and say something about the time we’re in, too.”
An 'urgently relevant' show
Oyelowo points out that Les Miserables is set in a time when the ruling classes were under very real threat from the working classes, where a seismic, revolutionary shift was happening socially, politically and religiously. “I think that’s very pertinent to the way the world is now,” he says. “You can look at any country in the West whose policies favour the rich over the poor and there’s a resonance.”
The show’s fellow executive producer West is similarly keen to tease out the modern relevances of a 19th century story. “I was struck that Valjean goes into public service for the public good,” he says. “The overall premise of Les Miserables is ‘look after the poor’, but today we’ve become very disillusioned with politicians, and that’s a shame because a lot of them are good people. That’s what democracy is based on – if we don’t believe that there are such things as public servants, but that everybody is in it for themselves, then democracy dies.”
West pauses. “Phew, that was a bit strong!”
Perhaps he’s winding back from getting too deep and meaningful about Les Miserables, because for all Shankland talks about making the show “urgently relevant”, he also admits that Davies wanted to place at its core a “beautiful hopeful story about people who are trying to find their way, to be good, to find out what it takes to be a parent.”
'The elements I love the most are the tender bits'
Davies savours the tender moments in the story the most. “I think I probably concentrated first on Jean Valjean and Javert. I got that duality established then started looking at the rest,” he says. “Actually then, the elements that I love the most are the tender bits; Fantine’s story in the early stages will be a revelation. Jean Valjean learning to be a father was something that moved me a lot.”
All of which comes together to form a show in six parts that gives one of the great monuments of world literature exactly the kind of love, care, attention and – crucially – compelling entertainment that it deserves. The songs aren’t missed, because the story is so fresh. And, as West looks across Place du Beguinage at a crowd of perfectly attired extras assembling for the next scene, it certainly feels like he’s part of something special.
“You know, you can easily get boxed into period drama as an English actor, so I avoided it for a long time,” says West, who played an American detective in gritty crime series The Wire and more recently Noah in The Affair. “Now, though, I’m having a blast. I’m luxuriating in the fact that the plots don’t endlessly twist on a phone call, and seeing all the horses, the costumes, the fighting.
“With most modern drama, there’s a tendency to do less, show less, until eventually you’re doing nothing. The sort of naturalism I do in The Affair wouldn’t really work here. You’ve got to be more theatrical, bigger, somehow. Like I say, Les Miserables is epic.”
Les Miserables is broadcast on BBC First (OSN) from January 13 at 9pm.
Updated: January 2, 2019 12:42 PM