Mention ‘Les Miserables’ and most people will think of the highly successful stage production or a ghastly version of the musical where Russell Crowe showed us all he can’t sing for his salt.
But forget those. There is now a new gold standard, one that is true to the 1862 novel from French writer Victor — one in which there’s hardly a reason to break into any song even if Susan Boyle did dream a dream and build a career on it.
Airing on BBC First in six parts beginning at 8pm on January 13, ‘Les Miserables’ is a stunning adaptation of Hugo’s work. It’s full of the ripeness one expects from BBC period drama. It’s not done well — it’s done amazingly well, a rich mosaic of costumes, settings, historical accuracies and a compelling story of redemption, human frailty and transformation to boot. And it’s a classic that has lessons that ring true today, more than 150 years after publication.
For Andrew Davis, who adapted Hugo’s work, the timing couldn’t be better.
“It’s got a kind of obvious contemporary relevance,” he told Gulf News tabloid! on a dark and wet evening in London.
“It was hard to come along to this place today without seeing people sitting in the rain begging,” he said. “We live in a society that’s really as divided into rich and poor as the society that Hugo was talking about. It often seems that a lot of people like Fantine [played by Lily Collins] don’t really have solid ground to stand on. If something goes wrong, they’re on the street. It’s alarming.”
Chris Carey, producer of ‘Les Miserables’, said that to land Dominic West in the central role of Jean Valjean role was an incredible thrill.
“He’s been one of my favourite actors for years and he embodies the qualities of what Jean Valjean needs to be,” he said. “David Oyelowo is in the role as Javert, as the nemesis and the other half of the cat-and-mouse game. He is one of the world’s greatest actors and hasn’t been in a UK television series for many years. It’s been sensational to watch him bring this complex character to life over six episodes.”
Tom Shankland, director of ‘Les Miserables’, said that his ambition “was to make sure that this felt like a big canvas, on which we were telling intimate and small stories of individuals from a turbulent period of French history from 1815 to 1832, and the failure of this uprising.”
For Olivia Colman, who plays Madame Thenardier, the role couldn’t be as far politically from playing Queen Elizabeth II in the hit Netflix series ‘The Crown’ or the brooding female Detective Sergeant in crime drama series ‘Broadchurch’.
“‘Les Miserables’ highlights the cavernous space between the very rich and very poor,” she said. “The very poor have an awful time of it. Jean Valjean is the hero of our piece. He’s still rough round the edges but when he comes out of prison he experiences goodness in its purest form. He wants to do good for other people but because he started in life as poor, it’s hard to get out of it.”
As far as Colman, the tale of the novel will be compelling to audiences
“It’s a gripping story with all the ingredients for something you are going to love,” she said. “I can imagine myself not wanting to turn off and wanting to watch the next one. It’s an age-old story but it will still appeal.”
Age-old story? Erin Kellyman, who plays Eponine Thenardier, says she was just 14 when she watched that film version of the musical featuring Crowe.
“I really liked the film and Eponine and Gavroche were my two favourites,” she said. “To be able to do this is crazy. Getting to play her was a dream.”
For Kerryman, the appeal in the new six-part series is she sheer diversity of the cast.
“I never thought I would be able to do period drama due to the way I look.”
Fast facts on ‘Les Miserables’
■ ‘Les Miserables’, the novel, was written by Victor Hugo and published first in 1862. Beginning in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it culminates in the 1832 June Rebellion on the streets of Paris.
■ It’s one of the longest novels ever published, with more that 2,500 pages in five volumes.
■ Most people are familiar with a musical stage adaption, which has been produced in more than 50 countries was first staged some 38 years ago.
■ The original French version of the show, by lyricist Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, ran for 107 performances in 1980 at the Palais des Sports in Paris.
■ The London production was co-directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn. The English lyrics were by Herbert Kretzmer, who was the television critic for the Daily Mail at the time.
■ On January 22, 2010, the show celebrated its 10,000th performance in London.
■ ‘Les Miserables’ has been translated into 21 different languages: English, Japanese, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, German, Polish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, French, Czech, Castillian, Mauritian Creole, Flemish, Finnish, Argentinian, Portuguese, Estonian and Mexican Spanish.
■ In 2009, Susan Boyle sang ‘Les Mis’ song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ on the television show ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. It became one of the most watched videos on YouTube.
Don’t miss it!
‘Les Miserables’ premieres on January 13 at 9pm in the UAE on BBC First available on OSN.