DEBORAH ROSS: 19 years for bun theft? You’d be misérable too
Andrew Davies: Rewriting The Classics
Andrew Davies’s six-part adaptation of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, which runs to around a million pages or something, has been necessarily distilled. There are no songs but, and I know this will come as a surprise to some, there weren’t any in the book either. Still, it is odd. What is the point of Fantine if she doesn’t get to sing one great song before she dies? And dream a dream? Yet, having said that, it isn’t too distilled. If it were too distilled we’d all see it for what it is, which is, surely, just a lot of fuss about a minor parole offence. So it is distilled just right. It is brilliantly distilled, even. A triumph. Although I may feel different when everyone songlessly gathers at the barricades, obviously. I don’t even know what songless barricades would look like, to tell the truth.
Dominic West and David Oyelowo in Les Misérables. You can’t say Davies isn’t making us think about the characters afresh
The West End musical version is the UK’s longest running musical, and has been seen by 70 million people in more than 40 countries – sit on that, Cats! – plus, Hollywood made a film of it in 2012, albeit a poor one. (A stellar cast but none of them could sing apart from Eddie Redmayne, a bit.) So how can this bring audiences back to a story they already know? What can it offer? A stellar cast that isn’t forced to sing. That has to be up there. Plus there are some terrific lines – ‘she will be happy to see you and your magnificent trousers’ – and with six hours to play with, you do get a far better understanding of the characters. Not as much as if you’d read the book, but that is a million pages or something.
The first episode deftly introduced us to all the main players, including our protagonist, Jean Valjean (Dominic West), who is breaking rocks in a Toulon prison while serving the last 12 months of his 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. West’s Valjean is Hulk-like, magnificently bearded and magnificently boiling with hatred and defiance, as can happen, one supposes, if you’re going to get 19 years for stealing a bun. David Oyelowo plays his nemesis, Javert, the prison guard. Some viewers complained that there was no way Javert would be African, but as we are watching English people playing French people who happen to be speaking English, those who wish to have arguments about ethnicity are on thin ground.
Davies, who adapted Phwoar & Peace, and that wet-shirted Pride And Prejudice, is famed for homing in on erotic content and making these adaptations ‘sexy’, so tell me: when Valjean had to strip for Javert on his release from prison, that look Javert gave him? Homoerotic? Is this why Javert returns Valjean’s magnificently boiling hatred? Because he’s attracted to him and can’t face up to that? You may or may not buy this, but you can’t say Davies isn’t making us think about the characters afresh.
Meanwhile, across town, so to speak, the young grisette Fantine (Lily Collins) and her friends have fallen in with that trio of rich boys. The friends had warned her not to get in too deep with her own particular beau, Felix (Johnny Flynn) – he’s just amusing himself before returning home to marry someone posh – but he is different, she keeps hoping. Fantine can come across as a fool, but here Collins brings her innocence and sweetness to the fore, although why she speaks like she’s been to Roedean when her friends are all Cockney, I don’t know. Felix does abandon Fantine, and that scene in the restaurant when the letter arrives to say he’s gone was truly heartbreaking. Indeed, in such circumstances, there may be no sadder a PS than: ‘The meal is paid for.’
As we left it, Valjean had been freed from prison and set on the path to good by Bishop ‘take my candlesticks’ Myriel (played by a wonderfully scene-stealing Derek Jacobi), and even though this is a story I already know, it feels reborn. Also, there is still Olivia Colman to come.
Davies, now 82, is the greatest television adaptor of all time, but if you were looking for any true insights they weren’t to be found in Andrew Davies: Rewriting The Classics. The talking heads largely said what we already know. He is brilliant at taking what’s important from an original source and discarding the rest. He offers ‘a fiercely clear attitudinal take’. He visited his old school and his childhood home but this profile only perked up when he mentioned he started writing as a means of understanding his mother, who was ‘a complicated woman’, but no one then asked him about that. I was screaming at the television: ask him about his mother, ask him about his mother, for God’s sake, what was it with his mother? It may be he didn’t want to talk about his mother, but they should have had him say that. In short: a better understanding of character was not achieved in this instance.