Chances are you’ll know the gut-wrenching story of Les Miserables. Whether you’ve seen the 2012 film, watched the musical on stage, or read the historical novel by Victor Hugo, it’s a depiction of the struggles of France’s underclass, and how far they must go to survive.
Now, six-part BBC One mini-series Les Miserables promises to delve deep into the layers of the classic story, which is set against the epic backdrop of 1845 France – a time of civil unrest.
It could barely be more timely given the ‘yellow vests’ protests that have erupted across modern-day France in recent weeks in anger at fuel tax rises and growing living costs.
Here, cast members Dominic West, Lily Collins and David Oyelowo tell us more about what to expect from the adaptation, which will air over the Christmas period.
The protagonist of the story is Jean Valjean, who is struggling to lead a normal life after serving a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children.
And for Sheffield-born West, star of The Wire and The Affair, the appeal of playing him is simple.
“He’s the best superhero that’s ever been written about,” says the 49-year-old Yorkshireman, who went to Eton after his father George made his fortune from manufacturing plastic vandal-resistant bus shelters.
Meanwhile, it’s a dream come true for Collins, 29 – who is the daughter of musician Phil Collins – to play orphaned, working-class Fantine, as she grew up loving musicals like Les Mis.
However, the actress, who played Snow White in the film Mirror Mirror, loves the fact that the BBC version doesn’t feature any singing.
“It’s really fun to play the part that people have played before, but in a way no one’s seen before,” say the Guilford-born star, who moved to LA as a child with her mother.
“We get to see her meet her friends, meet her lover, be wooed, and go out on dates and actually fall in love and have the child,” adds Collins.
“And then she goes on the journey that everyone mostly knows.”
Oyelowo, who was born in Oxford to Nigerian parents, takes on the role of Javert, a police inspector who becomes obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of convict Valjean.
And the 42-year-old admits he was pleasantly surprised when he was offered the part.
“It’s the kind of role that growing up in the UK you just accept, ‘Well, I love watching that, but that’s never going to be me’,” confides the actor, known for films such as Selma and A United Kingdom.
“I’m elated that we are in a time and a world where it’s not any sort of big move on the BBC’s part or Tom’s [Shankland, director] part or the producer’s part to approach me with a role like this.
“I’m just so glad that 12-year-olds that look like me are going to get to see images that I didn’t get to see when I was their age, and would have been formative for me.”
Much of the drama in Les Mis revolves around the cat-and-mouse relationship between the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert.
“Javert sees Jean Valjean as a mirror to himself,” explains Oyelowo.
“Javert was born in a prison, he was born to gypsy parents, he was born in and around criminality.
“And that is the thing he is pushing away from obsessively for all of his life.”
Both actors enjoyed scrutinising the text to develop their characters.
“We’ve spent a lot of time just trying to nail down what makes this feel real, because the book itself relies heavily on coincidence,” notes Oyelowo.
On exploring the motivations of their characters, West says his roots in Yorkshire helped with understanding the part.
“We had a bit of trouble at first, thinking, ‘What’s Javert’s problem? Why is he so obsessed with this dude?’
“But it all became easier when David starting doing Javert in a London accent, and I started doing Jean Valjean in a Yorkshire accent!”
Collins’ preparation, meanwhile, saw her speak to Anne Hathaway, who won an Oscar for her role as Fantine in the film.
She was told: “Good luck, and do your own thing.”
“I was heavily inspired by that movie,” she shares.
“But Tom also wanted it to be about the literature, not basing it on someone else’s work.”
She adds: “In any role I do there is a little bit of pressure to do my best because I’m my own harshest critic, let alone when you’re playing a literary character that people love.”
West says that because the book – which he calls “the best book” he’s ever read – is a lot less known than the musical, it takes the pressure off a bit.
“It’s huge, epic, magic, romantic, heroic, incredibly morally challenging and morally interesting.
“People will play this part forever because it’s a great classic part, and the reason is there’s so many ways to come at it.”
What also makes the tale timeless is its themes, such as guilt and revenge. And West also points out that there are parallels with today’s society in terms of the class struggle depicted in the show.
“Les Miserables is about the poor people and their fight against injustice and plutocrats running over them,” he says.
“It’s all pretty relevant.”
West admits he’s been “in tears all day” on set (the series was filmed in Brussels and northern France).
“I can’t stop crying,” he says. “I just love this man.
“It’s quite hard to make a good guy interesting, and really care about a good guy, but he’s just strong and courageous.”
He continues: “I’ve got loads of kids, and I’ve played a lot of villains and I don’t want to be a villain, I don’t find them interesting any more. So I love playing this hero.”
Collins agrees she’s been affected by filming the sadness in Fantine’s story.
“I obviously feel what my character’s feeling, but I also try at the end of the day to leave some of that at work.
“Even though I’m alone here in Brussels, I’m going out and spending time with people and also being able to see friends in London, and FaceTime ... I don’t have to live in a bubble.”
Filming away from home does of course poses its challenges, as Oyelowo, who now lives in LA, candidly reveals.
“I have four kids and a wife who I miss so terribly,” admits the star.
“But she and I have a two-week rule – we’re never apart for more than two weeks. So, a lot of flying back and forth. You make it work.
“But that’s partly why this is the first time I’ve done anything of this nature since I did Spooks, because it takes up so much time and I have young children. But this was one I couldn’t say no to.”
Script ‘demanded best actors’
Screenwriter Andrew Davies says the roles in Les Miserables called for the “finest available actors”.
“We were thrilled to be able to cast Dominic West as Valjean and David Oyelowo as Javert,” he told the Radio Times about his adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century classic.
“That casting reflects the often ignored fact that France, like Britain, has a multicultural history going back to Napoleon’s time and beyond.”
Davies, known for acclaimed previous adaptations including Vanity Fair, Pride And Prejudice and War And Peace, added: “I have a reputation for bringing out, and (some say) even inventing the sexual element in the great classics.
“It is there in Les Miserables, too, but deeply buried.”
Watch Les Miserables on BBC One over the Christmas period.