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BBC’s ‘Les Miserables’ Recreates the Dark World of Victor Hugo’s Novel

Director Tom Shankland didn’t want his “Les Miserables” to be anything like the stage-musical version of Victor Hugo’s sweeping historical novel, nor like the 2012 Tom Hooper feature-film musical. 

For the BBC limited series — a drama starring Olivia Colman, Lily Collins, David Oyelowo and Dominic West, which aired the first of its six episodes in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece on April 14 — Shankland’s goal was to get back to the roots of the story, using large portions of what Hugo gave readers in his 1862 book. He worked closely with his crew to impart his vision.

Production designer Richard Bullock, whose credits include “Peaky Blinders” and “McMafia,” found a great deal of specificity in the source work. “I read the novel, and Tom and I referenced it hugely,” he says. “There is so much great description, which helped throughout the entire production. Even if the details didn’t make it directly into the script, we still put them into the world.”

In one such sequence, protagonist Jean Valjean (West) drags the character Marius (Josh O’Connor) through a network of sewers. The original intention was to shoot in tunnels underneath a citadel in Namur, Belgium, but for safety and logistical reasons, the crew ended up building replicas in the Brussels studio where production was based.

“It was quite a big build, with effects and a lot of water,” says Bullock. “Victor Hugo came to the rescue with loads of amazing detail of what the Paris sewers were like at the time — what section was made out of what stone, how some of it was dated differently, and which part Valjean was stuck in.”

Bullock’s go-to reference was Charles Marville, who took photographs in the latter half of the 19th century, documenting Paris before the construction of the city’s signature boulevards during the reign of Napoleon III. “They wiped out whole sections of medieval Paris, and thankfully, Marville documented that,” says the production designer. 

Hair and makeup designer Jacqueline Fowler, whose vast credits include “War & Peace” and “Jamestown,” also hewed closely to the traditional while adding a bit of modern flair. She and costume designer Marianne Agertoft had to deal with a cast of about 100, including just under a dozen main roles. She and her team created lots of little buns for many of the characters and Apollo knots for the elite. Lily Collins’ Fantine donned a custom-made wig when her luxurious locks got cut off. 

Agertoft, who had worked with Shankland on the BBC drama “The City and the City,” says that the director wanted the reality and the struggles of the times to come through, and to make them relevant for a modern audience. “We had six hours of storytelling time, which was much more than the film had,” she adds. “You can go into the depth of the characters a bit more. A musical can slightly remove [you] from reality — which is also the beauty and the wonder of a musical — but with a drama, you can relate slightly differently. So [my costumes] had to feel more real.” 

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