Thursday 20 June 2019

John Boland: Minus the tunes, there's no misery in BBC's lavish Les Miserables


Resentful energy: Dominic West as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables
Resentful energy: Dominic West as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

John Boland

I saw Les Misérables on its New York opening night in 1987 when Colm Wilkinson was the star of the show. It seemed to go on forever.

More correctly, tickets being at such a premium, I saw the first half of the show before relinquishing my seat to a colleague from the Evening Herald, but it still seemed to go on forever.

That had something to do with the musical score, which was mostly uninspired to the point of dreariness (heresy, I know), so a big plus with the lavish new BBC1 version, which started its six-episode run last Sunday night, is that it dispenses with the warbling and gets on with the storyline.

For the opening scene, though, veteran adaptor Andrew Davies skipped the first 600 pages of Victor Hugo's 1,900-page novel (no, I haven't read it) and went straight to the Waterloo battlefield, where scavengers were looting the corpses of dead soldiers.

It was an arresting sight and so, too, was our first view of convict Jean Valjean breaking stones in a Toulon penal colony as he neared the end of his 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread.

In fact, all the story's basic elements were put deftly in place by an adaptor skilled in such matters, if also known for sexing up such classic novels as Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace. And so here he has a Javert who's not only black but also seems to fancy his nemesis Jean Valjean.

Future episodes will tell how that pans out, but already an almost unrecognisable Dominic West has brought a furiously resentful energy to Jean Valjean, Lily Collins has been touching as the hapless Fantine and Derek Jacobi lent all his actorly guile as the kindly cleric offering the ex-convict a road to salvation.

It will be a long and bumpy road, but you have the sense that the makers know what they're doing and that the end result may prove dramatically rewarding.

I was hooked, too, by the first episode of You (Netflix), whose opening line was "Well, hello there, who are you?" The you in question was blonde young Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and the voiceover came from Joe (Penn Badgley), manager of the Manhattan bookstore that Beck had just entered.

Joe is our confiding narrator, a handsome and personable young guy who's kind to the lonely young boy in his neighbouring apartment and polite and helpful to others, too. But he's also a psychopathic stalker who persuades himself that he and Beck are soulmates and who gets access to her life through her careless use of social media.

What's unnerving here is that Joe is so charming (and Badgley such a winning actor) that we become, if unwillingly, complicit in his dangerous fantasies - so that when he lures a loathsome boyfriend of Beck to his doom, we feel little distress at his victim's fate.

You can binge-watch the whole season if you like, but the first episode made for such unsettling, indeed queasy, viewing that I decided to ration my intake to an episode a week.

Archivist and social historian Catriona Crowe is seldom uninteresting and in Life After the Rising (RTÉ1) she offered a typically engaged and engaging take on such matters as the benevolence shown by Guinness to families of workers who were fighting in the Great War, the treatment of shell-shock victims back in Ireland, the sexual behaviour of US soldiers in Cobh, and the local impact of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

She chatted to various experts about these and other matters and the result was an absorbing and informative hour's viewing.

I was held, too, by Jayo (RTÉ1), an hour-long profile of Dublin football star Jason Sherlock, which was as much about his own personal demons as about the sport he enhanced and in which he became a celebrity player.

These demons were mainly to do with his Hong Kong father, who never featured in his upbringing but who left him feeling a confused outsider subject to racial taunts by other children. Indeed, he felt so alienated that on the few times he was brought to a Chinese restaurant in Dublin, he defiantly asked for fish and chips.

His father was murdered in South Africa in the 1990s and the film ended with Jason meeting his half-brother in Durban and exorcising the "shame" and "guilt" he felt about his long-lost parent.

The film also revealed a driven man who never won an All-Ireland with Dublin in the 14 playing years after his celebrated 1995 debut, but who finally seemed to have come to terms both with himself and with his former craving for adulation. Now he simply wanted to be "a better person".

Pope Francis in Ireland: Behind the Scenes (RTÉ1) took a fly-on-the-wall approach to its subject, but this particular fly hadn't much of interest to look at or overhear. Communion wafers got made, papal vestments got ironed, gardaí gave briefings, and lots of rain fell on the Phoenix Park, but that was about it.

A few people featured prominently, including Anne Griffin, who was general manager of the organising World Meeting of Families, and a middle-aged volunteer whom the film-makers thought fascinating, yet we learned little that was interesting about them.

Chester Beatty: Honorary Irishman (RTÉ1) was overly reverential in tone, but at least we learnt a fair bit about the American mining tycoon and his unique artistic bequest to the nation.

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