Running time: 5 hours, 50 mins (25 episodes)
Valjean: Roger Allam — Javert: David Schofield — Fantine: Emily Bruni
Special Guest Stars: Joss Ackland as Victor Hugo, the Narrator
Directed by Sally Evans and Jeremy Mortimer
A BBC 4 Radio Production
M. Gillenormand: yes
Both Mlle. Baptistine and Mme. Magloire: only Mme. Magloire
Thénardiers, after the inn: yes
Sister Simplice: yes
Gavroche's brothers: no
Mme. Victurnien: yes
Petit Gervais: yes
M. Mabeuf: yes
Hugo's original preface used NO
Valjean is in prison at the beginning YES
Bishop Myriel remains asleep during the robbery (unknown; transitional to next day)
Fantine and Félix Tholomyès NO
Fantine sells her teeth YES
Fantine becomes a prostitute YES
Valjean buries his money YES
Fight at Fantine's Deathbed NO
The ship Orion
Valjean meets Cosette at the well YES
The first incident at Gorbeau House
Javert chases Valjean and Cosette
* Through Paris
* On foot
* Car(riage) chase
The second incident at Gorbeau House YES
Valjean and Cosette see the chain gang YES
Lamarque's funeral is shown or mentioned YES
Chase through sewers
Story continues after Javert's suicide YES
Marius, after learning Valjean's history, treats him badly
Valjean branded no
Correct number YES
Works in the galleys YES
The factory makes glass beads (unknown)
The doll, Catherine YES
The garden at Rue Plumet YES
Correct address YES
The Luxembourg Garden YES
The town's name is Montreuil-sur-mer YES
The man Valjean saves in Arras is named Champmathieu YES
Valjean's name becomes Fauchelevant YES
Eponine/Gavroche as Thénardier's child YES, both
P R O D U C T I O N N O T E S
Leave it to the British to make a definitive Radio version of Les Misérables. What Orson Welles tried to do in the short broadcast space he had,
what CBS totally botched, what Focus on the Family wishes they'd done, BBC4 has succeeded, in spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds, with the jokers thrown in for good measure.
I cannot tell you what a joy it was to listen to this. Six hours of Les Misérables done mostly right. Don't get me wrong, it was a hard six
hours, but that's because I was doing a review; I do not recommend it to be done in a marathon. It should be, like the book, savored in little snippets. These are 25 episodes of roughly
fifteen minutes each, more than enough for a pleasant bite or two before bed for the better part of a month, just like an actual radio play. When I have allowed this version to diminish in
my mind for a few months, I am going to do it again in just such a manner.
I think the reason this version works so damn well is because of the narration. Radio being an aural medium, what is not suggested with dialog or sound effects must
be described, and who better to describe it than the author? And since Hugo's voice in the book is omniscient anyway, listening to him speak and describe between bits of conversation
has the same effect of his constant description throughout the action of the written work. And they got the best possible voice for Hugo, too: you may not know Joss Ackland by any signature
role but he is one of those character actors that seems to be in everything, mostly in villainous roles... which gives Hugo's voice a darker cant than a lighter actor might have done... which
is just what a book about miserable people really need. Especially in light of the writing.
Not only do the writers have a great respect for the work they're adapting, they know the book. And because they know it, they can have fun with it without being
irreverent. There are moments of pure bust-a-gut laughter in here, comedy in the midst of tragedy that does not mock the source material. Thénardier is in turns hilarious and
frightening, as he should be. Some of the bit parts are perhaps drawn with too broad a brush; for some reason, a woman's voice with an Irish "Saints Preserve Us!" accent (actually, at one
point Madame Magloire says just that, when Valjean is returned to the Bishop by the police after stealing the candlesticks) seems to be British radio shorthand for a no nonsense matron,
which is why listening to that voice come from Sister Simplice is both ridiculous and perfect
Absolute purists--for which read: Les Mis Nazis--will have fits over some of the condensed and combined characters that have been used to cut down the
size of the cast, most notably the fact that besides Grantaire and Enjolras who seem to be themselves (more on that in a bit), there is one friend for Marius, and while his name is
Combeferre, he is in turns Courfeyrac, Joly, Prouvaire, and Bossuet in personality. What emerges from this blending is kind of an Oscar Wildean wit in the middle of a battle zone,
which had some wonderful lines and moments but still tends to be jarring to the seriousness of the barricade episodes.
But enough about the overall impression. Let's get to the good stuff!
As for the other details of the plot:
- Almost every twist of the plot is intact in the transition from book to play; names and places, even the small details. The addresses of houses are the familiar ones, the
barest mentions of incidental characters and events are retained. A few have been eliminated for casting reasons, such as Mlle Baptistine and most of the students, and most
of Patron-Minette (only Babet really gets a mention) but little has been completely excised. Valjean's trip to Arras begins with a visit to Scaufflaire, and a stop in between where
he acquires another horse; Valjean gets buried alive and rescued by old Fauchelevant, Valjean has a national guard uniform to donate to the other four uniforms, you name it,
it's probably there. I am hard pressed to find something that isn't in there...
C A S T N O T E S
- I guess the big news here is Roger Allam playing Jean Valjean. Fans of the musical know that Allam was the original West End cast Javert, and sings the role on the first English language
cast album. Here again is the weirdness of people in one role in the work later on taking on another role in the work, but usually it's the younger actors playing students who later become
policeman or convicts, and who may eventually become bishops or Baroque grandfathers. I know, the crossover from Valjean to Javert and back is not unheard of (Kaga Takeshi springs to
mind) but this one just boggled the mind until I heard it... and then I agreed with the casting entirely.
- The guy playing Javert, David Schofield, I don't know him; according to IMDB he has an extensive filmography--like most of the cast here--that consists of a lot of British television. His
voice is interesting. Getting back to the idea of different British accents signifying a kind of shorthand as to character (shakespearean actor=good or high class, cockney=bad or working
class, Irish or Scottish=comedic relief), Javert's voice is an enigma. He speaks properly, for the most part, but there is a self-educated ring to it, as if he had started out working class and
has made a concerted effort to rise above it--not a "toff" by any means, but it's got that Eliza Doolittle effect where you know it's not his natural way of speaking, but you can't quite pin
where it comes from. Which, given Javert's background and character, is also perfectly cast. Having no way of comparing that voice to any other role I don't know if that's acting or his
normal voice, but it works either way for me. (Really funny crossover trivia: he had a bit part in the 1999 TV movie Cleopatra, which also featured Philip Quast)
- And of course there's Joss Ackland. Looking over the fifty or so years of his movie and TV credits, I saw two roles that for me just plain rock: the villain De Nomolos from Bill And
Ted's Bogus Journey, and the voice of the Black Rabbit in Watership Down. Now there's some credentials. I half expected him to interject during Valjean's death scene, "I want
you to come join my Owsla..."
T H E B E S T T H I N G S A B O U T T H I S V E R S I O N
- The narration is spot on Victor Hugo, even when it is not a direct quote from the text: at times he moralizes against the moralizers, pleads the case of the poor and ignorant,
exposes the hypocrisy of the ruling class. You actually get the feeling that Hugo's voice and meaning is crossing the barrier between text and audio.
- The writing, when it's funny, is downright hilarious. And when it's touching, it's heartbreaking. Yes, there are more than a few MST-able moments (see the Stickies) but
otherwise, it's closer to true than any other audio version, and most of the movies too.
- In what is surely a first for me, not only did I enjoy Gavroche, I felt sorry for him when
he died. But don't tell anyone about that; I have a reputation to maintain...
- The details! Valjean's coin with the saw blade inside, found at Gorbeau House! Marius writing his address on the wall in the garden! Éponine's little note proving she can
write used by Marius to scare Thénardier! The gravedigger who does not drink! The carriage ride during Mardi Gras! It's all there... and how they fit it all in six hours I'll never
- And the music is haunting. It consists entirely of a cello, a hurdy-gurdy, and an etherial, Annie Lennox/Enya kind of voice... very little of it is played at a time, just enough for
atmosphere or to signal the beginning or ending of an episode, but it's very appropriate in every instance it appears, it's never distracting and never pulls you out of the mood.
T H E W O R S T T H I N G S A B O U T T H I S V E R S I O N
- The few details that are changed are for the most part acceptable changes, but a few are puzzlingly unnecessary. For example, in this version, it is Madame Thénardier
who suggests to Fantine that Cosette remain at the inn; it is not Fantine's idea. Why? To make the Thénardiers look greedier? Yeah, right, like that's possible... it just seems
gratuitous. Likewise during the courtroom scene, when Valjean gets the convicts to identify him, there's some weirdness about how he knew that one of the convicts had a daughter who
married an Italian count and took money in exchange for giving up any familial connection with her... sounded like someone got this story confused with Père Goriot at
- Was it really necessary to leave the microphone on while Fantine gets her teeth pulled out? Owie owie owie owie...
- Even worse, was it really really necessary to listen to the Thénardiers at the inn, whispering in bed about how much money they're going to get out of Valjean for
Cosette, and then Thénardier does this kind of tiger growl and his wife giggles.... bleccch!
- Sister Simplice is a bit of a comedic relief character, kind of a blend of Simplice and Perpétue in the sense that she's got Simplice's truth issues and Perpetue's down to earth
farm woman attitude. Her line about gardening is hilarious, but so out of character from the original Simplice... and the same can be said of Toussaint. Sans stutter, and with a
Scottish accent, she is not a servant or a maid to Cosette, she's SuperNanny, giving Cosette advice on love and growing up, occasionally butting heads with Valjean over how to raise
Cosette, dishing up bits of Life's Little Instruction Book... again, not her original character. Somewhat necessary for expository purposes, but it's not Toussaint from the book.
- I'm not sure if this is a writing issue or an acting situation, but Marius is a lot more upset about Gavroche's death than he is about Éponine's...
- There are a few weirdnesses involved because of English actors pronouncing French words; the whole "Montreuil-sur-Mer" thing rears its ugly head again. But even
funnier in early episodes is that sometimes, even the narrator refers to the main character as John ValJohn. Soften the consonants a bit please, Mr. Ackland... yikes...
- Just a quibble, really, but... they keep referring to hanging, as in "if I'm caught, I'll hang" and so on. England's experience with capital punishment is mostly concerned with hanging, I
understand, but in France, it was the guillotine. I'm sure the original British audience would not have been confused if the guillotine had been properly referenced...
T H E S I L V E R C A N D L E S T I C K A W A R D S ( " STICKIES® " )
And the awards go to....
(okay, I know I've said I wasn't going to give out best and worst writing awards in these things, but this is a moral imperative:)
- Best Writing Not From The Original: click if you must and read if you dare... Actual Script Moments
- Worst Writing Not From The Original: hey, they can't all be gems... nothing horrible, but let's just say there are some really funny moments
that were not intended to be so when they were performed... Actual Script Moments II
- Best Weirdly Inappropriate Names For Actors In Their Assigned Roles: I know, but I can't help it... Henry Goodman as
Thénardier? Annette Badland as Toussaint? And Elizabeth Bennett as Mme. Victurnien? Oh come on, I know you know that name. Elizabeth Bennett.
The heroine and main character from Pride and Prejudice. I am not making this up, I swear!
- Most Insidious Little Political Comment: M. Gillenormand is constantly berating Basque to adjust the ribbon in his hair, making careful point to
insure that the ribbon is perfectly straight, and does not "lean to the left" (heh)
- Echoes Of "Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory" Award: When Valjean gives Cosette the doll for Christmas, while Valjean and
Thénardier are earnestly dickering over the price for Cosette, you can hear Éponine in the background throwing a temper tantrum worthy of Veruca Salt... it's so funny it's hard
to concentrate on what Valjean and Thénardier are saying, especially when Éponine goes "I hate you, I hate Christmas, I hate everything!"
- Happiest In-Joke With Regards To A Certain Sequel: Valjean is at one point referred to as "the Devil" and Javert as "a Ghost". And after
Javert's suicide, Valjean goes to the Pont-au-Change bridge and says, "Am I free of you at last, or will I ever be free of you?" Insert reviewer's giggle here.
W H E R E T O F I N D T H I S V E R S I O N
Yes, it's available! Four cassette tapes with 6 episodes each (three to a side) except for the last one, which holds 7 episodes. The tapes are modified so that the story runs
seamlessly together; you don't have to sit through credits every fifteen minutes. I would recommend Amazon's UK mirror site; I tried BBC's web store but couldn't find it. But get this
one. Do it. Trust me.