Tag Archives: Bethan Jones

No singing allowed

Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables might be best known for its musical adaptations, but a new small-screen adaptation produced for the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS feels more like a western, as exec producer Bethan Jones and director Tom Shankland explain.

Tom Shankland

When Victor Hugo sat down to write his epic 19th century novel Les Misérables, including in it a searing indictment of the divide between rich and poor and the travails of revolutionary political movements, he was probably considering a more distinguished legacy than an often-derided musical in London’s West End.

For when one thinks about Les Misérables, it is the bathetic tones of I Dreamed a Dream and carefully choreographed dance-acting that spring to mind. And although Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed… in the 2012 Hollywood film did give a sense of the pain and despair her character Fantine was supposed to be feeling, the fact remains that this ambitious novel is often reduced to a collection of show tunes and the diminutive appellation ‘Les Mis.’

This is one of the reasons adaptation supremo Andrew Davies (Bleak House, Pride & Prejudice, Middlemarch) has taken on the project for UK pubcaster the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS in the US, alongside producers Lookout Point and BBC Studios, which is also distributing. When discussing the adaptation a few years back at the Hay Festival, Davies called the musical a “shoddy farrago” of Hugo’s original work, adding that he hoped his take would champion the book for its depth.

“Andrew loves being contentious, that’s his thing,” says Bethan Jones, exec producer on the series for BBC Studios. “For me, you take a big book like this and you adapt it to the form you are servicing. Inevitably, the musical has to have its baddies, its goodies, its romantic interests – it has to follow that journey. It has a certain amount of hours to fill and you have to tell a musical story. A film adaptation will be a very different thing again. What we’ve got in six hours is the opportunity to dig down a little bit more into those characters than potentially shorter adaptations have time to do; to explore the relationships and themes between the characters and their particular journeys.”

David Oyelowo as Javert in Les Misérables, which will air on the BBC this Christmas

Part of this sharper focus on the source material is a strict ‘no singing’ policy, with Davies pointedly declaring at Hay that his cast would not “yell great things like they do in the musical.” Jones diplomatically says the musical and the BBC series – which lands on screens in early 2019 – are “two very different, but equally valid” ways of representing the book.

Pared down, Les Misérables tells the story of prisoner Jean Valjean and his continuous battle with police inspector Javert following his release from prison for stealing bread. After further run-ins with the law, Valjean attempts to change his ways and live life as a decent man. Interspersed with his long road to redemption are stories of family, love, rebellion and commentary on the social and political class system of post-revolutionary France. Its intricate plot has spawned – beyond the aforementioned takes – more than 60 adaptations across film and television, which raises another question about the BBC’s forthcoming production – do we need another?

Bethan Jones

Jones reiterates Davies’ desire to go back to Hugo’s original text and “draw out more of the real stories, themes and characters” and the book’s timelessness as justification. “We also felt it was timely in as much as while there is still poverty, hardship and degradation in the world, books like this will still be relevant. It feels timely to be looking at a classic text that deals with a complicated period and the division of rich and poor but through the eyes of brilliant characters.”

Director Tom Shankland (The City & The City, The Missing, Ripper Street) admits he hadn’t seen a single adaptation of the book before he took the helm, and thus hopes his is a fresh perspective. “For me, it felt like an epic western,” he says. “I’ve always loved westerns. There are all these fantastic characters – the bad sheriff, the wanted man, the hunted fugitive. It was everything I loved about that genre – the adventure and emotion of that.”
Simply being thrilled by the plot isn’t enough to hook a director completely, Shankland points out, but he was snagged “emotionally and thematically” by Valjean’s quest for redemption and a “simple desire to be good in a bad world.”

The BBC has assembled a premium cast for the series, with The Affair star Dominic West taking on Valjean, Selma’s David Oyelowo playing Javert, Lily Collins as destitute young mother Fantine and Adeel Akhtar and Olivia Colman as petty criminals the Thénardiers.
“David absolutely felt there was something around Javert’s role as a bit of a thwarted outsider with frustrations and drive to move up in the world, as well as being this person with a real ideological commitment to the belief that people are either born wicked or good,” Shankland says. “He kept on looking and finding, in extraordinary ways, the humanity – however twisted and bitter – in Javert. By the end, I’m almost in tears for him. In my wildest dreams, I wasn’t sure we’d get to that place with a character like that. David dug so deep.

Dominic West (The Affair) as Jean Valjean

“When I watch what Dominic does to take Valjean to this unbelievably brutalised place, which is almost a wordless, inhuman place, to where he ends, he makes me believe every part of that journey.”

Davies has a knack of turning a classic literary work into a TV drama that resonates cinematically and does not seem anachronistic. In 2016, he received universal acclaim for his BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel War & Peace, in which he successfully brought chaotic battle scenes, aristocratic opulence and sweeping landscapes of 19th century Russia to the small screen. Furthermore, within that epic scope, Jones says Davies has a rare ability to portray relatable characters that “speak to” a contemporary audience.

“Andrew’s scripts made these characters feel modern. That was nothing to do with having them speak in a very modern way or changing their behaviour, he just found the humanity and earthiness of it,” Shankland says, recalling a scene in which Fantine and her companions urinate in a Paris park. “I thought, ‘Oh god, they’re going to pee in Les Misérables, that’s exciting.’ It was these little things that Andrew did to make these people feel real and have an immediate presence that made me think that it wouldn’t be like doing a conventional, polite period piece. We’d be doing something that had a real connection with today.”

Broadchurch star Olivia Colman also features in the period drama

Filming has taken the production to far-flung areas of the French-speaking parts of Europe, from southern Belgium to Sedan in the Ardennes region of north-eastern France. In Sedan, Shankland says, they found back streets acutely reminiscent of the period Hugo was writing about. Jones and Shankland both note that the filming of key scenes, such as the political uprising, where students revolt and erect barricades in the narrow streets of Paris, were inspired by contemporary riots such as those that took place in London in 2011 and in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 1960s.

“I wanted the images to resonate with the audience, so they’d be thinking, ‘Oh hang about, that doesn’t feel like [post-revolutionary France] even if they might have guns that are somewhat 19th century,’” Shankland says. “Actually, what happened in a street battle – the energy, fear and chaos of that – is very modern. I tried to let modern events into the imagery. In some ways, we never thought of it as a period piece.”

“It does speak to that modern world. It’s not the French revolution; it’s a small, failed skirmish. That’s the tragedy of it. It’s a group of people desperately trying to assert themselves in a situation where the state is so much bigger than them. That’s still very relevant,” Jones adds.

Considering Les Misérables’ hard-hitting topics, one might expect the series to comprise six hours of unremitting tension and misery. But Shankland is quick to reassure this isn’t the case. “For all that the story is full of these epic, intense themes, there’s so much humour in it, and not in a way that I felt was ever crowbarred in. However dark times are, there’s always room for lightness and romance. It’s just a beautifully textured piece.”
And all without a songbook in sight.

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Making Peace

Writer Andrew Davies has slimmed down Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace into a new six-part drama for the BBC. DQ hears from the creative team behind this lavish production.

For anyone who’s always wanted to read War and Peace but never found the time, Andrew Davies might just have the answer.

The acclaimed writer has previously adapted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, among others.

Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it
Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it

But now he has turned his attention to Tolstoy’s weighty tome, condensing it into a lavish six-part drama for BBC1 that will premier on January 3.

“I’d never read War and Peace; I’d been saving it up for my old age,” he jokes. “So I was pleased when Faith (Penhale, then head of BBC Wales Drama but set to become joint CEO of Lookout Point in February) invited me to read it with a view to adapting it. I took it on holiday and read it on a beach in Antigua and came back very enthusiastic about the book and very positive. It’s a little bit difficult to get into at the beginning but I’ve sorted it out.

“You have to remember the names of three families, that’s all it is. Nobody need bother reading it now because I’ve got all the best bits out of it! I didn’t find it too daunting. You have to be very arrogant to take on these jobs with these great works of literature and not be frightened of them. I give my own interpretation, take the bits that I love and express them as well as I can.”

Described as “a thrilling, funny and heartbreaking story of love, war and family life,” War and Peace features an ensemble cast headed by Lily James, James Norton and Paul Dano. It also stars Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Rebecca Front, Aneurin Barnard, Tuppence Middleton and Stephen Rea.

It’s produced by BBC Cymru Wales Drama, in partnership with The Weinstein Company, BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point, while Tom Harper is on directing duties.

“It’s the weight of it – everyone looks at it and goes ‘Oh, no!’ People don’t even want to start it,” producer Bethan Jones says of Tolstoy’s 1,300-page book. “How many of us have it on our shelves and have never read it? But we were looking for a piece that hadn’t been done for a long time, something we thought was due, that we needed to make, something we felt had a contemporary feel.

“It’s all about young people – their lives, their loves and the mistakes they make; the things they go through and the process of growing up, emotionally as well as physically.”

Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson
Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson

Rea, who plays Prince Vassily Kuragi, adds: “Sometimes the translations of War and Peace are very poor or heavy-handed, but the first thing I saw with Andrew’s script was how easy it would be to play. The language was light and easy. It’s an incredible piece of work.”

Davies focused the story around three characters in particular. Pierre, Natascha and Andrei are at the heart of the story, with their families and their relationships built into the wider narrative.

The writer’s preference for focusing on youth was shared by Harper. Jones says: “Tom’s brilliant. He’s very young and he brings youth to the piece so it feels very contemporary – not through any wobbly camera style but through the real, young heart he’s brought to the show. Tom also works so well with the actors and draws out interesting, fresh performances.”

Filming for the production took place across six months in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania as the production team quickly decided that 19th century Russia couldn’t be replicated on the backlots at studios such as Pinewood.

“It felt important for the creative direction of the show that it should feel very authentic,” says Penhale. “If we were building, we would have had to build five Russian palaces, which, given the budget, wouldn’t have been feasible. But it also mattered to us that we shot in St Petersburg, that we went to some of the locations where some of these events would have taken place. It adds to the sense of truth and naturalism to the production. I hope viewers get a sense of Russia as a character in the piece.”

Faith Penhale
Faith Penhale is set to join War and Peace coproducer Lookout Point early next year as joint CEO

The seven-year timespan during which the story takes place also meant the crew was always on the move to film scenes at each location in both summer and winter.

“We started in January in winter in St Petersburg and moved to Lithuania, and we did some in Latvia as well,” explains Jones. “As the seasons wore on, in the beginning of the summer we went back to St Petersburg, so it was a very well-thought-out shoot. The crew were brilliant.”

Overseeing such a huge production did have its challenges, of course, and none so big as the language barrier. “We’d be doing a big scene with lots of extras, either military or a huge dance scene, and we’d have English, Lithuanian, Russian and Latvian speakers,” Jones recalls. “If we had any huge challenge, we couldn’t move as swiftly because we were having to tell everybody in their own language what to do. It was fascinating, though, I really enjoyed it. A couple of us are also Welsh speakers, so we threw that into the mix and really freaked them out!”

Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein might be best known for award-winning films such as The Artist and The King’s Speech, but within 24 hours of BBC1 announcing its plans to adapt War and Peace, he was on the phone to Penhale to help bring his “passion project” to life.

“Harvey tracked me down to my office in Cardiff and was ringing repeatedly on the hour,” Penhale says. “We had a great phone call where he said, ‘If you’re doing War and Peace, I want to do it. This is my favourite book of all time,’ and it went from there. It’s really born out of his passion for it.”

Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast
Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast

Negeen Yazdi, president of international production at The Weinstein Company, says of the coproduction process: “The project matches the ambition, scale and material we want to be working on. With the BBC, we discovered very quickly our tastes were aligned, our ambitions for the project were aligned and that we’re not that different in the way we work. We’re all committed to the show and, above all, the show comes first. Like any working family relationship, there were disagreements and discussions but all in a very healthy way.”

Once The Weinstein Co was onboard, War and Peace was subsequently picked up in the US by A+E Networks-owned Lifetime, A&E and History, which will all simulcast the series from January 18 next year.

“The BBC and Weinstein marriage has been a surprisingly effective and powerful thing, in terms of both attracting talent and cast and making a statement to the industry that this is a big deal and you’d better pay attention,” says Simon Vaughan, CEO of Lookout Point. “That’s what it takes to get heard in a marketplace where thousands of new hours of TV are being produced each year.”

Vaughan adds that while coproductions of this magnitude can be tricky to navigate, all parties united behind Penhale’s leadership to bring the series to air.

“It’s about leadership – who’s the boss?” he says. “Faith was the boss and we all work for Faith. That is how it was from the beginning. As difficult as some moments were, when a call needed to be made, it got made. Somebody has to drive the train and if you don’t have that, run a mile. I’ve been around the block and done difficult coproductions and if there isn’t one clear leader, forget it. Don’t make it.”

As with any adaptation, plot points and character details have been chopped and changed, but Jones says Davies’ War and Peace is “very true” to Tolstoy’s original text.

“Inevitably there are some changes and characters that aren’t there – otherwise we’d be doing a 95-part series,” she says.

On the back of Doctor Who and Sherlock, BBC Wales has built up an impressive drama slate, and War and Peace is set to be the most ambitious yet.

“It is a great place to work,” Jones adds. “It started some time ago with the regeneration of Doctor Who. We’re quite bold. It’s very small but tight and hardworking team. We like to push ourselves.”

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