There have been countless film, stage and televison adaptations of Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel (indeed, a lavish BBC1 adaption has just finished its run on Sunday nights). This 1967 BBC Classic Serial might have been mounted on a fairly modest scale, but where it scores – as these serials so often did – is in the quality of the actors, their performances and the fidelity of the adaption to its source material.
Frank Finlay is mesmerising as Jean Valjean. A former convict, Valjean has forged a successful new existence as a pillar of society – a mayor and magistrate – but remains haunted by his past experiences.
It’s such a shame that the original film inserts are long gone, as the opening episode has some remarkable film work (courtesy of director Alan Bridges). The somewhat grubby telerecordings are obviously preferable to nothing (a fate which has sadly befallen so many 1960’s television programmes) but to have seen these impressionistic sequences in a pristine state would have been fascinating.
At first, Finlay is barely recognisable (the haunted Valjean when released from fifteen years hard labour is a bedraggled and violent soul) but by the second episode he’s undergone a remarkable transformation into a cultured man who dispenses charity and understanding to all.
Anthony Bate, as Inspector Javert, is a fine match for Finlay. Javert is the direct opposite of Valjean (Valjean dispenses compassion, Javert cold justice). This sort of role – icy, detached – was one that Bate played time and again, so as you might expect he’s incredibly good value. The clashes between the two are a key part of the story (initially uneasy allies, in the fourth episode Valjean admits his true identity in open court and flees, with Javert dogging his footsteps thereafter).
Excellent performances abound. Michele Dotrice, for example, as the increasingly wretched Fantine. A rapid downward spiral sees her forced to sell everything she has – hair, teeth – in order to provide for her daughter. Dotrice throws herself wholeheartedly into the role and makes an indelible impression across these early episodes.
Clifford Rose’s monologue in episode four – Buried Treasure – is another early highlight (he plays Champmathieu, a man accused of being the notorious Jean Valjean). It’s a role far removed from the later ones for which he’s best remembered for (Callan, Secret Army).
Coincidence tends to play a part in many novels from the nineteenth century and Les Mis is no exception. Having been unable to save Fantine, Valjean (now an outcast once more) just happens to run into Cosette (Lesley Roach), Fantine’s young daughter.
Left in the cruel care of an innkeeper called Thenardier and his wife (splendidly evil turns from Alan Rowe and Judy Parfitt), Cosette becomes the latest waif to be taken under Valjean’s wing. Finlay’s cool self-control as Valjean faces down the grasping Thenardier is expertly played. Yet another coincidence sees them run into each other years later, when it appears that Thenardier has gained the upper hand.
At the start of episode seven, Cosette has suddenly grown up into a beautiful young woman (like Fantine, played by Michele Dotrice). It seems odd that Valjean seems not to have aged compared to his adopted daughter, but this isn’t uncommon in serials of this type.
The last batch of episodes relocates the action to Paris and introduces some key new characters – like Marius (Vivian MacKerral) – as various plots and counter-plots come to fruition. Revolutionary Paris might only be glimpsed in snatches, but this isn’t a disappointment. On the contrary, the serial’s low budget ensures that character drama remains at the forefront right until the conclusion.
As previously discussed, the picture quality is somewhat variable. It looks pretty much like you’d expect an unrestored telerecording from the late 1960’s to look – there’s intermittent film damage, dirt and tramlining. But anybody familiar with archive television of this era should know what to expect and the occasional picture issues didn’t impair my enjoyment.
Running for ten 25 minute episodes (five each across two discs), this version of Les Misérables boasts a series of excellent performances and comes warmly recommended.
Les Misérables is available now from Simply Media. It has a RRP of £24.99 and can be ordered directly here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).