BBC Studios is in Cannes with Les Miserables, a six-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale of 19th Century France. A special screening will be attended by writer Andrew Davies, director Tom Shankland and leading cast members including Dominic West and David Oyelowo.

Oyelowo, best-known for his powerful performance as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, plays Javert — the single-minded policeman who is determined to put hero and protagonist Jean Valjean back behind bars. Explaining the attraction of the project, he told the MIPCOM News “it started with Andrew Davies’ scripts. Like most people, I knew Les Miserables exclusively from the musical and film, so his scripts blew my mind in terms of the complexity of the story and characters. Then, after I read the book, I was fascinated by how well he distilled the essence of it into six hours of television. He has a gift from above.”

As for the opportunity to depict the tortured Javert, he was intrigued by “how to play a character so driven and malevolent in his pursuit of one man. The opportunity presented by six hours of television was to really try and understand why his pursuit of Valjean was rational to him. If I had just focused on him as a villain it wouldn’t have been interesting, but the raw materials reveal a really complex human being. The audience may not subscribe to his course of actions, but I wanted to help them understand what compelled him.”

The production involved around six months on location in Belgium and northern France, longer than he had ever been away before. “I’m a family man based in LA, so that’s a long time,” he admits. “To be away that long, it really has to be a price worth paying. But this is a huge sprawling book and we needed to go to those places to be authentic. One of the great achievement of the show is its sense of scale.

While Davies’ script was a big attraction for Oyelewo, the involvement of Shankland as director was another high note. “He directed it all, which is no mean feat when you consider this was like a six-hour movie. The really impressive thing about Tom was the way he has a handle on everything, all the time. He might have been forgiven for losing track of a few aspects occasionally, but he never did. If you had  questions about the scripts or the book itself, he had answers. I’ve seen a rough rendition of the show now and couldn’t be more proud.”

Oyelowo has plenty of TV experience, having appeared in Spooks earlier in his career and starred in HBO’s critically-acclaimed Nightingale in 2014. But after Selma, did he not see himself primarily as a movie actor? “I’ve always been agnostic about TV, film or theatre – I just go with stories that interest me,” he said. “But there is a difference in TV these days. Because audiences can watch what they want how they want, a show’s quality has to rise above the plethora of rivals.

Close attention to the production credits reveals that Oyelowo and West are also executive producers on Les Miserables. Explaining the logic, Oyelowo said: “It gave me real voice at table. I came in early in the process and they saw my genuine passion for the project. So in addition to being an actor, it meant I could everything in my power to give the project the best chance of success.”

Les Miserables is a Lookout Point/BBC Studios production for BBC One and Masterpiece. It will be presented to international buyers at a special event on October 15. Paul Dempsey, president, global markets, BBC Studios, said: “With Dominic West and David Oyelowo leading an all-star cast and with Andrew Davies at the helm of another remarkable adaptation, Les Miserables will be a bold, refreshing and modern take on one of the most famous and epic stories of all time.”

This and more in the MIPCOM News Issue One, out October 15. This article was written by Andy Fry and edited for MIPBlog

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