The screenwriter Andrew Davies is known for adding much-needed doses of raunch to all your beloved period dramas.
It was Davies after all, blessed man, who told Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy to dive into that pond at Pemberley, white shirt and everything, and it is Davies who has put a little frisson of sex into his latest project: a six-part dramatic adaptation (meaning, no singing) of Les Misérables airing on BBC First this month.
In the first episode alone Dominic West, whose Jean Valjean is miserly and crooked until he meets Fantine (Lily Collins), exposes his bare bottom in front of Javert (David Oyelowo). And then later in the series, Marius (Josh O’Connor, soon to be seen as the Young Prince Charles in season three of The Crown), besotted at the sight of the ethereal Cosette (Ellie Bamber), falls to his knees and kisses her feet as a sign of his undying devotion.
This, it turns out, was the scene given during the Les Misérables audition process to 21-year-old Bamber, the Chanel muse and ingenue plucked from school to star in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals as the daughter of Isla Fisher and Jake Gyllenhaal. (“Australia’s most gorgeous, funny woman,” Bamber enthuses. “I love Isla so much.”)
A roster of Mariuses were given the stage directions to kiss Bamber’s feet in the audition room, but only O’Connor was game enough to follow through. “He fucking went for it,” Bamber says, a huge grin on her face. “It was really amazing, and I thought, “Okay, this seems legit, let’s keep going,” she recalls. It was a sign of connection and intimacy between the two young actors that would only grow as the production went on. Besides, Bamber adds, “It was only the bridge of my foot, so it was okay.”
The two have an instant, zingy chemistry that translates offscreen. At the press launch for the series in London, Bamber spies O’Connor in a dapper-looking suit over my shoulder and flips him the bird. “You’re suited!” she laughs incredulously, before rolling her eyes at me. “That’s our Josh.”
That there should be more than just a hint of sex in Les Misérables will come as no surprise to those who know the original novel well. Written by Victor Hugo, a man so beloved by the local Parisian prostitutes that when he died the brothels shut their doors for a day in mourning, the story is essentially one of the first fuckboy in literary history. Fantine is spectacularly led astray by Felix, a man who has no intention of doing anything right by her, and by the end of the first episode she is left to fend for herself and her infant daughter Cosette all on her own. (To Felix, Cosette’s ne’er-do-well father, we would like to say thank u, next.)
But the beating heart of Les Misérables’ romance are Marius and Cosette, whose wholesome, swoony love story runs as a counterpoint to the roster of men who took advantage of Fantine right up until her death.
There’s been a lot of sex onscreen this past year, especially in Bamber’s ex-boyfriend Richard Madden’s television show Bodyguard. (The pair split in January.) No doubt there’ll be more in Bamber’s next project, The Trial of Christine Keeler, a BBC dramatisation of the scandalous Profumo affair, as seen on season two of The Crown. (Bamber plays model Mandy-Rice Davies in the series, which also stars James Norton and Sophie Cookson.) In Les Misérables, however, the sex is every day implied but never declared.
“There’s something to be said for some sex [on television],” Bamber says, “but this isn’t graphic.” So there’s no ripping of corsets? “No!” she says, emphatically, laughing. “Cosette has been sheltered in a convent her whole life, she doesn’t know what love is. So when when she meets Marius she can’t identify these feelings… I think her love is so pure because she feels it so greatly.”
But it is also a love story about the relationship between a father and daughter as Cosette teaches Valjean how to open his heart up to the world again. “It’s so nice that there is such romance at the heart of it,” Bamber says. “I’ve always seen Cosette as a representation of hope and love.”
On the set of the miniseries in Belgium Bamber spent most of her time with West listening to trap music. “I love telling this story because it was such a shock for me as well,” she grins at me. “One morning I said ‘Dominic I hope you don’t mind if I play some trap music,’ and he said ‘No, I love trap music’ and next minute we’re both dancing around the truck. We had a real laugh.”
According to Bamber, it’s that ebullient energy that makes Les Misérables metaphorically sing. “If you think about all of the bad things that are happening in this world,” Bamber says, it’s no wonder that the time is ripe for an epic period drama. “[The BBC] are so good at it because they bring magical stories to life. It’s escapism.”
Les Misérables is on BBC First and is available to stream on-demand from Foxtel.