Everyone knows the story of Les Misérables, don’t they? But the BBC’s series, which concludes tonight, has reminded us that there is so much more to the story than is digested into the sub-three-hour film and stage adaptations which most people are familiar with.
The epic six-parter has given us more character depth, more backstories, bigger journeys and, most importantly, of course, more costumes for all of the characters involved, bringing back forgotten details from the original 1862 Victor Hugo novel. Oh, and they don’t really sing, of course.
London-based costume designer Marianne Agertoft was the one responsible for clothing Fantine, Jean Valjean and co. on their dramatic BBC journey and says that the starting place came from reading book.
“I knew that Tom [Shankland] the director wanted the book to be our key, and there are so many references in the text that allude to subtle appearances and full costumes,” she explains. “Then I like to create a visual mood for the period, so I gather an abundance of references of the time, and that makes me feel reassured that I understand the world at that time, and at least if we are going to break any rules [introducing something not of the era] then we know exactly what we’re breaking from and why.”
With Lily Collins (as Fantine), Ellie Bamber (Cosette), David Oyelowo (Javert) and Dominic West (Jean Valjean) all playing lead characters in the huge cast, Agertoft says that she refrained from picking favourites or prioritising one character and instead took a different approach.
“I come from a theatre background, so the set and what the crowd will wear is always my starting point,” she explains. “Once you’ve created that world I find it much easier to set up the principal characters within it. The story spans over two different eras [it begins in 1815 and finishes around the 1832 June Rebellion] so you’re covering life and what people wore post-war, then in a time that was more romantic, and you’re looking at this poverty gap between rich and poor which is increasing. There is a lot to take into account and the challenge was to keep a strength of costume style in all these changing circumstances for the characters.”
The costumes for Madame Thenardier, played by Olivia Colman, turned out to be one of the easiest for Agertoft as she says that she had no desire for the portrayal to be compared to Helena Bonham Carter’s turn in the 2012 film adaptation.
“If there was anything that I wanted to avoid from the film it was coming anywhere near that [portrayal] because this version is so rooted in reality, it really wouldn’t work for us. I loved Helena’s take on it, with Sacha Baron Cohen as this theatrical double act wearing those visual distinct costumes which completely exaggerated the way that they moved and behaved. So for Olivia, I was very relaxed and I didn’t want to make something elaborate for her. I wanted to give her something as simple as possible, a seemingly boring dress, but one that gave her the posture to move as she wanted to as that character. She was the easiest one to dress.”
Other key outfits were the dresses she created for Fantine (Lily Collins) and Cosette (Ellie Bamber). “For Lily the key piece became her travelling coat, which was kind of this shawl that she treated like a thin shield during her downfall. An enormous amount of work went into getting that colour right for her and getting the rawness of that look - I always envisioned her with nothing around her neck and chest.”
“For Ellie my favourite was what we called the rebel dress, she had so many fittings and I fell in love with that romantic, slightly punky attitude to it. And then both of them wear this amazing smock nightdress - when Fantine is in the convent dying, she and Cosette are both wearing the same dress which I picked up from a French costume shop in London. Sometimes you have to have things custom made to get the look you want, but sometimes you find these things and you could do no better.”
Authenticity is important to Agertoft and the designer took care to source pieces from all over Europe to develop a continental feel that was right for the period drama. With it being on BBC One, she says, the pressure is on to make no mistakes.
“As a BBC production there are always people who are very keen to keep things exactly of the period,” she says, noting that some of the dye colours might not have been as vivid at the time, or that synthetic textiles may substitute natural ones occasionally, to no detriment. “It’s important, too, to make sure that it doesn’t look stuffy, and that it’s visually interesting for a prime time audience. You want it to not upset people, or distract from the story, but the costumes also need to be striking and keep their attention. It’s all about getting that balance right.”
Les Misérables is available to pre-order on DVD from Amazon now.