By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 14, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
Robert Viglasky/© Lookout Point/MASTERPIECE

It’s not unusual to be watching a miniseries, often one created under the auspices of the BBC, and realize that despite the fact that the story is not set in England, everyone onscreen has a British accent.

From Shakespeare adaptations to 2016’s War and Peace, there’s no shortage of projects that use British accents to lend a story something both prestigious and slightly foreign. The latest adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which premieres Sunday, April 14 on PBS, makes use of this trope — giving the French Valjean, Javert, Cosette, and Marius regionally specific British accents. It’s something carried over from the beloved musical adaptation of the tale, which was also perpetuated in the 2012 film version of the musical.

But it turns out there’s an entirely reasonable explanation for this (apart from diving into the weeds of colonialism, snobbery about the ways people speak, and many other thornier possibilities). Dominic West, who stars as hero Jean Valjean, says when he signed onto the project he was very eager to do a French accent — but it came off too comedic.

“The trouble is that there was a comedy in England called Hello, Hello years ago where everybody spoke like zis and Peter Sellers did it with his Inspector Clouseau character,” West points out. “Nobody really takes it seriously when English people use a French accent. It’s a sort of comedy accent.”

Beyond the potential unwanted comedic effect, West says there was a deeper reason for wanting the entire cast to use British accents for their French characters. Director Tom Shankland wanted to give the classic tale a universal appeal. “Tom said, ‘Okay, we’re all British, there’s no point in pretending to be French.’ It’s about the dispossessed, and they exist in all countries,” notes West. “He basically set it in England and all the accents correspond to our English versions of French accents.”

The accents weren’t necessarily their native speaking voices, but ones that were the British equivalent of the characters’ class and region. “Most of the Parisians in the show, including Javert, speak in Metropolitan London accents,” West explains. “That’s why I wanted Valjean to have a Yorkshire accent. He’s from the country; he’s not from the city.”

West points out that the casting choices reflected this more universal telling of the tale. Rather than the white-washed world we often see in period dramas, the ethnicity of the cast bears a closer resemblance to modern Britain. “It’s the sort of decision you have to make when you want to reinvent these old classics,” asserts West. “One of the ways you make them relevant and important to our times is by translating the sound people make and the looks that people have.”

Indeed, it was the universality of the story and Valjean’s role as hero that first attracted West to the role, so he was grateful to have a creative team eager to underscore that. “This is a classic story of universal significance and Hugo said, ‘As long as there’s poverty in the world, this story will have meaning,'” he says. “This story does have immense meaning and resonance to everybody still as we see from the musical. There’s something about the book that really captures people’s imagination and really hits them deep and it’s because it’s about the dispossessed, the poor, the wretched — which we can all relate to.”

Les Misérables premieres Sunday, April 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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