BBC’s Les Misérables doubled Belgium for 19th century France
Despite its status as a French classic, the BBC’s adaptation of Les Misérables primarily filmed in Belgium, with only a small portion of production taking place in its neighbor to the south.
Directed by Tom Shankland, the six part series stars Olivia Coleman (The Favourite, The Crown), David Oyelowo (Selma, Interstellar) and Dominic West (The Hour, Pride). Lookout Point co-produced the adaptation with BBC Studios and Czar Film & TV were the Belgian co-producers.
Based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Misérables spans seventeen years of French history from 1815, after the defeat at the battle of Waterloo, until the Paris Uprising of 1832. Filming over several months in 2018, a variety of locations across Belgium were utilised because of their authentic period appearances.
Speaking to the BBC, Director Tom Shankland explained how locations were integral to telling this particular story, saying that “Victor Hugo’s novel is fascinated by the highest and lowest of humanity, and that carries over into his settings. The lowest settings are the sewers or the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo”.
In comments to the i newspaper, Producer Chris Carey added that although “it’s a lot easier to shoot in a studio rather than to invade different parts of Belgium, but it was very important to our director that we were outside as much as possible”.
To recreate nineteenth century Paris, the production visited a number of historic towns and cities. The Belgian capital Brussels was involved, where production was concentrated around the Place du Beguinage and the nearby church. To the north, the small city of Ghent also masqueraded as Paris. Some CGI was used in order to remove any traces of Flemish architecture, but the mixture of classical and medieval architecture in Ghent fits many types of period pieces. Previously, the BBC’s The White Queen was drawn to the city for similar reasons.
Close to Brussels, Tervuren Park also hosted some filming. Covering over five hundred acres, the large park has outdoor landscapes including canals and lakes and wooded areas while the Royal Museum of Central Africa, which stands in the centre of Tervuren, has a French style garden with ponds and flowerbeds.
In Vilvoorde, a surburban district outside Brussels, filmng took place in a former jail. The extensive eighteenth century prison has four floors and remains largely untouched.
Regional locations in Wallonia, the southern French speaking portion of Belgium were also visited by production. Enghien Castle was transformed into a police station as well as a convent, and the former fortress towns of Namur and Limbourg also feature in the series.
As well as hiring local crew, equipment and using Belgian locations, the six-part series made use of the Belgian federal Tax Shelter which awards up to 42% of qualifying Belgian audiovisual spend. The incentive is available to national and co-productions that shoot at least ninety percent in the country.
Images: BBC / Lookout Point / Robert Viglasky / Laurence Cendrowicz
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