This 1978 Made-for-TV adaption of Victor Hugo’s famous novel omits a considerable amount of detail (if not entire chapters altogether), instead concentrating on the cat-and-mouse game between the despicable Inspector Javert and escaped former convict Jean Valjean who has taken on a new identity as a town mayor. Supported by a star-studded cast including John Gielgud, Angela Pleasence, Flora Robson, Cyril Cusack and Claude Dauphin among others, the real stars here are Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins – each one delivering a career-defining performance.

Beginning in 1796 we make the acquaintance of Jean Valjean (Richard Jordan), a humble labourer who, in an act of desperation and to provide food for his sister’s starving children, breaks the shop window of a bakery during the night and steals a big loaf of bread. Unfortunately the shattering of glass wakes the baker who begins to yell “Thief” and, alarmed by the ruckus, several guards and civilians still out and about chase Valjean along the streets. During a daring jump across a wall he misses and plummets down into a ditch before being arrested and cruelly condemned to five years of hard labour (just for stealing a loaf of bread!) in the notorious Toulon prison. As if this weren’t bad enough (the prisoners are branded), sadistic prison warden Javert (Anthony Perkins) takes great delight in mistreating the inmates, including Valjean who catches his attention when he displays almost superhuman strength after he saves a fellow inmate from being crushed under a boulder. As the misery in Toulon prison continues Valjean – can you blame him – attempts his first prison break but the escape fails. This gives Javert even more ammo and he adds another five years to Valjean’s sentence plus 3 months in solitary confinement for having displayed the audacity to talk down to him. And so it goes on. Finally, after years of incarceration in the hellhole, Valjean gets another chance to escape and this time he succeeds despite Javert’s bloodhounds and countless prison guards hot on his heels.

A free man at last (looking like Roy Wood of 70s rock band ‘Wizzard’) but a fugitive nonetheless he wanders from place to place, cold and starving, until kind Bishop Myriel (Claude Dauphin) welcomes him into his home (much to the chagrin of his nervous housekeeper) and not only feeds him but offers him a bed for the night. Deliberately setting a ‘trap’ he makes sure that Valjean gets to see a hiding place in the dining room in which expensive silverware is kept… sure enough, during the night the fugitive sneaks out of bed, steals the silverware and off he goes, with the Bishop fully aware of the theft but making no attempt to interfere. A few days later some guards knock on his door and Valjean is with them. The guards claim they’ve found stolen goods when they arrested the suspicious looking vagabond but to everyone’s surprise the Bishop claims that he gave Valjean the silverware as a present. Humbled and deeply ashamed, the fugitive falls on his knees and thanks the Bishop, who throws in two additional silver candleholders for free, for having saved him from being sent back to prison… to which Myriel replies to Valjean that “he has now purchased his soul for God and that his life will now be different.” And different it will be indeed…

Several years pass and in the meantime Valjean has climbed up the social ladder – first a successful factory owner under the name Monsieur Madeleine he soon advances to the additional post of Mayor. Life could have remained cosy and pleasant for Valjean were it not for the fact that Javert’s status has also risen – not only has he advanced to the post of Police Inspector but he is posted to the very town in which the former convict now lives and works… mon dieu! It doesn’t take long for Javert to grow suspicious when he’s certain to have recognised Valjean in Mayor Madeleine – his suspicions grow stronger still after he notes that Valjean’s factory (which produces black beads) applies the same manufacturing methods which he was taught while in Toulon prison. The icing on the cake comes when one day, Javert witnesses how the Mayor saves a man called Fauchelevent (Cyril Cusack) from being crushed by a cart by heaving the wheel upward with almost superhuman strength… Aware that Javert is certain of his real identity Valjean nonetheless makes it difficult for the Inspector to prove anything – the rivalry between the two men deepens when the Mayor intervenes and saves Fantine (Angela Pleasence sporting a highly convincing make-up job complete with rotten teeth), a deeply impoverished beggar and possible prostitute, from being sentenced by Javert, a man without a shred of humanity in his bones, for vagabondry and stealing. The kindly Valjean (remember, he has now purchased his soul for God…) puts up the severely malnourished Fantine in his home and he promises to bring back her little daughter Cosette who is in the care of Madame and Monsieur Thénardier (Caroline Blakiston and Ian Holm respectively) – a seriously dodgy couple earning their living by ripping other people off left, right and centre. Despite Valean’s promise Fantine is not to see her daughter again thanks to Javert who appears in the Mayor’s home with an arrest warrant (albeit directed at Valjean)… Shocked and frightened, she collapses and dies. Adamant to honour his promise, Valjean sets off to buy Cosette (Joanna Price) from the dastardly couple (shame that Ian Holm and Caroline Blakiston’s scene is a mere five minutes). Back in Paris, Valjean has to acknowledge that Javert has collected enough evidence to prove that Madeleine is a fake identity and flees with Cosette in a thrilling chase across cobbled streets and house walls, all the while chased by Javert and his guards. After climbing over another wall Valjean and Cosette end up in the garden of a convent – the gardener turns out to be Fauchelevent, the man whose life Valjeant when he got trapped underneath a cart some time earlier. Knowing that he owes Valjean a favour for having saved his life it’s now Fauchelevent’s turn to save the former convicts life… while Cosette is left in the care of the convent with the agreement of the Prioress (Flora Robson).

Ten years have passed and Cosette (Caroline Langrishe) is now a grown-up young lady – well educated by the nuns and ready for the outside world. Believing that Valjean is her real father she is delighted when he decides it’s time for her to leave her sheltered world within convent walls and takes her home to his new Parisian abode. During a stroll in a park they witness a group of young radicals rallying against monarchy and government, one of the radicals, Marius (Christopher Guard) glimpses at Cosette and voila, it’s love at first sight. As it so happens, someone else witnesses the anti-establishment protest in the park – yes, it’s Javert stirring s**t again. Certain that he spotted Valjean in the crowd he’s adamant to follow him but his plan is foiled by little street urchin Gavroche (a 12-year old Dexter Fletcher). Over the ensuing weeks Cosette and Marius get closer and he has a fallout with his grandfather Gillenormand (John Gielgud), a conservative man who detests his grandson’s radical activities and refuses to lend him money so he may marry Cosette. As the famous fight at the barricades looms, leading to a showdown between the radicals and the soldiers, fate takes its final course for Javert and Valjeant…
Anyone who ever read Hugo’s novel will be aware just how complex it is with all its manifold characters and subplots – impossible to do it justice in a film that’s about two hours long. The consequent decision to strip it down to its bare essentials hasn’t done this 1978 version any harm (unless you are a Victor Hugo purist) and there’s much to be admired about the performances and many settings.

Special Features of this HD-Blu-ray edition (sound is mono) include new interviews, theatrical trailer, textless material, image gallery and limited edition booklet by Barry Forshaw. The 2-disc set also includes the slightly extended full-screen version (143min) as originally shown on ITV with an additional 11 minutes sequence taking place in a graveyard.