If you’d told me a few weeks ago that the most moving part of the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Les Misérables would be the relationship between Marius (Josh O’Connor) and his grandfather, a character so unimportant he doesn’t even exist in the Les Mis musical, I wouldn’t have believed you.
If you’d let slip that Marius’ grandfather was played by the 76-year-old David Bradley, however, I might have given you the benefit of the doubt. For years veteran character actor Bradley has brought warmth, nuance and a sense of fun to his roles, and among starrier turns in the latest Andrew Davies bodice-ripper he’s done some great work (full disclosure – we’ve also met for an interview in the past, and he was very nice).
When we first meet Gillenormand, Bradley’s French nobleman and grandfather to Marius, he’s an out-and-out villain. Powdered, bewigged and caked in makeup, he’s the antithesis of Marius’ clean-cut and heroic father, whom Gillenormand banishes from his household while cruelly promising to ruin the elder Pontmercy in the eyes of his son.
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As the episodes go on we see Gillenormand continue to rubbish Marius’ father to the young boy, much to the chagrin of his live-in housekeeper and even a few of Gillenormand’s royalist friends, who cast an eye askance over his actions. Surely, we think, this is a man about to receive his comeuppance.
And that comeuppance does arrive speedily, as you might expect. What you might not expect is how much pathos Bradley brings to Gillenormand’s reaction when Marius spurns him. Eyes wavering and swimming with emotion as he blusters and berates his errant grandson, Gillenormand’s pride (and prejudice) barely hold firm against the torrent of love and affection he has no idea how to express.
Somehow, Bradley found incredible pathos and humanity behind this monster – and in the series’ final episode, as a wounded Marius calls Gillenormand “Father”, I found myself more moved than I was when watching any of the more operatic central relationships established over the last six episodes.
As I say, none of this should be a surprise. Bradley is a master of portraying craggy older men with a soft side, most ably demonstrated during his BAFTA-winning turn in the first series of Broadchurch (nearly six years on, I occasionally still choke up when thinking of a scene where his character, dressed in full Sea Scout regalia and facing an angry mob, realises none of his troop are coming to their meeting) but also in superficially less complex roles.
As Harry Potter’s Argus Filch, arguably his most famous part, during short appearances Bradley gave the surly caretaker more heart than he’d ever had in JK Rowling’s novels. Playing both William Hartnell and his First Doctor in Doctor Who-related projects, he brought warmth from beneath a chilly exterior – and in a long and storied career, these are just a few recent examples. Frankly, it’s a travesty that no-one has cast him as Scrooge over the years.
Of course, Bradley gives good villain as well – his turn as Game of Thrones’ irredeemable Walder Frey was a lip-smacking triumph – but even within that he’s brought in some fascinating extra layers. The first scene of Thrones’ seventh season starred Bradley playing Maisie Williams’ Arya Stark as she impersonated the late Lord Frey, a performance within a performance that still stands as a highlight of that action-packed year for the fantasy series.
But stealing the show from the likes of Dominic West and David Oyelowo in Les Misérables, while playing a character who was only even a small part of Victor Hugo’s original novel, might be his most impressive achievement yet. All hail David Bradley – the true master of scene-stealing.
This article was originally published in February 2019