The minute the French start hoisting flags over barricades, I start a-dreaming a dream, reprising the greatest hits of Les Miserables. And Les Mis isn’t even set in the French Revolution, being more of a digestif to the main event 40 years earlier which is the subject of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and certainly not the vehicle for foot-tapping melodrama.
Mantel is the go-to gal for literary historical fiction after the compelling revisionist vista of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and the acclaim which greeted their RSC adaptation in 2014 and a BBC2 production this year.
Safety, is a more unwieldy beast, begun in 1974 and completed nearly 20 years later, tracing the paths of revolutionaries Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre (Mark Stobbart, Carl Prekopp and Sam Troughton) from their provincial childhoods to becoming luminaries of the uprising to their executions in 1794. Adaptor Melissa Murray drops the early years of the trio but retains Mantel’s fascination with their psychological ticks and their often turbulent private lives but at times the soap operatics threaten to overwhelm the radical spirit.
Murray imposes some order on Mantel’s trick of letting the characters address us then stepping back to take the long view. The perspective is still multi-focal with narrators Paul Ritter and Lizzy Watts, the latter an endearing, chippy commoner, in-filling. Marc Beeby’s production hums with the swirl and babble of the streets, but at times insurgency becomes triumphalism and those Les Mis airs come to mind.
A Place of Greater Safety on iPlayer  (available shortly after broadcast)