Armando Iannucci’s Dickens adaptation.
EVEN IF YOU haven’t read Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (and if you haven’t, you should), chances are you’ve heard of some of its greatest characters. Uriah Heep. Mr Micawber. And, of course, the title character. But those are just names. When it came to turning them into flesh-andblood creations for his adaptation of Dickens’ most personal novel, Armando Iannucci and his co-writer, Simon Blackwell, found themselves having to put meat on bones, motivations in mouths, and occasionally making great, big whacking changes to the source material. “If we had to make changes,” he says, “we tried to make them in the spirit of the book.” Here, Iannucci talks us through some of the standout characters.
1 DAVID COPPERFIELD
Long believed to have been a thinly veiled stand-in for Dickens himself, Dev Patel’s David Copperfield is many things as he makes his way through an often acutely sad and destitute life, before finally settling down, falling in love and becoming a writer. He is ambitious, he is intelligent, he is kind, he is funny. But it was important to Iannucci that he also be flawed. “Dickens makes his heroes not quite the purest of pure,” says Iannucci. “David is guilty of snobbery when he has a bit of money and goes to public finishing school. It’s a much more modern story because it’s honest. The very opening line is, ‘Whether I turn out to be hero of my own story,’ and he very nearly isn’t.” In a commendably colour-blind cast, the choice of Patel to play David was a cinch for Iannucci.
“I could only think of Dev,” he says. “I had nobody else in my head. He’s funny, he’s played gawky teenagers and been comedic... In Lion he’s charismatic and strong. There’s a warmth; you don’t wish ill on a Dev Patel character. You want him to succeed. Honestly, I have no idea what we would have done if he’d said no, really.” Maybe place a call to a certain master magician. Or that bloke from Three’s Company…
2 MR MICAWBER
Anyone expecting Malcolm Tucker-esque fireworks from the reunion of Iannucci with his The Thick Of It/in The Loop star Peter Capaldi was going to be disappointed by Mr Micawber, a roguish and eternally fiscally challenged figure who comes into David’s life from time to time. 1
“In other portrayals of Mr Micawber, he’s seen as this roly-poly, rotund, jovial figure, but in the book he’s desperate and despairing.” Not to mention physically very different. Iannucci and Blackwell also decided to deploy Mr Micawber in unexpected ways, most notably when he shows up at David’s school, posing briefly as a well-to-do teacher. In the book, that’s a completely different character. “You never see that teacher again,” says Iannucci. “So we thought, ‘What if we gave that to
3 BETSEY TROTWOOD
For the role of David’s eccentric and ultimately kindly great-aunt, Iannucci had only one person in mind to play the part: Tilda Swinton. And he certainly didn’t mind that she wasn’t exactly known for her comedic work. “I’ve seen Tilda be very funny in movies,” he laughs. “But Betsey has to go through this transition. In the opening scene, she’s quite a fearsome, imposing figure.
Below: The key players in The Personal History Of David
Copperfield — “If we had to make changes, we tried to make them in the spirit of the book,” says writerdirector Armando Iannucci.
When we meet her a little later, she’s softened, and is looking after her cousin, Mr Dick [played by Hugh Laurie]. With Tilda and Hugh, we discussed their relationship. She wants him to be independent, but she’s always keeping an eye on him, so if he looks like he’s about to do something embarrassing, she can leap in in a second and click her finger to snap him out of it.” 4 MR DICK
“I think Mr Dick is the first honest treatment of mental illness in an English novel,” says Iannucci of the character played by Hugh Laurie; a well-meaning and warm-hearted man who is all too prone to losing himself in reveries, and who has a particular fascination with the head of the long-dead Charles I. And as such, both director and actor were keen to be respectful. “In previous television and film adaptations, Mr Dick is seen as a figure of fun; slightly crazy, mad, eccentric. And he should be funny, but you also want to feel sorry for him. When they’re down on their luck, and he says to Betsey, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and he takes out shells and bits of string, it’s such a sad, yet lovely, loving moment.” 5 URIAH HEEP
The true villain of the piece, Ben Whishaw imbues the mendacious, unctuous, book-cooking Uriah Heep, and his horrendous bowl-cut hairdo, with more humanity than perhaps found in previous iterations. “Ben and Simon and I talked about how it would be nice to have him not as a stereotypical evil man, but indicate why he’s behaving like that,” explains Iannucci. “We arrived at the notion that he’s roughly the same age as David. Both David and he started with similar misfortune and have gone separate ways on how to get around it. David has decided to work hard and try to be honest.
There’s more anger in Uriah, saying, ‘The rich people are responsible. I’m going to suck them dry of all their money.’” 6 DORA SPENLOW
In one of the boldest changes, Dora Spenlow — David’s first wife, played by Morfydd Clark — doesn’t die. Instead, in a truly meta move, she realises that she no longer fits into David’s story and asks him to write her out. By the next scene, she’s gone. “I always felt the death of Dora in the book was a bit of a cheat, and a little melodramatic,” says Iannucci. “If we are going to lose her, let’s lose her of her own volition. She’s going to voice what David has thought, but doesn’t want to voice. That makes for a more interesting moment.” Note how Clark also plays David’s mother. “There’s an element of David talking about how Dora reminds him of his mother,” laughs Iannucci. “Most people don’t notice it!”