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.


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…


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

Mr. Mi­caw­ber?’”


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!”

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