Armando Iannucci on Dickens, Dev Patel and modern politics

Alan Partridge and The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci talks us through his Dickens adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield

Feature by Lou Thomas | 24 Jan 2020
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield

In The Personal History of David Copperfield, Glasgow-born director Armando Iannucci adapts the classic Charles Dickens novel with Dev Patel starring as the man who overcomes great financial and emotional hardship to become a successful writer. Aside from the charismatic Patel, the cast includes a startling array of British talent across the generations. Hugh Laurie, Paul Whitehouse, Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton represent the old guard with their usual wit and skill, while Ben Whishaw, Daisy May Cooper, Morfydd Clark and Aneurin Barnard are just some of the newer faces putting their considerable talents to great use.

Regular collaborator Simon Blackwell co-wrote the script with Iannucci; their partnership has given the world hilarious TV such as The Thick of It and Veep, and the equally biting big-screen hybrid of the two, In The Loop. Copperfield's light, bright tone may surprise fans of the pair, but only those with granite-hard hearts should find it less than irresistible.

Iannucci has also created and directed some of the funniest and most influential comedy of the last 30 years including Knowing Me, Knowing You... and I'm Alan Partridge as well as The Day Today, and most recently directing The Death of Stalin, a film that was surely among the funniest released in 2017. 

On the day we speak to Iannucci, the British film, TV and comedy world is reeling from the news that Monty Python legend Terry Jones has died aged 77. Iannucci tells us: “Growing up with Monty Python was just a fantastic inspiration and they say never meet your heroes but I was very lucky to be interviewed by Terry about five or six years ago for a project he was doing. It was a delightful three or four hours of just making each other laugh. It’s very sad news and hard to take in that someone who has such an impact has passed away.”

The Skinny: Why does the world need yet another Dickens adaptation?

Armando Iannucci: It felt like a story that actually needed to be told: fresh and original and contemporary and pressing. The whole issue of homelessness and poverty and the rich side by side. The other issue of personal identity and imposter syndrome that David [faces] just felt so current. I felt 'if we are going to do costume drama, I want to do something that made a different claim to how it should be done'.

I wanted to make it as if pretending no one had made a costume drama before, and therefore there were no rules to how this was to be made. [The story] may be in 1840 but I wanted the audience to connect with that sense of the present: to not feel that they're gazing into the historic past and everyone’s now covered in cobwebs. Also, from the age of about 12 I’ve been a huge fan of Charles Dickens. I’ve always regarded him as a really funny writer, a really modern writer, and I wanted to make the case for not seeing him as a long-winded Victorian novelist who just writes about mud, and cobbled streets, and street urchins, and crime, and pickpockets.

The tone of this film is lighter than your usual work. Why is that?

I wanted to make something that reflects the UK today. I didn’t want to make something that was downbeat and negative because that’s the language that’s being used at the moment about what Britain is. It’s very inward looking, it’s isolationist, it’s putting up walls and I’ve never felt that about the UK.

As the child of an immigrant family – I was speaking to Dev about this – I think Britain is an open, generous and kind country that has a sense of humour about itself and has an amazing creativity about it and a fantastic creative legacy. It’s very much an emotional impulse to make something that was actually positive. There’s no swearing in it, people of all ages can see it. I want people to take away with them something that makes them feel upbeat and positive about the community that they’re in, and the friends and the family they have.

With this and sci-fi comedy series Avenue 5, your recent work seems less overtly political. Is this deliberate?

Having done five years of Veep and prior to that The Thick of It, that’s 10 years of doing a slightly fly-on-the-wall-esque portrayal behind closed doors within Washington and Whitehall. So inevitably, the feeling is to do something that gets away from that, because otherwise it becomes too easy having more of the same. Alan Partridge wasn’t that and Time Trumpet wasn’t that, and after 10 years of very explicitly doing politics I don’t wanna lose any sense of anger but I wanted to look at what is driving society. Let’s look at the public rather than politicians, let’s look at us rather than them.

To what extent does the story of David Copperfield represent the way you see the world?

I identify perfectly with it because I always grew up with a slight sense of imposter syndrome. That stayed with me for an awful long time, and like David I was very bookish. My natural reaction to anyone new I met was to try and copy them, or do an impression of them. Also, I think as a writer and as someone who makes a living out of writing things down I identify very much with David.

Did you discuss the colourblind casting much during the casting process?

Only because Dev was my first and only choice; I felt that he most embodied the character of Copperfield. The same way I cast Dev as David, I saw the best person suited to play that role. I’m very conscious that there’s a fantastic new generation of actors coming on and I don’t want to read any more headlines about fantastic actors who’ve had to go to America to get decent parts because they’re never cast in period dramas or whatever.

Given the current ridiculous, often baffling, political and media landscape, how do you feel when considering your work on The Thick of It and even The Day Today?

They’re very genteel now, upon reflection. At the time they were seen as angry and barbed, but now it just seems like after-dinner speeches. The pace of change now is so much, it’s actually difficult to come up with any kind of creative response to what’s happening now that takes more than five or six months to make, because by the time you put it out it will already be out of date. More power to comedians who work on a topical basis like John Oliver. I actually think it’s gonna take a decade at least before we can come up with any kind of creative summing up of what we’re going through.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is in cinemas now via Lionsgate
Avenue 5 screens on Wednesdays at 10pm, Sky One