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David Copperfield: A Dickens of a fine tale, says superstar Dev

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Lynn plays a starring role in the new British film The Personal History of David Copperfield, based on the Charles Dickens classic novel.

The movie, released at the cinema last Friday, was filmed in Lynn in 2018 and also features Bury St Edmunds.

Dev Patel leads the diverse cast and here talks to Laura Harding about starting a revolution in British period dramas.

Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth and Dev Patel as David Copperfield in front of Lynn Town Hall. Picture: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films.
Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth and Dev Patel as David Copperfield in front of Lynn Town Hall. Picture: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films.

Dev Patel was not that keen on Charles Dickens when he was growing up in London.

The classic novels seemed dull and dark and miserable to the young schoolboy as he stared out of the classroom window.

“I think we probably started with Oliver Twist, or something like that, and it was grim.

Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick, Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood. Picture: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films.
Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick, Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood. Picture: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films.

“I know it’s blasphemous even saying it,” he adds sheepishly. “But there were these grey, bleak worlds of suffering and I was a child. You just end up gazing outside the window to the rain.”

So it’s perhaps unexpected that the Slumdog Millionaire star has ended up playing one of the author’s best loved characters.

Directed by The Thick Of It and Veep creator Armando Iannucci, this telling of the Dickens classic is raucous and energetic and thoroughly modern in its use of colour-blind casting, the practice of casting without considering the actor’s ethnicity.

Picture credit: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films
Picture credit: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films

“The great thing about this is that no-one really dwells on the comedy of Dickens and he’s hilarious,” 29-year-old Patel said enthusiastically.

“There is such a rich group of faces and larger than life characters that populate all of his stories and people go for those very still, rigid period adaptations.

“But here Armando is saying, ‘We are going to break this spell and play with the form and have a laugh.’

“It has a real buoyancy to it and it’s based on Dickens himself, there is actually a real hopefulness.”

Dev Patel as David Copperfield. Picture credit: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films.
Dev Patel as David Copperfield. Picture credit: PA Photo/Lionsgate Films.

Patel, who was born in London to Gujarati Indian parents, heads up an all-star cast that includes Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton, as well as Rosalind Eleazar, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Benedict Wong.

It’s not necessarily the group of actors that you would normally see in a British period drama and this revolutionary approach has been nominated for the first ever Bafta award for casting as a result.

“Hopefully people watch the film and go, ‘Wow all of those guys had the right energies for those characters and those roles’,” Patel says.

“I am just so grateful to Armando for having the balls to do it first really.

“He is just ground-breaking and there are so many actors that I want to have a shot like I had.

“I want everyone to have a go at being able to be in any world they want, up in space, back in time, in the Victorian era, whatever.

“We are actors. We want to play and not be confined. It’s all about exploring and finding the best guy or girl for the job, that is how it should be.”

For Iannucci, the idea initially stemmed from one place.

“I could only think of Dev to play David Copperfield,” he admits.

“He was always my David Copperfield. I didn’t have a plan B, I didn’t have a short list.

“I just think he’s fantastic and I’ve always admired his naturalism and his sense of comedy but also the strength he showed in Lion (for which Patel was nominated for an Oscar).

“As soon as I saw that film, I kind of pointed and went, ‘That’s David Copperfield’.

“So when I went to meet up with him I was so glad he said yes because I really didn’t have a plan B.”

But Patel says he was totally stunned by this pitch, thinking this was the kind of part he might never get a chance to play.

“I was super overwhelmed because I’m a massive fan of his work so to even be on his radar was cool.

“And then he was like, ‘I know you can be funny and you have a lot of heart and I watched Lion and you really showed some strength in that and I need someone in David that can be super vulnerable and make a fool of himself and then find a strength by the end’.

“I was really touched by that actually.”

He pauses.

“Also there is a lot of goofiness and awkwardness there and that came easy.”

Now Iannucci hopes the diverse nature of the cast makes the film more accessible and relatable, particularly to audiences who have felt alienated by period dramas in the past.

“I wanted the audience to connect with it and feel that directness and that contemporary sense of the issues,” he says.

“So I wanted the cast and that world to reflect today.”

He also hopes it is the start of more race blind casting in Hollywood, where diversity continues to be a hot button subject.

“If it makes directors and casting directors and producers think beyond the literalness of the story, then I think that would be great.”

“I just saw it as, ‘Why can’t I choose from 100% of the acting community available? Why must there be some strange limitation on it?’

“It’s so usual in theatre and we are so aware that what we are watching is not a documentary, it’s a story, it’s an entertainment.

“The very fact that you cut within a film shows you that there is an element of that. It’s not actually happening, I’m not trying to say this is what 1840s London literally looked like, this is my entertainment, and our cast’s entertainment, for the public.”

And making it just that - entertaining - was always his primary objective.

“For the people in the story, they are in their modern times, they are in their present, so it shouldn’t feel dusty and cobwebby.

“And London at the time, in 1840, was the heart of the industrial revolution. It should feel exciting and colourful, it should feel like Manhattan in the 1920s, full of possibility, so I wanted to do that.

“I remember saying to the cast as we started, something happens to people when they put bonnets on and shawls, their voice goes up like, ‘Oh sir!’ so I said just speak normally, act normally, act like it’s the present day.

“When I re-read it about 10 years ago, it just felt so modern and experimental and playful and funny and I just instinctively felt that I wanted to make this as a funny film and try and project the vibrancy and humanity and not feel so bound by the conventions of how a period drama is meant to be done.”

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