By Katie Mennis
The press day at a London hotel where I meet Armando Iannucci reminds me one of my favourite film sequences. It is a scene in Notting Hill when William Thacker gets trapped at a press junket for Anna Scott’s apparently terrible new film, which he has not seen, and is forced to impersonate a reporter from the first publication that catches his eye. That publication is Horse and Hound, giving rise to a comic fallout, since Anna’s film is set in space. William gets through it with the kind of questions that Iannucci probably faced all day (‘Did you enjoy making the film? Any bit in particular?’).
Happily, not only have I seen Armando Iannucci’s new film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, but it is far from terrible. This is Iannucci’s third feature film, following In the Loop (a 2009 spin-off from The Thick of It) and The Death of Stalin (2017). There is almost as much in this adaptation for the unsophisticated lover of Richard Curtis as for the sophisticated reader of Dickens: an ensemble cast (from Dev Patel to Daisy May Cooper of This Country), London streets, and even a floppy-haired protagonist. Iannucci’s ensemble cast, floppy-haired protagonist, and London streets are, however, different from Curtis’ – and in many ways closer to our contemporary reality, in spite of their Victorian setting – in that they are representative and socially-engaged. ‘I wanted the cast to feel like a modern Britain,’ Iannucci tells me. ‘I’d always wanted Peter [Capaldi] to play Mr Micawber, but the first person [I envisaged playing one of the characters] was Dev [Patel]. I could only think of Dev playing David, so I didn’t have a plan B. I’d seen him be funny and awkward, but in Lion he was very strong, focused and charismatic. When I saw that, I thought, “That’s David Copperfield.” That led to the whole [colour-blind casting]. I didn’t want it to feel all dusty, like it had been put in a drawer and taken out 300 years later. The themes are all very current; it’s about status anxiety and homelessness, so I thought that’s how we’d approach all the casting, without any specific game plan.’
The film’s optimism still strikes me as potentially nostalgic, and certainly less timely than some of the work that Iannucci is best known for (The Day Today, The Thick of It, Veep, even The Death of Stalin, which was banned in Russia). Iannucci denies that the film offers escapism, on the grounds that it is ‘very relevant in a social way’. But even the positive, inclusive view of Britain that Iannucci and his film espouse tends towards rose-tinted sentimentalism. ‘That idea [in David Copperfield] of homelessness and friendships from different communities and classes seems like a very British thing. I’m pleased it’s coming out now because our debate about what we are as a nation has become very negative. It’s all become about what we’re not and what we don’t want. I wouldn’t mind more of us celebrating what we are and the variety and creativity that we have. Our TV and film industry, for example, is amazing; it’s the best in the world, really. We don’t talk up the things we like about Britain. If you do, you’re seen as nationalist and fascist. It’s like how we responded to the opening ceremony of the Olympics; that’s what Britain is. It’s not just cold bread-and-butter sandwiches and a bag of fish and chips and a wet Sunday. It’s all the creativity and a sense of humour and positivity.’
Iannucci has not risen to Brexit and Trump in the way that he did to Iraq and Campbell; his recent work seems to counter such events with celebration rather than satire. He repeats to me two of his oft-cited views. The first is that ‘I’m not a swearing angry person’; his tonal shift from ‘anger and verbal violence’ to tenderness is not a sign that he is ‘going soft’, he insists, because that is not how fiction works. The second is that, while it is possible to satirise our times (‘Bill Maher, John Oliver are doing it’), in the case of Trump he is mindful that ‘because he’s his own joke and is also dangerous, you can’t turn him into just a joke, because that makes him safe. That neutralises him.’ The Thick of It was different, because ‘that was about trying to shake what seemed a very complacent, comfortable way of operating politically. I just wanted to get behind it. Given that they managed to take us to war with Iraq for absolutely no reason whatsoever, something clearly went badly wrong in that system of government that we call our Great British Democracy and our fine party system and constitution. How did that happen?’
Iannucci likes to talk about Brexit, if not satirise it. ‘We [(righteous remainers, I can only assume)] have as much to blame for Brexit as anyone else, because we didn’t think it was ridiculous to be asked a simple yes or no on the most complicated thing since the Second World War. You know, none of us said, “Thank you for asking, but fundamentally shouldn’t you have a better idea?”’ Although Iannucci and I meet before the General Election, his speculations are prescient: ‘if Boris Johnson gets a majority of 50 or 60, he can do whatever he likes. He can abolish the supreme court and rewrite that law if he wants – if he’s got the numbers. I find it frightening that we’ve allowed so much power to sit in the hands of a prime minister with a working majority – unchecked. We don’t have an upper chamber that can really do much. Yes, we’ve got a judiciary, but again, he can easily change the law. You can come up with any law you like if you have a majority.’ When I ask him whether he thinks Dominic Cummings makes Malcolm Tucker seem harmless, he says, ‘I don’t think he’s as funny as Malcolm. There’s something sort of animalistic about him.’ No Johnson-Cummings The Thick of It is on the horizon, then.
One way in which The Personal History of David Copperfield is more timely, I suggest, is its interest in blurred lines between fact and fiction. ‘I seized on the idea that if there’s an element of Dickens in David, and in the book, David digs himself out of a hole by becoming a writer. [I thought,] ‘let’s use that to give a cohesion to the book, so it’s all about memory’. How much is the memory idealised and slightly fictionalised?’ The director (Iannucci), David and Dickens are explicitly aligned as fictionalised and fictionalising versions of each other in the film. ‘When I read it, it felt very cinematic. Dickens uses a lot of visual and spatial [language]… The thing that sold [adapting the novel] for me was when David collapses in [his girlfriend] Betsy’s house and he looks through the window: there’s Betsy through the window, in a sort of silent movie, hitting people off donkeys. I thought, “I’ve never seen it shot like that in any adaptation”. That’s when I thought, “I can see this as a film.” I could see how David, more like Dickens, could be an unstoppable force, constantly mimicking people, with a lot of energy and stuff.’ Surrealist moments like this one are the best in the film.
I ask Iannucci whether he is the hero of his own life, or whether that station is held by anyone else; is it too soon to tell? ‘It probably is,’ he says. ‘David had the fictional liberty of being able to look back on his life. I’m happy that I’ve been able to do what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s never felt like a job, it’s always felt like at some point I’ll be asked to work, but until then I seem to have gotten away with doing the things that I like to do. Dickens is one of the heroes of my life. Reading Dickens when I was about 14 or 15, a) he was very funny and felt very modern, and b) he didn’t feel frightened of tackling big subjects or talking about the state of the nation – and yet he was doing it in an entertaining way. He was very young when he started as well; he was writing parliamentary sketches when he was 19 or 20, and then was the world’s greatest and most famous writer by the age of 22, but it didn’t stop him continually finding the targets. In a society which must’ve been very pleased with itself at the time – at the heart of the empire, thinking, “There must be nothing wrong with us” – to have a very popular figure [doing that]… That’s always been my inspiration, really.’ Dickens said that David Copperfield was his favourite child, so I ask whether Iannucci has a favourite child of his projects. ‘Alan Partridge always makes me laugh,’ he says, ‘and we never run out of being able to make each other laugh, speculating as to how Alan would say or think of things.’
Armando Iannucci is never short of projects (‘I’m always consciously thinking what the next thing might be. You can’t plan for it,’ he says, ‘you’ve got to make your own luck. You’ve got to be constantly reading, talking and meeting and then something galvanises.’) His next is an HBO show starring Hugh Laurie (who plays Mr Dick in David Copperfield). It is set in space.
KATIE MENNIS reads for a DPhil in English at Somerville College. The unsmooth courses of the ORB and her love life have always been closely intertwined. Both are in better hands now.
Art by Abigail Hodges