Artillery Row

David Copperfield and the politics of diversity

Diverse casting of period adaptations is a risk worth taking

The Personal History of David Copperfield, the latest film from The Thick Of It and Veep creator Armando Iannucci, is released in Britain this month. Those expecting an expletives-rich adaptation of the Dickens novel, not least because of the casting of former Malcolm Tucker actor, Peter Capaldi, as Mr Micawber (‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, nought and six, result – you’re fucked’) will be disappointed. The film is instead a witty and energetic but largely faithful retelling of the story, acted to the hilt by a fine and eclectic cast. It has already, deservedly, won awards and will undoubtedly be a significant box office hit.

Yet the feature that has attracted by far the most interest, before and after production, is that Iannucci’s use of an apparently anachronistic diverse cast. Not only does it star Dev Patel as Copperfield, but the likes of Benedict Wong, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Divian Ladwa all appear in pivotal roles alongside Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Ben Whishaw. The film’s producer Kevin Loader commented during production that ‘In all our conversations, we never spoke about another actor to play our lead than Dev. We often have lists for parts, but we never had a list for David Copperfield’, implying that the film would not have been made had Patel turned the role down.

Iannucci himself noted that the reasons for the diversity of the casting were twofold. Firstly, as is now the custom, to broaden the range of actors used, but also to be true to the original novel. As he said in a recent interview, ‘It speaks of contemporary issues. I wanted to get that life and that humour and approach it as if there were no rules as to how you make a costume drama. I wanted it to feel that the audience feel that the people they’re watching are in their present day, this is their modern world.’ When Patel asked Iannucci whether he was making a social or political point – making the Copperfields Indian or Pakistani immigrants, for instance – Iannucci responded ‘Although it’s set in 1840, for the people in the film it’s the present day. And it’s an exciting present.’

Our own ‘exciting present’ is one in which diversity is not so much an option available to filmmakers than an obligatory feature of the casting process. It has been a given at the subsidised theatre for years that an all-white, gender-specific staging of a classic work is unlikely to meet with approval from artistic directors or commentators, hence such initiatives as the Globe theatre’s Michelle Terry bringing in a regime in which the casting is ‘gender blind, race blind, disability blind’.

Sometimes, this has worked exceptionally well, as in the recent production of Macbeth starring Terry herself and Paul Ready – her real-life husband – as the Thane of Cawdor. It is perhaps not coincidental that this more traditional approach (described by Lloyd Evans in The Spectator as simultaneously ‘one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen at The Globe’ and ‘a triumph for crony casting’) won a considerably warmer critical response than more adventurous stagings, such as a 2018 Hamlet with Terry as the Dane that led to dreadful reviews. Sarah Crompton wrote in What’s On Stage that it was ‘so muddled, so various in style, so completely incoherent in action, that Terry finds herself beached in the centre with nowhere to go.’

Yet theatre has always been the preserve of a certain kind of metropolitan elite, and so it would be hyperbolic to read too much into the preserves and preoccupations of middle-class white men and women who are trying their best to remain ‘relevant’ rather than strive for ‘excellence’; the Arts Council funding now dictates it must be the former, rather than its previous adherence to the latter. Diverse casting is here to stay, and its most high-profile recent incarnation was found in the BBC’s A Christmas Carol last Christmas, with Guy Pearce as a foul-mouthed Scrooge. Not only was Tiny Tim played by Lenny Rush, an actor with SEDc, or dwarfism, but Bob Cratchit’s wife was played by the mixed-race actor Vinette Robinson, and given an unexpected arc by the adaptation’s writer Steven Knight.

In the novel, Mrs Cratchit is unblessed with a Christian name or indeed much of a character, other than an outburst at Scrooge on Christmas Day for being ‘an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man’, and reluctantly drinking his health because of a plea from her husband. In the BBC version, she has been given a name (Mary) and a backstory in which she has been compelled to offer herself sexually to Scrooge in order to obtain the money that she needs for her son’s medical care. It is unfortunate that the casting of Robinson thereby becomes synonymous with victimhood and exploitation, even as (pointless) debate raged as to whether it was historically accurate that a BAME woman would have been present in Victorian times. Once one accepts the presence of supernatural beings offering time travel opportunities, the idea of a woman of colour being married to a working-class man is hardly much of a stretch to accept.

But what there ought to be, and hopefully will, is greater engagement with black and Asian filmmakers looking to reinvent the period drama.

Predictably, Robinson found herself the target of controversy for her casting, or, as she wrote on social media, the recipient of ‘depressingly predictable comments that I shouldn’t have been cast in A Christmas Carol’. Nonetheless, many argued that Knight’s innovations did little to enhance the original story. While few went as far as the Sunday Times’ TV critic Camilla Long, who caustically wrote that ‘Mrs Cratchit offering to shag Scrooge in order to save Tiny Tim in the BBC’s woke extravaganza A Christmas Carol’ offered her the ‘best comedy all Christmas’, it seemed that a 21st century account of the story needed to make Scrooge less a misanthropic miser and more a contemporary bogeyman, thus the #MeToo storyline. That his victim should be a woman of colour thus stressed his dastardliness. No matter that the final redemption scene was inevitably ruined by this; the drama thus portrayed an account of wicked sexist and racist oppression, rather than the awakening of a social conscience inside a cold, dead heart. One wonders why Knight did not write an entirely new drama, rather than take such inordinate liberties with Dickens.

Another example of a high-profile drama with a strong commitment to diversity was the BBC’s 2017 version of Forster’s Howard’s End, adapted by the American writer Kenneth Lonergan. While the famous 1992 Merchant-Ivory adaptation with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins was as white and upper-crust as a cucumber sandwich – Samuel West, of all people, played the working-class autodidact Leonard Bast – the more recent version ensured that BAME characters were well represented. The Schlegels had a black maid, who was subtly but noticeably discriminated against, and Bast, who was played by a white actor, appeared to be living in an anachronistic inner-city ghetto, where his wife Jacky was herself mixed-race. It was unclear as to whether the casting is colour-blind, in the style of David Copperfield, or whether it was making an insidious social point about inequality and race. If the former, then it was a shame that virtually every diverse character was, once again, portrayed as the victim of some sort of oppression, and if the latter, it is a pity that the hugely talented cast and crew did not instead tackle Forster’s trenchant examination of exactly that topic in his masterpiece A Passage To India.

Sometimes, the social and racially diverse themes of 21st century Britain and America can make for exhilaratingly ambitious screen and stage adaptations of classic works, as with Copperfield. And at a time when there are a wide range of outstandingly talented actors from BAME backgrounds, capable of much more interesting work than they are being given – how wonderful it would have been to have seen Adrian Lester, for instance, as Scrooge, rather than the oddly-accented Pearce – it is a shame that there is an odd timidity in casting, as if it is fine to go so far in colour-blind directions but then the audience will no longer accept it. It is uncertain that we’ll have a black James Bond any time soon, despite the persistent rumours of Idris Elba’s casting, and I doubt that the enormous success of Black Panther and its predominantly black cast will ever be replicated in Britain, where most dramas with BAME actors tend either to be gang dramas or unthreatening Asian comedies.

This is, creatively and culturally, a pity. There is no point in expecting the period drama of 2020 and beyond to return to an all-white view of casting. Downton Abbey was probably the last major example of such a production, and that was because, in the words of its producer, ‘Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920’ and that to have introduced black characters would have been ‘box-ticking’. But what there ought to be, and hopefully will if Iannucci’s film is a commercial as well as critical success, is greater engagement with black and Asian filmmakers looking to reinvent the period drama.

The thought of a Steve McQueen or an Amma Asante – or even Andrew Onwubolu, director of last year’s controversial Blue Story – getting their own chance to interpret Dickens in a bold, relevant way is a thrilling one. (At the time of writing, a radio adaptation of Oliver Twist that reinvents the title character as a contemporary Nigerian orphan – Oliver: Lagos to London – is being broadcast on Radio 4.) As Iannucci said, the ‘exciting present’ is one that speaks to us all – and sometimes, looking to the heritage and literature of the past is an invaluable way of bridging two worlds that appear distinct but in fact have a great deal more in common than many have acknowledged or accepted. It could, of course, fail miserably, but it would be infinitely more interesting than yet another play-it-safe costume epic. And that risk, surely, is worth taking.

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