David Copperfield, 1966 BBC series with Ian McKellen (review)


David Copperfield (1966 tv miniseries) British, Ian McKellen, BBC (second BBC miniseries), black and white

See here for a full listing of adaptations.


Notable Because

This was the fifth tv serial treatment of the novel, and the second BBC adaptation. I believe it to be the earliest BBC adaptation we have surviving footage from. It features a very early performance from Ian McKellen as David and a campy cameo from Patrick Troughton, who plays a pawnbroker.



The BFI holds episodes 3, 8, 9 and 11. Episode three is available for free and without appointment at BFI Mediatheque suites around the UK. This is a curious copy, with multiple takes (and actor eyerolls when these are requested of them). At one point director Joan Craft can be heard–not exactly impolitely, but shortly–telling everyone to shut up.

The last three surviving episodes can only be found at the BFI archives in London. One must make an appointment, and there is a small fee (about £20 total when we visited, though this rate may well prove ephemeral). These are screening copies, without the third episode’s production ephemera (so better or worse, depending on what you’re watching for). The technician who set us up was a friendly man who almost encouraged us to bring in drinks and the like, so long as we were reasonably careful. He was very surprised there were only these few scattered episodes left. Apparently the BBC’s carelessness towards posterity is only legendary in Doctor Who circles.


Major Changes from Book

This adaptation is perhaps unusually interested in what it means to make a filmic version of David Copperfield. It’s particularly invested in portraying things the book cannot show you, both due to the restrictions contingent on David’s narration and those that arise from Victorian narrative conventions. If you have to trade away Dickens’ prose and the charms and insights derived from David’s interiority in order to film DC, the ‘66 recognises this as a loss and attempts to recoup something by showing scenes David could not have been privy to, or could not have related in quite this manner.

This allows you to look at David, who is handsome in this version in a way Dickens only very obliquely suggests in the text, and who’s also amusing. Reading the book attentively, putting in that work, allows you to enjoy David at a remove from his first person narration in a similar fashion. Indeed I’d argue that David himself is one of the book’s key sources of pleasure: he lives a charmed life, and is crafted to charm you by a man desperate to do so. But it’s interesting that roughly contemporaneously with this adaptation, a major essay suggesting that David was quite a good character in his own right rocked Dickensian literary studies. Duh? And yet it was considered quite a claim. Sometimes I think immediate Dickensian reception was fairly sound, as in they could fucking read the texts with basic aptitude, and then there was a generation or two where, in a sort of Bloomian rebellion against a literary pater familias, with perhaps five exceptions (Freud, Woolf, Eliot, Chesterton and Peake, and even those vary in degree, with Freud and Woolf at least feeling obliged to be a bit ashamed of liking him as much as they do), people got immensely stupid about him.

The filmic gaze thus easily accesses something that apparently eluded many contemporary readers. Rather than playing a straight man, in this version David is as funny as most of the other characters, wailing that he ‘is the destroyer!!’ who’s killed Dora when she swoons during the (here-staged) proposal scene (this is from a later scene in the book*). We also see their wedding–my guess is that filmic convention seemed to demand it.

We also see Agnes’ longing glances when David’s back is turned: a vision of female desire that David, and perhaps Dickens, were unwilling to look too directly at. (One hesitates to attribute this unusual degree of embodiment for Agnes to this production’s female director–it seems over-simplistic, and possibly even like a reductive way of discussing Craft’s contribution. And yet…) But it’d be unjust to attribute an endemic Victorian inability to reckon with the moral, intelligent, desiring female to Dickens specifically. In general, this production is willing to stage and invested in showing all kinds of things a Victorian novel wouldn’t have shared with a reading public: sometimes even things that the people who comprise the series’ small social gatherings, had they been real, would never have spoken of even among themselves.

We see Dora and a doctor discuss her pregnancy. The Wickfields, Heeps and David discuss David’s coming child. Uriah offers his toast to Agnes directly after they’ve drunk Mrs Copperfield and child–a sequence of events that seems to link David’s acquisition of family (and associated material success) with Uriah’s envious acquisitiveness. We see more of Dora’s birthing drama, and Betsey makes direct allusions between this scene and David’s own birth. David is in the room directly after Dora’s stillbirth, touching and comforting her.

Of course Dickens only told us Scrooge’s niece by marriage was pregnant in Christmas Carol by saying she was a little out of breath and having her illustrated so as to hide her stomach. Such was the Victorian taboo against discussion of pregnancy that this absence signified. Of course David would have shanked himself before telling Uriah Heep that his wife (which she wasn’t, when that dinner table conversation happened in the book) was expecting, but this aspect of Victoriana doesn’t really interest this adaptation team.

The timeline of the proposal, and of David and Dora’s subsequent marital upsets, is a little addled here, as is the manuscript publishing timeline. David writes a full novel out before anything else, and this novel is accepted by a published during his engagement–in fact in this adaptation, this sale enables him to marry. He’s no longer working for Dora’s father, who consequently need not die, but rather simply a Mr Spenlow.


Major Differences From/Commonalities With Other Adaptations

Director Joan Craft helmed both this production and the BBC’s subsequent 1974 DC, as well as many, many other Dickens adaptations. This thorough little write-up gives some context in that regard, and also provides a few clips. There are so many commonalities between these that we might almost consider the ‘74 a revival of the same production, this time in colour (besides, the BBC may well have already gotten rid of the bulk of the ‘66’s episodes by 1974). This fits neatly with something I’ve long thought: that up until perhaps the 90s in some cases, the primary analogue for BBC production was live theatre rather than film, radio shows, comics, etc. You can tell from the camera angles, for example: the last episode of Blake’s 7 not only works like a Greek tragedy, that shooting gallery set is a stage. The BBC has always expected its audiences to be trained on and familiar with the conventions of live theatre, in a way American television (with its audiences’ comparatively impoverished access to a developed theatre culture) never did. It still engages in such training: look at CBBC’s Shakespeare plays, which not only introduce the material but are deeply invested in teaching small children how plays work.

The ‘74 DC feels like a theatrical restaging of a production because in many ways, it is exactly that. The casting choices (rather ill-defined features for Uriah, for example, which his thinness might well have suggested sharpness) and script decisions are particularly well-preserved, which is especially striking considering how few other adaptations take these lines. Script writer Vincent Tilsley also worked on The Prisoner, and “[g]ave up writing for television, and became a psychotherapist, when his six-hour drama ITV Sunday Night Theatre: The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973) was cut down to less than 2 hours.” Per this write-up, Tilsley is already revising his ’56 script here. The 1974 script is by Hugh Whitemore. I’m honestly surprised they wrote a whole new script for that, given how akin the final products are, and wonder about the extent to which they edited the ‘66 version versus attempted to recreate their last two attempts without:

1. script drafts, which the BBC is not in the habit of saving for some god-forsaken reason,
2. easy-to-view previous editions, or
3. Tilsley’s being active and willing to play ball.

Is the ‘74 production in some ways an attempt to remember the ‘66? Rosa makes a violent vow concerning Emily to David in both, and David and Mr Dick have an almost-verbatim-from-the-book chat about Betsey in both as well.

‘What do you consider me, sir?’ asked Mr. Dick, folding his arms.
‘A dear old friend,’ said I. ‘Thank you, Trotwood,’ returned Mr. Dick, laughing, and reaching across in high glee to shake hands with me. ‘But I mean, boy,’ resuming his gravity, ‘what do you consider me in this respect?’ touching his forehead.
I was puzzled how to answer, but he helped me with a word.
‘Weak?’ said Mr. Dick.
‘Well,’ I replied, dubiously. ‘Rather so.’


Uriah hadn’t arrived in the plot by episode three, and was absent from it in eight and nine. Thus we only really get a sense of what the ‘66 is doing with him from episode eleven–not much to go on, unfortunately. This version suggests Micawber’s complicity in keeping mum about Heep’s business more than others. David is outright alarmed by Micawber’s working for Uriah. This Mrs Heep is as cringing as her son, whereas for example the Dancy 2000 staging chooses to make her bemused and dimmer than Uriah. In the 2000 DC, Mrs Heep is venal (lusting after Uriah’s horde of ‘stolen jewels’), but no longer possibly involved in the intricacies of and an active participant in Uriah’s scheming. The book, of course, leaves room for her being entirely aware of and engaged in her son’s stratagems.

As the previous section implied, with David’s coming child being toasted in the scene where Uriah ‘plucks a pear before it’s ripe’, this adaptation collapses several conversation between the two. This is not altogether unusual–most adaptations try to cram the slap in without staging Strong, or avoid the discussion over coffee that ends in David contemplating homicide with a fire poker while retaining Uriah’s sinister, mocking hints that he’s tilting at Agnes. However the ‘66 is rather special in that it attempts to retain the foundation school conversation, which to my thinking is Uriah’s key ‘villain speech’, an almost Shakespearean monologue about motivation that underscores the political and class dimensions of the novel’s key antagonism. Most adaptations get rid of this because they don’t think it worth working to preserve. They’re ultimately not interested in Dickens as a complex or political writer. This feeds into a popular conception of him as schmaltzy, which even adaptors often indulge in as though they weren’t themselves perhaps its chief architects.

This staging doesn’t do fabulously by the foundation school conversation. It cramming a few lines from that intense, intimate rant into a moment where Uriah is attempting to do something different–to taunt, rather than to reach out for a vicious kind of empathy. But at least it’s there, in some form? That’s more than I can say for so many adaptations? We also get, in perhaps another such collapsing, Uriah touching David here in a way he does more markedly in other scenes. Most adaptations forgo this aspect of their interaction, even though it is canon, probably because the gestural language of the Victorians reads as too effeminate to cinematic audiences. Honestly I expect the relative earliness of this adaptation is responsible for what we get of it here (I’ve written elsewhere on the creeping cinematic advance of the Not Gays, starting from perhaps the late 80s).

This production (and the ‘74) is unusually focused on Dora’s incapacity for Victorian lower-middle-class marriage and David’s reactions to proofs of this. Dora lisps here, saying w for r (again, a neat choice derived from the act of filming DC). Betsey explicitly compares her to Clara. Lines from Hamlet crop up in David’s proposal, and again when he reads to Dora to ‘improve her mind’. Dora and David reach more of a resolution on these points in this version than in many others (perhaps a necessary corollary to their being unusually dwelt on). I think most filmings avoid this arc because if done in part rather than in full, it can come off as unduly nasty to both husband and wife, or require too stark a choice as to who your sympathy ought to belong to.

Some scattered notes: episode three shows us more of the road journey than most other depictions. Because we lack all the episodes, it’s very difficult to determine whether the ‘66 maintains any of the Strongs’ plot. We actually see Spenlow’s ‘hidden partner’, Jorking.


Focuses/The Production’s Points of Anxiety

Dr Katz and I were rather hoping that McKellen’s performance as David would be definitive. While it was pleasant, and while the production enabled David to be more of character here than he’s often allowed to be, we weren’t captivated. ‘Captivated’ is precisely what a good David ought to leave you. People’s strong affective responses to Dickens as a person (which did change considerably as he aged and grew more prominent) could be a very good guide as to what you’re going for. Ultimately we’re left without a quintessential rendition of the part, and instead with proof that a great many fine actors have come into fully their talent with age, experience and the presence these can lend them (aspects of craft that female actors are so seldom given comparable opportunities to develop and display).

Work and Class

In addition to putting emphasis on David, the ‘66 is particularly interested in David’s work. This gives an unusual depth to his airy fate to ‘be a writer’ (a business that, for Dickens himself, was anything but the stuff of Romantic contemplative retreat). Nor is David alone in labour. Agnes can make pie, and does. (Why, they’re twinned, fated–) Alone together, Agnes She and Dora talk about the work of running a house.

Now, would Agnes be able to make pie, or choose to do it? The Wickfields surely must have had servants. Agnes explicitly has a governess. The text doesn’t say more about this woman than that she exists, or mention any of her co-workers. Dickens conspicuously removes service from this fictionalised autobiography at the point in his own life when his family was closer to being in it than relying on even its most rudimentary forms (and in urban Victorian Britain, service broadly-considered wasn’t a luxury so much as fundamental to even working class life–with a narrow band of exceptionality, essentially you served or were served).

And of course, the Dickens family was in service. Charles’ grandmother, living during his childhood, was a housekeeper who married another member of the staff of a great house. She’s possibly the model for Mrs Runcible in Bleak House: certainly the offspring of a housekeeper ending up rootless or making incredibly good according to their character and arbitrary fate can’t help being a commentary on his own family. Perhaps the most important self-refashioning in Copperfield is Dickens’ reimagining himself and, without outright lying, suggesting to the world that he was, despite his Cockney accent and chav mannerisms, what his readers imagined him to be: reared middle-class.

Service in the novel signifies. Peggotty is integrated into the household, David considers her being relegated to ‘service’ spheres of the house and then banished a betrayal of her and a violation of his family. Clara Copperfield has a murky, under-elaborated past as a nursery-governess who married well and rose. Then we have a long period without service, with strangely few examples thereof. Betsey’s maid-companion Janet occupies an ambiguous sphere. David’s unservicable urban landlady both serves him and is an independent businesswoman with power over him. Service finally re-enters the novel after David’s marriage, in a way that coincides with its re-entry into Dickens’ actual life. CD and DC both started doing better around this time–David’s sudden plunge into poverty re-aligns him with Charles’ experience.

I suspect David buys Dora the infamous cookery book because, even at his most economically vulnerable, he imagines Dora be able to buy sensibly, supervise and possibly help prepare food (rather than, as she suggests, turning the entire enterprise over to others**). Though the Wickfield’s service arrangements are vague (and for that matter, where does Uriah actually live during David’s school years, as opposed to taking his tea?), the canonical Agnes is probably not in the habit of regularly cooking. The ‘66 chooses to have Mr Wickfield’s ‘little housekeeper’ make pie as a sort of synecdoche for her managerial competence. It wants to preserve ‘Agnes as worker’, though the considerable effort involved in running a home is more difficult to convey, and less sympathetic, than home-cooking.

When servants re-enter this adaptation, it heavily plays up the farce, using David’s absence from some scenes to show us the servants’ unvarnished exchanges. It dwells more on the servants’ drama more than the book does, wich is quite something given that they’re adapting such a substantive text. The low comedy interval gives David a chance to be comical himself, but this adaptation’s Betsey also says quite frankly that David ought to put the servants in their place.

Despite what Dr Katz feels is a dimmer than usual Micawber, who couldn’t wind up a judge, this production’s Micawbers make an real effort to recognise David as a child. In fact, I think a lot of productions have a go at this. Micawber’s treating David like a small adult is somehow too uncomfortable for modern stagings, and David’s youthful competence won’t quite do either. Here Mrs Micawber suggests that David go to Betsey, rather than the scheme being his own. They discuss and explicitly nix David’s going to Peggotty in this production: a possibility this version of the narrative is conscious of and anxious to foreclose. We also see Betsey and Peggotty explicitly arriving at their housekeeping arrangement, an aspect of the endgame most productions let slip, either because the idea of Peggotty’s returning to service strikes the makers as uncomfortable or because the resolution of her arc and Betsey’s isn’t particularly important to them. The ‘66 further draws a stark contrast between Steerforth’s mother’s desire to exact concessions in exchange for her son’s forgiveness, which runs somewhat counter to the license society permits men of James’s class, and Mr Peggotty’s yearning to forgive and regain Emily, which likewise contravenes social expectations that a fallen woman’s family will join in judging and punishing her.

Ultimately the ‘66 is very concerned with class, but not in a focused way. It wants not only to do more with class material than other adaptations, but to patch what it sees as holes in the textual narrative. Yet it’s not very good at catching the source text’s key class-predicated arcs, or at establishing its own through-line on these themes. What we have is a great deal of nebulous anxiety-activity, emerging at several stages in the production process, and a seeming lack of conversation and agreement on approach from the principal creatives. The result is lightly reminiscent of Robert Graves’ execrable, obsessive treatment of class in The Real David Copperfield.

Women’s Lib

Betsey’s husband is another key site of anxiety for both this production and the ‘74. I’m forced to attribute this attention to the rise of second-wave feminism. The ‘66 gives us a scene where Betsey is alone with her textually domestically violent former husband. He’s snuck into her home, and signals that she shouldn’t make any noise to alert the others of his unexpected presence. The staging almost enters a Night of the Hunter horror register. In this version Betsey owns up to David’s accusations (and Mr Dick’s, through him) immediately, telling David “it is no fancy” of Mr Dick’s that a man is bothering her.

Betsey heavily uses the third person to describe herself here. This seems at once a piece of repetitious Dickensian verbal characterisation and an act of distancing and dissociation. Psychologically, it strikes a note of uncomfortable truth. Yet the ‘66 and ‘74 are more sympathetic to Betsey’s relationship with her husband and to the man himself than any other adaptations, erasing his violence and turning his irresponsibility and addiction into a tragedy. Betsey’s given a firm cause for not liking boys, as if she needed an elaborate, over-justified and time-limited excuse. Once again, it’s as if the writer and director disagreed with one another as to how to read this relationship (and repeated that fight eight years later, with a second writer!).


Settings/Material Culture

The density of objects in the staging’s homes is very Victorian, but the production doesn’t do much financial signalling via these. The houses suffer from the Victorian generalism that defines most modern productions, whereby social and regional distinctions collapse to the degree that Betsey’s house looks rather like the Micawbers’. Alternatively, modern productions can have almost parodic ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ modes, with no allowance for a family’s taste, gradations of means, etc. (Think about how a modern poor Western home doesn’t look like a bare shack–it had a whole array of signifiers and paraphernalia.)

The Christmas tree Dora’s aunts busy themselves with is narrowly period, though a bit on-trend for these old women. The tinsel, I am almost certain, is absolutely impossible (see, for example, the Geffrey Museum’s Christmas displays of festive middle class urban homes). A later production would, I think, be more inclined to either omit this depiction of Christmas or play it up hard, given that as Dickens recedes from the public imaginary and his associative linkages as drain away from so many other things, they pool around Christmas by default.

Everyone drinks wine in this DC, never tea or anything else. The boat-house is, per canon, upside down in the ‘66, as in the 1913. I’m not sure whether this holds in the ‘74. Modern versions tend to lose this detail, as it makes the house look less recognizable as a boat and thus less fantastic. (The more modern you get, the less you can assume an audience knows the details of this text.) The grid-iron cooking scene where Mr Micawber shows his quality is apparently so important that, even though the ‘66 has lost this whole original sequence of events, it’s been repurposed for another dinner.

The 1913 does a better job showing the Micawber’s waning fortunes via having their environment change as they pawn their belongings. The ways the silent film forces the creative team to pay close attention to the text are interesting, and I believe they parallel the Italian production’s efforts to do the work to reimagine DC for an audience that they don’t presume ‘already knows’ the writer, period, and to some extent the story.


Further Research

If I do long-form research on versions of DC, or if you want to know more about this lacuna-riddled mini-series, the place to go to find out about this version (and the ‘74) is the BBC Written Archives. You might be able to get scripts, stills, audio recordings and correspondence related to the production by searching both it and the files relating to the principal creatives during the relevant years. The BBC archives have no neat publically accessible listing of their contents: you have to bother a librarian, have her talk you through their holdings, then schlep out there.



* “‘My own! May I mention something?’
‘Oh, please don’t be practical!’ said Dora, coaxingly. ‘Because it frightens me so!’
‘Sweetheart!’ I returned; ‘there is nothing to alarm you in all this. I want you to think of it quite differently. I want to make it nerve you, and inspire you, Dora!’
‘Oh, but that’s so shocking!’ cried Dora.
‘My love, no. Perseverance and strength of character will enable us to bear much worse things.’ ‘But I haven’t got any strength at all,’ said Dora, shaking her curls. ‘Have I, Jip? Oh, do kiss Jip, and be agreeable!’
It was impossible to resist kissing Jip, when she held him up to me for that purpose, putting her own bright, rosy little mouth into kissing form, as she directed the operation, which she insisted should be performed symmetrically, on the centre of his nose. I did as she bade me—rewarding myself afterwards for my obedience—and she charmed me out of my graver character for I don’t know how long.
‘But, Dora, my beloved!’ said I, at last resuming it; ‘I was going to mention something.’
The judge of the Prerogative Court might have fallen in love with her, to see her fold her little hands and hold them up, begging and praying me not to be dreadful any more.
‘Indeed I am not going to be, my darling!’ I assured her. ‘But, Dora, my love, if you will sometimes think,—not despondingly, you know; far from that!—but if you will sometimes think—just to encourage yourself—that you are engaged to a poor man—’
‘Don’t, don’t! Pray don’t!’ cried Dora. ‘It’s so very dreadful!’
‘My soul, not at all!’ said I, cheerfully. ‘If you will sometimes think of that, and look about now and then at your papa’s housekeeping, and endeavour to acquire a little habit—of accounts, for instance—’
Poor little Dora received this suggestion with something that was half a sob and half a scream.
‘—It would be so useful to us afterwards,’ I went on. ‘And if you would promise me to read a little—a little Cookery Book that I would send you, it would be so excellent for both of us. For our path in life, my Dora,’ said I, warming with the subject, ‘is stony and rugged now, and it rests with us to smooth it. We must fight our way onward. We must be brave. There are obstacles to be met, and we must meet, and crush them!’
I was going on at a great rate, with a clenched hand, and a most enthusiastic countenance; but it was quite unnecessary to proceed. I had said enough. I had done it again. Oh, she was so frightened! Oh, where was Julia Mills! Oh, take her to Julia Mills, and go away, please! So that, in short, I was quite distracted, and raved about the drawing-room.
I thought I had killed her, this time. I sprinkled water on her face. I went down on my knees. I plucked at my hair. I denounced myself as a remorseless brute and a ruthless beast. I implored her forgiveness. I besought her to look up. I ravaged Miss Mills’s work-box for a smelling-bottle, and in my agony of mind applied an ivory needle-case instead, and dropped all the needles over Dora. I shook my fists at Jip, who was as frantic as myself. I did every wild extravagance that could be done, and was a long way beyond the end of my wits when Miss Mills came into the room.
‘Who has done this?’ exclaimed Miss Mills, succouring her friend.
I replied, ‘I, Miss Mills! I have done it! Behold the destroyer!’—or words to that effect—and hid my face from the light, in the sofa cushion.”

** “‘Now suppose, my pet, that we were married, and you were going to buy a shoulder of mutton for dinner, would you know how to buy it?’
My pretty little Dora’s face would fall, and she would make her mouth into a bud again, as if she would very much prefer to shut mine with a kiss.
‘Would you know how to buy it, my darling?’ I would repeat, perhaps, if I were very inflexible.
Dora would think a little, and then reply, perhaps, with great triumph:
‘Why, the butcher would know how to sell it, and what need I know? Oh, you silly boy!’
So, when I once asked Dora, with an eye to the cookery-book, what she would do, if we were married, and I were to say I should like a nice Irish stew, she replied that she would tell the servant to make it; and then clapped her little hands together across my arm, and laughed in such a charming manner that she was more delightful than ever.”

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