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Simon Curtis, director

Simon Curtis says he was "the right guy in the right place," when the BBC needed a director for its 1999 Christmas present to the British nation: a star-studded adaptation of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

"They wanted a big, popular family event," he explains by phone from his London office, "and I had just directed The Student Prince (The Prince of Hearts on Masterpiece Theatre), which was the highest-rated BBC film of recent memory."

"I also have a reputation for attracting leading actors to projects," he adds. For David Copperfield, he set out to do just that, aiming for the quality of talent that filled the 1969 Delbert Mann movie version, which featured Edith Evans, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Susan Hampshire.

"I wanted the equivalent of that cast," says Curtis. Indeed, he just may have upped the ante by putting together a production with "the best of everything" -- as he explains...




Is this the first Dickens you've directed?

Yes.


And what was that like for you?

For a start, it's quite intimidating setting off on a project that so many people tell you is their favorite book. But I've always been drawn to Dickens because he's so modern and accessible, even though his books are set in another era. The psychological terrain of David Copperfield and most of Dickens seems very resonant to me.


What were you looking for in casting the two actors who play David?

David is a hard part because everything happens around him. I wanted a boy in the first half who I found personally appealing. Richard Eyre says that when you cast children, you just go with an instinct. I can't put it any better than that. Once we'd cast Daniel Radcliffe, we wanted someone who could convincingly be the older one. Again, it's a really hard part because he's in all these scenes with the best actors in the world.


And how did you get them?

I put together a wish list, and things just fell into place. Maggie Smith was obviously the only actress in the world who could play Aunt Betsey. Other people could be the Aunt Betsey at the beginning or the Aunt Betsey at the end, but she is the only one who could be Aunt Betsey all the way through. She was very keen to do it, and she was the magnet. Once she was part of the production, all discerning actors realized, "Oh, I see, it's that production. I'd like to be part of that!"


Who else was on your wish list?

Ian McKellen as Mr. Creakle, the headmaster of David's school. I thought he would be very special in that role. Trevor Eve was also very much on my wish list as Murdstone, David's stepfather. I worked with him before in Doll's House, which was on Masterpiece Theatre some years ago. I thought: Which man would a little boy least like to marry his mother? Trevor Eve is that man.


Murdstone is kind of psychotic, isn't he?

Or you could say, damaged. He is a man who admits he was beaten as a child and believes that's how you should bring up a child.


He'd be locked up today, don't you think?

That's right. But not in Victorian England.


And so would Mr. Creakle.

Yes, indeed. His school would be closed down.


On the subject of Creakle, how much cheese did Ian McKellen have to eat to get that wonderful take where Creakle is telling David that his mother has died?

It's cake actually, a very dense kind of cake, although some people think it looks like cheese. But not all that much really since he's such a brilliant actor.


It must be an incredible treat for British actors to get to do Dickens and these characters who are so familiar and vivid.

That's right. Every single character in Dickens has something about him or her that's very actable. Even if it's just a one-line part, every character has a back story and a life. That's what draws actors to these parts. It's easy to forget that Ian McKellen nearly won the Oscar for best actor last year in Gods and Monsters. Why would he want to do a BBC drama? The answer is that it's Dickens. It so happens that he played David Copperfield as a young man for the BBC in one of the earlier versions. Somewhere in his mind, he felt he'd been preparing to play Creakle all his life. And, of course, it was the part Olivier played in the Delbert Mann film.


How did you choose Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber?

I did The Changeling with him and Hugh Grant and my wife, Elizabeth McGovern, and I was eager to work with him again. I think there's something about Bob that kids like, and I thought he'd have a lively relationship with David.


Micawber is the role that W.C. Fields famously played in the 1935 film version. How did that performance affect you?

I wanted to go with a real actor as opposed to a comic. I think the relationship between the Micawbers at its most touching is proof of the value of having a real actor. Similarly with Mr. Dick -- Ian McNeice -- he transformed that character from the moment he arrived on the set. I wanted people to enjoy playing these parts. I wanted people to feel free to go for the comedy and the eccentricity in the characters, but I always wanted their feet on the ground and it to be psychologically truthful.


What is your interpretation of Uriah Heep?

Heep is interesting because he's not so different from David. They're both young men trying to make the best of themselves in a difficult world. But there's something malevolent about Heep that drives David crazy, since he is not self-aware enough to realize that the two of them are rivals for Agnes's heart.


And who plays him?

Nick Lyndhurst, who in England is one of the four or five biggest television stars. He's as big as Jason Alexander. He's in some ways the biggest star we have, in English terms.


What sort of character does he play on British television?

That's the other exciting thing. He tends to play this dopey young boy, so Heep is a big breakthrough for him. Pauline Quirke, who plays Peggotty, is another huge TV star here. So is Michael Elphick, who plays Barkis. It's the equivalent of having, in American terms, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, and Jane Leeves. We've got the best of everything. We've got three of England's great theater and film talent in Bob, Sir Ian, and Dame Maggie, and then we have all these popular people, too.


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