David Copperfield (1999 film)

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David Copperfield
David Copperfield (1999 film).jpg
DVD cover
Written by Adrian Hodges (from the novel by Charles Dickens)
Directed by Simon Curtis
Starring Daniel Radcliffe
Ciarán McMenamin
Maggie Smith
Pauline Quirke
Alun Armstrong
Trevor Eve
Bob Hoskins
Zoë Wanamaker
Emilia Fox
Oliver Ford Davies
Nicholas Lyndhurst
Imelda Staunton
Ian McNeice
Ian McKellen
Michael Elphick
Dawn French
Composer(s) Rob Lane
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 1
No. of episodes 2
Executive producer(s) Jane Tranter
Rebecca Eaton
Producer(s) Kate Harwood
Running time 185 minutes
Production company(s) WGBH productions for the BBC
Original network BBC One
Picture format PAL (576i), 16:9
Audio format Stereo
Original release 25 December (1999-12-25) – 26 December 1999 (1999-12-26)

David Copperfield is a two-part BBC television drama adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1850 novel of the same name, adapted by Adrian Hodges. The first part was shown on Christmas Day 1999 and the second on Boxing Day the same year. The production is notable for being the first screen work of actor Daniel Radcliffe, who would later achieve fame as the star of the Harry Potter films, where he would collaborate with his David Copperfield co-stars Maggie Smith, Zoë Wanamaker, Imelda Staunton, Dawn French and Paul Whitehouse.

The series was co-produced by BBC America and Boston television station WGBH, and first aired on American television in April 2000, as a feature in the PBS series Masterpiece.[1][2] It won a Peabody Award in 2000.[3]



The adaptation was originally written by John Sullivan, the writer of BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses, and would have emphasised the comic aspects of Dickens' novel. The plan was to reunite former stars David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst on-screen, with Jason playing Wilkins Micawber and Lyndhurst in the role of Uriah Heep.[4]

When Sullivan disagreed with the new direction and re-allocation of the adaptation to the BBC's drama department, he left the project and would eventually move with Jason to ITV, producing a loose four-part series called Micawber in 2001 with Jason in the title role. Lyndhurst remained with the production to play Uriah Heep and the role of Micawber was taken up by Bob Hoskins.[4]


Part one[edit]

David Copperfield is a posthumous child. He was born in Blunderstone, Suffolk, six months after the death of his father, who was also called David Copperfield. On the night of David's birth, his Great-Aunt Betsey Trotwood arrives at the "Rookery" - the Copperfield family home - and eagerly anticipates the birth of a baby girl. She insists that Clara Copperfield's baby must be called Betsey Trotwood Copperfield, and that she will be her godmother. However, when the delivered child turns out to be a boy, Betsey is horrified (as her previous experiences with men have all ended tragically) and storms out, fuming. David grows up loved and cared for by Clara and their maid, Peggotty. When David turns eight, Clara meets and falls in love with Edward Murdstone, a stern man of whom David appears frightened and who takes an immediate dislike to David. Peggotty offers to take David with her to Yarmouth to visit her brother, Dan, and his family, and he accepts, forming a special bond with Dan's niece, Emily (or Little Em'ly). When they return, David sees, to his horror, that his mother has married Murdstone. Murdstone invites his equally stern, sexist sister, Jane, to live with them, and the two Murdstones quickly dominate the household with their callous personalities. Clara briefly objects to having little to no say in the affairs of her own house, and Murdstone responds by asserting his authority and sending David to bed with no dinner, following with more strict and unfair rules upon Clara, David and Peggotty. When Murdstone canes David for falling behind in his studies (although it was Murdstone who deliberately asked David particularly difficult questions), David bites him severely and as punishment, is sent to Salem House, a boarding school owned by Murdstone's abusive friend, Creakle, who torments David on Murdstone's request. David's only comfort at the school is his friendship with James Steerforth, an older student from a wealthy and influential family.

David returns home for the holidays and makes amends with Murdstone, who has fathered a baby boy with Clara. After the holidays David returns to Salem House, where he is informed by Creakle that his mother and half-brother have died, and he returns home for the funeral. Peggotty is fired, but becomes engaged to a family friend, Mr. Barkis. With the Murdstones now in full control of the Rookery and David's future, Murdstone takes David out of Salem House and sends him to work in his factory in London. Murdstone also arranges for David to live with his friend, Wilkins Micawber, who treats David like his own son, but he is sent to a debtors' prison shortly afterwards. When he is released, he and his family are forced to move to Plymouth, leaving David homeless. David runs away from London to Dover, to find Betsey Trotwood in the hopes that she will take him in. Eventually he finds her, and despite Betsey's reluctance to have a boy in her house, she houses him, but writes to the Murdstones about this. Over the time, David bonds with Betsey's lodger, Mr. Dick, and Betsey herself begins to feel attachment to her great-nephew. Edward and Jane Murdstone eventually arrive to take David back, but Betsey, knowing full well of the abusive treatment Murdstone inflicted on both Clara and David, agrees to become David's legal guardian, giving Murdstone a verbal thrashing and angrily ordering him out of her house.

David, now going by the name "Trotwood Copperfield", soon resumes his education at a school in Canterbury. During his time at school he lodges with Betsey's friend, Mr. Wickfield, whose daughter Agnes is roughly the same age as David. They grow up together as very close friends. On leaving school, David is apprenticed to a lawyer called Mr. Spenlow. David meets Mr. Spenlow's daughter Dora and falls in love with her at first sight.

Part two[edit]

David sees Agnes at a party in London. David is less happy to see Uriah Heep, Mr Wickfield's clerk, there as well. David tells Agnes of his love for Dora before running into his old friend, Steerforth. Later Uriah discloses to David his determination to marry Agnes and warns David not to tell Agnes or Mr. Wickfield of his intentions. Soon after, David enjoys an unplanned visit with the Micawbers before visiting Steerforth at his mother's home. David and Steerforth travel to Yarmouth where David visits Peggotty and Mr. Barkis, who has taken ill, before he and Steerforth visit the Peggotty family. Dan, Ham, Emily and Mrs. Gummidge are still living in the boat house. David learns that Ham and Emily will soon be married. Emily confides in David that she does not believe herself to be good enough for Ham, and ignores David's reassurances that Ham loves her more than anyone could. David makes one final stop to visit Peggotty and informs her that he plans on becoming engaged to Dora.

At David's lodgings in London, the Micawbers come for dinner and Mr. Micawber reveals that he is now working for Uriah Heep. David reveals to Dora his love for her, and she reciprocates. On returning home that evening, he finds Aunt Trotwood on his doorstop declaring that she is ruined. David and Dora agree to a secret engagement due to his financial situation since he is now without his great aunt's support. David returns to Canterbury to see the Wickfields and discuss his great aunt's situation, but nothing can be done. David reveals to Mr. Micawber that he suspects Mr. Heep of trying to take control of Mr. Wickfield and his business. David informs Agnes of his engagement to Dora. Mr. Heep declares his intention to marry Agnes to Mr. Wickfield who responds with rage. The next day, Agnes tells David that her father has apologized to Mr. Heep since he is now too dependent on him. She appears to be reluctantly accepting her potential marriage. Upon David's next visit to Mr. Spenlow, he finds that his engagement to Dora has been discovered and not accepted and is advised to forget it. David refuses to give up Dora and tries once again to convince Mr. Spenlow of his worthiness, but discovers him dead of a heart attack.

David visits Yarmouth again after he receives a letter from Peggotty, informing that Barkis's health is deteriorating. Barkis eventually dies and leaves an astronomical £3,000 in his will[5] - the interest on £1,000 to Dan Peggotty and £2,000 to Peggotty, his wife. Ham tells David that Emily has run off with Steerforth who has been hiding in the area visiting her in secret. Dan begins a search for them, which stretches to other parts of Europe. First he, David and Peggotty inform Steerforth's mother and her companion, Rosa Dartle, of his disappearance who, in response, tell them that they will not allow Steerforth to marry Emily. David learns that Mr. Spenlow is bankrupt and comforts Dora. David then begins to write and starts to sell his stories. He introduces Dora to Agnes, and Dora and David get married. They struggle as a young couple with getting the house in order. David becomes frustrated by Dora's inability to be anything more than a 'child bride', but decides to adapt himself to her and their marriage is finally as happy as it should have been. Dora becomes pregnant, only to suffer a miscarriage which leaves her badly weakened and eventually bedridden.

David eventually finds Emily in a London slum where she is being confronted by Rosa Dartle. Dan Peggotty also appears on the scene and promises Emily that they could start a new life as far away from Yarmouth as possible - in Australia. Emily begs David to take a letter of forgiveness to Ham, but on his arrival at Yarmouth the town is deserted as a fierce storm is raging and a ship is in peril. Ham attempts to rescue a survivor, who turns out to be Steerforth, but both are drowned.

Back at Canterbury, Mr Micawber reveals that he has uncovered Heep's villainous scheme which has ruined both Mr Wickfield and Betsey Trotwood. Mr Wickfield summons the police and Heep is arrested. In thanks, Betsey Trotwood offers to pay for a fresh start for the Micawbers in Australia, but at the harbour are faced with a policeman who has a warrant for Mr Micawber's arrest - again for unpaid debts. Luckily, Betsey Trotwood arrives on the scene and pays off Mr Micawber's debts, leaving him free to board the boat to Australia. Dan and Emily join the Micawbers on the voyage to Australia. Peggotty insists that the news of Ham's death be kept from Emily until she is strong enough to cope. Dan invites his sister to join him in Australia, but she chooses to stay in England with David and Dora. Another passenger on the ship is Heep, one of a group of convicts in chains being loaded for penal transportation.

Dora eventually dies and in his grief David disappears for three years, during which time he continues to write and has his first two books published. On David's return to Canterbury, he realizes that he loves Agnes Wickfield. After much prodding, Agnes reveals that she has always been in love with David, and even had Dora's dying approval. They are married and within a few years have two sons. David receives a visit from Mr. Peggotty, back from Australia. He brings news that Emily has made a full recovery and that Mr. Micawber has established himself as a successful magistrate and bank manager. The story closes with the birth of David and Agnes's third child - a girl. Betsey Trotwood's wish finally comes true after nearly 30 years, as David decides that the baby will be christened Betsey Trotwood Copperfield, in honour of her godmother.


Key locations featured in the story[edit]

  • Blunderstone is the village in Suffolk where David Copperfield was born. He lived at a house called The Rookery with his mother Clara and servant Peggotty. When Clara Copperfield married Mr Murdstone, he moved into the house and was soon joined by his sister. Their presence turned the house into an unhappy place and David suffered particular cruelty, being sent away to Salem House boarding school after he bit Mr Murdstone during a beating. David finally left Blunderstone after his mother's death, when Mr Murdstone sent him to work in London.
  • Yarmouth is the Norfolk seaside town where Peggotty's relatives lived in a boat house with their friend Mrs Gummidge. David visited the place as a child and returned about a decade later to visit the Peggotty family. After Ham's death, Dan, Emily and Mrs Gummidge moved to Australia to start a new life - something which was particularly beneficial to Emily after her affair with Steerforth.
  • Salem House is the London boarding school where David Copperfield was sent after he bit Mr Murdstone. The cruel headteacher, Mr Creakle, was a friend of Mr Murdstone and singled out David for extra torment. David left the school after his mother's death, when he was sent to work at Mr Murdstone's factory. His best friend at the school was an older boy called Steerforth, who first rescued him from a gang of bullies, and he met him again years later as an adult.
  • London first features in the story when David was sent to work in Mr Murdstone's factory. He lived with the financially troubled Mr Micawber, who served time in a debtors' prison, until the Micawbers moved to Plymouth. David then decided to go to Dover in the hope that Betsey Trotwood would take him in. London featured again in the story when David began his working life apprenticed to a lawyer called Mr Spenlow. During his time in London, David met Dora Spenlow - who was to be his first wife.
  • Dover is the seaside town in Kent where David went to find Betsey Trotwood after the Micawbers left London. She agreed to take him in and he lived at the house with Betsey and her lodger Mr Dick.
  • Canterbury is the city where David Copperfield resumed his education, at a school which he . He grew up as a lodger at the house of Mr Wickfield, Betsey's Trotwood's business manager, whose daughter Agnes eventually became David's second wife and mother of their three children. Also living at the house was Mr Wickfield's lurking clerk Uriah Heep, who was eventually discovered to have committed fraud against Mr Wickfield.
  • Highgate is where James Steerforth lived with his mother Mrs Steerforth and his cousin Rosa Dartle. David visited the house several times, first after he met Steerforth for the first time since his schooldays, again when he informed Mrs Steerforth that her son had run away with Emily, and last of all when he informed Mrs Steerforth that her son had drowned at Yarmouth.


  1. ^ Boedecker, Hal (16 April 2000). "Dickens Classic Plays Well On PBS". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  2. ^ Zahed, Ramin (12 April 2000). "Review: 'David Copperfield'". Variety. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  3. ^ 60th Annual Peabody Awards, May 2001.
  4. ^ a b "ITV creates a Dickens of a problem for the BBC". The Independent. 6 May 2000. 
  5. ^ The novel was published in 1850. According to the Bank of England's inflation calculator, £3,000 back in 1850 is worth £383,928.57 in 2017.

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