Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
David Copperfield (1966)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of David Copperfield (1966)
BBC1, tx.16/1-10/4/1966
13 x 25 mins, black & white
DirectorJoan Craft
ProducerCampbell Logan
ScriptVincent Tilsley
Original novelCharles Dickens

Cast: Ian McKellen (David); Christopher Guard (David as a boy); Lila Kaye (Peggoty); Flora Robson (Betsey Trotwood); George Benson (Mr Dick); Bill Fraser (Mr Micawber); Colin Jeavons (Uriah Heep); Noël Johnson (Mr Wickfield); Hannah Gordon (Agnes); Barry Justice (James Steerforth); Suzanne Togni (Little Emily)

Show full cast and credits

Orphaned and abandoned to a cruel stepfather, young David is sent from his home and forced to make his own way in the world, finding friends and one or two enemies on the way.

Show full synopsis

Vincent Tilsley revisited his own 1956 adaptation of David Copperfield for this entry in the BBC's then well-established Sunday teatime Classic Serial slot. The four surviving episodes demonstrate the economic, sensitive handling of Tilsley and director Joan Craft.

The title sequence evokes the novel's key ideas of autobiography and memory, with a dissolve that makes child David almost run into the mind of the adult David, and the use of the Peggotty houseboat for the opening and closing credits. There are filmed inserts - location work and studio representations of London streets - but the production is largely studio-bound. There are some imaginative solutions to such restrictions, as in a succession of off-screen voices and close-ups summarising David's exhausting multiple jobs in one episode.

David is played in adulthood by Ian McKellen, and in childhood by 12-year-old Christopher Guard, who is excellent in the surviving third episode (in which he appears in every scene) and its unedited studio footage, which shows his assurance when even experienced actors required retakes. The strong cast includes Flora Robson, Bill Fraser, Joss Ackland, and Lila Kaye, whose voluntary work for underprivileged children made her, according to the Radio Times, particularly suitable to play Clara Peggotty.

Patrick Troughton's comic cameo as the pawnbroker followed his major roles as Quilp and Manette respectively in The Old Curiosity Shop (BBC, 1962-63) and A Tale of Two Cities (BBC, 1965), both also directed by Joan Craft. Indeed, Craft played a vital part in Dickens' television profile, also making Martin Chuzzlewit (BBC, 1964), Nicholas Nickleby (1968), Dombey and Son (BBC, 1969) and a different David Copperfield (BBC, 1974). With a career that also embraced Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and others, Craft deserves wider attention as a director of costume drama and literary adaptation.

Dickens' resurgent reputation led to a move away from the Classic Serial slot, a move welcomed by Dickens scholars such as Andrew Sanders, for whom such productions made the author seem "little more than diversion and entertainment, and best suited to children". All the same, while this adaptation is occasionally light in the playing (comic music punctuates some of Micawber's gesticulations), it doesn't avoid the novel's tough incidents, and its length allows an unusual faithfulness to incident and character (finding room for Traddles and others omitted from shorter adaptations). It is also notably more open to Dickens' language than adult-oriented adaptations like Great Expectations (BBC, 2011).

David Rolinson

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Mr Murdstone's plans (2:07)
2. Mr Micawber's difficulties (4:05)
3. The pawnbroker (4:05)
David Copperfield (1913)
Dickens on Television