Period adaptations of classic literature pose significant geographical challenges for filmmakers: our built environment is in constant flux. In London, Victorian houses sit next to 1960s hotels, in Birmingham the 1990s Symphony Hall sits above the Georgian canal. It is hard to find views that look exactly as they would have looked even thirty years ago, let alone two hundred years ago. Whilst Britain is so well-stocked with stately homes and leisure sites of the landed and wealthy that it is often possible to film Jane Austen adaptations in the original historical locations, the same is not the case for adaptations of Charles Dickens. His socially mobile works feature the homes of the poor, and functional places such as workhouses, debtor’s prisons, docks and harbours; places which get remade when the needs of industry and commerce dictate. Some films are able to build large, detailed sets of workhouses or entire Victorian streets on soundstages or backlots, but not all films can afford this option. This post looks at the challenges faced by The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019, dir. Armando Iannucci), which was shot almost entirely on location.

Early in the film, when David is a young boy, he is sent to lodge with the relatives of his beloved nanny, Peggotty, in Yarmouth. There he has his first experience of working-class life and the bonds of care that bind large family groups. He works alongside them sorting and gutting hauls of fish at the harbour, which in the film looks like this:

This scene was not, and could not be, shot in the real-world Yarmouth of 2019. One side of the town is still a functioning port (although it appears to deal more in aggregates than in fish) and the other is Norfolk’s foremost kiss-me-quick seaside resort, complete with crazy golf and amusement arcades. Characters from the novel, Copperfield, Peggotty and Micawber, are commemorated in the street names, but Dickens would not recognise the town as it is now.

So what considerations drove the scouting process for the place that was to play Yarmouth? The film’s budget did not allow for large scale set builds so shooting was primarily on location. In a personal interview the film’s supervising location manager Harriet Lawrence noted that her personal preference is to present directors with choices that are architecturally correct for the period. “Vernacular architecture is important to me. What we’re doing has to be architecturally correct period wise. If I was working on a Tudor film, for example, I would not want to be presenting locations that had lead drainpipes running down them, which are fine for Elizabethan but not fine for Tudor and medieval.”

The location that represents “Yarmouth” most strongly in the film is the harbour, which in reality is the Purfleet Quay in King’s Lynn, some 70 miles away (but importantly, still in the same county). In terms of historical accuracy, this quay was in commercial use during the period covered in the book (approx. 1820-1840), although shortly afterwards competition from the upstart rail industry sent the port into decline. Practically, Purfleet Quay is suited to period filming. As Lawrence points out, “you’ve got so much period detail in so many directions. Three sides of this location are period with a bit of help from post production. You just look at those warehouses and see it’s a containable space. There’s that depth of architecture and the number of different styles. Obviously you can’t use the angle out towards the river but you get 270º with a bit of help from CGI.” 

Google Street View 360º panorama of Purfleet Harbour.

This 270º range meant the crew were almost as free with camera angles as they would be on a built set. The primary practical challenges for the production designer, Cristina Casali and her team (besides sourcing a small fleet of plausible fishing boats) were ‘cover-ups’: temporarily removing street lights and litter bins, disguising modern window frames, and hiding a statue of naval captain George Vancouver, which could not be removed and was judiciously hidden inside a large shipping crate instead.

Lawrence says stocking the harbour with boats was the real challenge. “We really struggled with the quantity of boats, to physically get them there. There are two real boats that are sort of the right period and the rest, the smaller ones, have cloths draped over them to disguise the fact that they are made of fibreglass.” Even so, the work the crew did amounts to set dressing rather than a wholesale remaking of that space, either in reality or with VFX.

So what drove the decision to use Purfleet Quay? What other options did Lawrence, Casali and Iannucci consider? “We sort of toyed with the idea of Hartlepool,” Lawrence remembers, before switching focus to the practical considerations behind the choice of Purfleet harbour. “We absolutely needed clusters, because you can’t go to Chatham and to Charleston Harbour in Cornwall on that scale of film and then be in Bury St. Edmunds for the theater or whatever. And there was obviously a very East Anglia feel to this. So the more we could find clusters for that, the more it works. Cristina and I were very wedded to a house in Norfolk that we wanted to use as The Rookery, David’s childhood home. It had the crow step gables, it had the dark pan glaze pantiles, and it had the flint. It had all those little elements that are really typical of East Anglia, elements that really rooted David’s childhood.” 

Attention to the specific character of a region makes a difference to the sense of ‘authenticity’ evoked by the film. Purfleet Quay’s history as a working port alone does not make it any more suited to the role of Yarmouth than Hartlepool harbour. The detail that gives the necessary geographic specificity however, the detail that feels like Norfolk, is the light stone building which draws the eye in wide establishing shots.

The Customs House was built in 1683 from ashlar limestone, a local building material, and in a Dutch classical style modelled on Maastricht’s Stadhuis. Dutch influences entered East Anglia’s vernacular and polite architecture thanks to the cultural exchange that accompanied the county’s 17th century project of land reclamation, which was led by Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden. These details, which most viewers would register only subliminally when watching the scene, are what connote setting. We may not be able to say precisely what feels like Yarmouth, or Norfolk, but we feel it is correct. For the most part, feel is enough; if an audience is spending too long picking apart the scenery the drama is not holding their attention. As Lawrence notes: “It isn’t important to every director, some directors really won’t care at all. Designers will usually care, but they will obviously take their lead from the director. Our job is to make sure the director is aware of the issues and then it’s up to them to choose whether they stick with the architectural correctness or whether they don’t. And, you know, they are telling a story, not doing a documentary. So it really is up to them.”

Iannucci’s adaptation is formally very playful. The narrative is framed as David Copperfield delivering an on-stage reading of his autobiographical novel, and is embroidered with theatrical flights of fancy that break the fourth wall, such as magic lantern show flashbacks projected onto objects in the diegetic space of the film. But this is married to a surprising degree of fidelity to sense of place. For example, the film makes a running affectionate joke out of East Anglia’s most pronounced characteristics: flat landscapes and big skies.

This fidelity is a direct result of the time that Lawrence and Casali were granted to scout their locations. “We were away for three or four weeks on the initial scout, which felt like a luxury on that level of budget. Sometimes after the first week or two you’re under pressure to take things to the director while you’re still forming ideas. We were very lucky on Copperfield, Armando was actually out of the country promoting The Death of Stalin so we were very much left on our own. By the time he came back to the UK and had time to re-engage with the film we had a whole load of choices. We’d both worked with Armando before and he trusted us, so when we came to him with fairly formed ideas he would buy into most of them unless he felt very strongly.”

Every film location decision has to balance the needs of the story with practicality and affordability. The ‘authenticity’ of a location only matters so far as it serves the story and tone. Copperfield is by no means a realist film but accuracy matters to its overall narrative scheme. Even when the dialogue isn’t drawing attention to them, the geographical and architectural correctness of the settings enriches the texture and anchors the tone of the film, which is otherwise as flighty as the kites made by David’s friend Mr. Dick. In this case it seems that the trust and time invested in production design and scouting resulted in locations that stand up to a high level of scrutiny and evoke a very specific sense not just of period, but of regionality. This is especially rare in Dickens adaptations. The Personal History of David Copperfield might not really show us Yarmouth but it is a finely-crafted forgery made with care, an eye for detail, and a sensitivity to the genius loci of its settings.

Thanks to Harriet Lawrence for granting the interview and providing photos of Purfleet harbour playing Great Yarmouth in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019).

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