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First, let’s deal with the elephant taking up most of the rug. David Copperfield is Charles Dickens’ autobiographical Bildungsroman, the story of a half-educated boy in Georgian England who ends up in a workhouse because his father was hopeless with money but who, with the help of some eccentric patrons, is able to find his destiny as a writer. My mental picture of David Copperfield, at least until now, was of a pasty-faced waif with incipient rickets. And white, as is everyone in the white, white world of Sunday-night literary adaptation. Whiter than Dickens himself.

Now, enter Dev Patel, the tall, brown-skinned son of Indian Kenyans, wearing a frockcoat. “Strangely enough, I saw Dev as David Copperfield,” says Armando Iannucci, who wrote and directed a film version of David Copperfield that somehow makes 1840 feel like right now. “The only person I could see playing him was Dev, because I’ve seen Dev play young, gawky awkward teenagers in Skins and Slumdog Millionaire, but be strong and focused in Lion – and that’s what I was looking for. And there is a warmth, a genuineness about Dev that makes you feel a tremendous empathy with him. You want him to succeed. So, actually, I had no other person in my head.”

Dev Patel was Armando Iannucci's first choice to play David Copperfield.

Dev Patel was Armando Iannucci’s first choice to play David Copperfield.

Iannucci is so absolutely right about this that you don’t even think how great it is that he has decolonised a classic with a single stroke of colour-blind casting. It’s just casting, which is why the usual naysaying traditionalists haven’t said anything about it, even in Britain. When I speak to Iannucci, he is still glowing after a meeting with the Dickens Fellowship, which includes the writer’s descendants. “It was really gratifying to hear the members of the Dickens family say how much they enjoyed the film and how much they felt it captured their great-great-great-great-grandfather’s book,” he says happily. “I think what that shows is that doing an adaptation is not about doing a very literal translation.”

Iannucci has been a creative powerhouse in British comedy for 25 years, best known for taking apart the business of government in The Thick of It, its American successor Veep and his first film, In the Loop. “I suppose you always write about what interests you,” he says. “I was drawn to politics, as a subject. Then, during research, you see the inner workings and wonder: ‘Oh my God, is it really like that? That’s appalling!’ But that’s a good starting point for comedy.” His second film, The Death of Stalin, in which the vilest names in recent Russian history gather over the great leader’s corpse to decide how to divide the spoils, took that political satire to even bleaker and blacker places.