Dombey & Son (BBC, 1969) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Paul Dombey’s (John Carson) fondest wish is for a son to carry on his thriving business.  As the story opens, his wife duly delivers a baby boy who is swiftly named Paul after his doting father.  Although Mrs Dombey dies shortly afterwards, this seems to have a negligible impact on Dombey as his son quickly becomes the centre of his life (with the result that his daughter Florence is pushed even more into the background).

When young Paul dies at the age of six, Dombey Snr is devastated.  Florence attempts to comfort him but he continues to rebuff her, which eventually leads to a seemingly irrevocable split between father and daughter ….

Originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between October 1846 and April 1848, Dombey & Son, despite being regarded by many as one of Dickens’ best works, has generated surprisingly few film or television adaptations.  In the cinema, a 1917 British silent film and a very loose 1931 adaptation (which was renamed Rich Man’s Folly and saw the action transferred to the United States) are the only examples.  On television there have been just two English-language versions – this one and a later BBC Classic Serial adaptation in 1983.

The first episode quickly defines Dombey’s character. He’s a proud, dignified and extremely humourless man who treats his young daughter, Florence (played to begin with by Vicky Williams and later by Kara Wilson), with at best indifference and at worst contempt. John Carson, an actor who was seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, impresses right from the start. Unbending as Dombey might be, Carson doesn’t play him as simply a monster, instead he offers a much more nuanced performance.

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John Carson

Although Dombey is something of a dull fellow, as compensation there’s a number of sparkling comic performances sprinkled throughout the thirteen episodes. Two sitcom favourites – Hilda Braid and Pat Coombs – form a wonderful double-act as Louisa Chick and Lucretia Tox.  Louisa (Braid) is Dombey’s sister, a woman who shares her brother’s low opinion of Florence whilst Lucretia (Coombs) is her friend, a somewhat simpleminded person who simpers delightfully over Dombey and harbours a hopeless secret desire to become the next Mrs Dombey.

William Moore, another actor probably best known for his sitcom work (for example, the long-suffering Mr Lumsden in Sorry!) is padded up as the hearty seadog Captain Cuttle. Complete with a hook for a hand, Moore gives an unsubtle, but highly entertaining performance.

The first meeting between Dombey and Cuttle is an absolute gem. Dombey, taking afternoon refreshment with Paul and Florence in a Brighton tearoom (young Paul has been sent to the coast in the hope that the sea air will restore his failing health), is appalled when the colourful Captain Cuttle sidles over to his table. Cuttle is introduced to Domby by Walter Gay (Derek Seaton), one of Dombey’s clerks. The best moment of all is when Walter first mentions Cuttle’s name and the Captain raises his arm (the one with the hook, naturally) in response. Lovely!

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William Moore

Vicky Williams, as young Florence, doesn’t have a great deal of screentime (Kara Wilson would take over the role by the middle of the second episode) but she still makes an impression. The scenes where she’s lost in the city after being robbed of her clothes by an old crone, Mrs Brown (Fay Compton), are heartbreaking. Equally affecting is Ronald Pickering as young Paul. When Paul asks Dombey (in response to being told that money can buy anything) whether it can buy good health, his father is temporarily speechless.

When Dombey decides to send his young clerk, Walter, to the West Indies, it’s a story-beat which intrigues on several levels. Firstly, it’s another example of the way that Dombey cares little for other people (apart, of course, from his son) since it never seems to cross his mind to canvas Walter’s opinion first. Secondly, since Walter has shown interest in Florence, dispatching him abroad serves to sever their tentative relationship. Considering that he seems to care little for his daughters happiness, this appears to be an act of deliberate cruelty.

The fourth episode tugs at the heartstrings as young Paul begins to fade. His death is an understated moment – the camera moves away from his bed to focus on the window as the sound level reduces. The next scene, as Dombey stands by his son’s grave, is a sharp and jolting cut, but it works well.

Christopher Sandford as Mr Toots helps to lighten the mood following Paul’s funeral. Mr Toots, a former schoolfriend of Paul, is a kind-hearted, vague and twitchy young man who loves Florence dearly (but although she always treats him kindly it’s plain that she doesn’t feel the same way). But the ever-optimistic Mr Toots is never downhearted and can always be guaranteed to come bouncing back. Sandford provides a delightful comic performance in a serial which has an abundance of them.

Towards the end of this episode there’s the first hint that Dombey isn’t quite as unbending as he might appear. He decides not to send Walter to the West Indies after all, but it’s too late – his ship has already sailed, much to Florence’s anguish (which only increases when the vessel is feared to have been lost at sea).  Kara Wilson, as befits the character she plays, may be somewhat placed in the background but she still essays a subtle performance as a young woman constantly rebuffed by a father who finds it impossible to communicate with her on anything but the most rudimentary level.

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Kara Wilson

Clive Swift is yet another quality addition to the cast. He plays the bluff and hearty Major Bagstock, who seems to be Dombey’s only friend. The restrained Dombey and the ebullient Bagstock would seem to have little in common, but it’s their very differences which help to generate an entertaining spark between them.

The middle part of the serial sees Dombey remarry. He selects Edith Granger (Sally Home) who seems in every way to be an ideal choice – as she’s a skilled artist and musician as well as being a refined conversationalist. Nestling amongst some deliciously broad comic performances, Home offers a sharp contrast as the second Mrs Dombey.

Although she accepts Dombey’s proposal, it’s plain that – on her side at least – it’s not a love match. Manipulated by her mother from an early age (in order to ensnare a rich husband) Edith is a weary and embittered figure. But the one bright spark in her new life is her relationship with Florence.

Whilst some children might regard a new step-mother with mistrust, Florence is plainly overjoyed – partly because she hopes it will enable her father to find new happiness but also because there’s no doubt that her lonely existence would be enriched by a mothers love. The way that Florence instantly refers to Edith as Mama is touching (Kara Wilson is excellent again here).

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Sally Home

But any happiness that Dombey might have hoped for is short-lived, as Edith runs away with the slimy and manipulative Caker (Gary Raymond). Dombey, with the assistance of Alice Brown (also played by Sally Home) and her mother (who coincidently robbed the young Florence earlier in the serial) vows to track them down.

Gary Raymond seems to delight in playing the boo-hiss villain who, as tradition demands, meets a sticky end. And although Home plays both roles well, it probably would have been better had another actress played Alice (a woman who had a special cause to dislike Caker). This is mainly because it’s more than a little odd that no-one who ever meets Alice comments on her remarkably strong resemblance to Edith ….

Edith’s departure finally severs the already fraying relationship between Dombey and Florence. Whilst a distraught Florence is taken under Captain Cuttle’s wing (William Moore once again marvellous value at this point in the serial) Dombey faces severe business traumas due to Caker’s rash profiteering.  And as Dombey’s own health takes a turn for the worse, a now happily-married Florence attempts one final reconciliation. Will the patrician Dombey deign to acknowledge his daughter and her children?

Runnng for thirteen 25 minute episodes, Hugh Leonard’s adaptation manages to skillfully fillet Dickens’ novel and thereby retain everything of interest. A fine rogues gallery of comic performers – headed by the peerless William Moore as Captain Cuttle – helps to keep things ticking along nicely although the family drama between Dombey and Florence is never overshadowed. In general, performances across the serial are very strong although Douglas Mann as young Rob Toodle does overact somewhat (luckily his part isn’t a particularly large one).

Director Joan Craft had already helmed a number of Charles Dickens adaptations, although the survival rate of her serials is sadly quite low. Both The Old Curiosity Shop (featuring Patrick Troughton as Quilp – his favourite role) and Martin Chuzzlewit are completely missing although odd episodes from A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield do exist. More encouragingly, her 1968 version of Nicholas Nickleby remains in the archives, so hopefully a release from Simply might occur in the future.

Her directorial style isn’t dramatic or showy (there’s few of the flourishes that can be seen in Alan Bridges’ Great Expectations) but she still manages to ensure that the story unfolds at a decent pace. The production style is as you’d expect from a programme of this era – mostly studio sequences recorded on videotape, with occassional brief film inserts.

The episodes are a mixture of telerecordings and original videotape masters. The episodes which still exist on videotape are obviously the best quality ones. although since the telerecordings are also of a very high standard the jump between the different formats isn’t as great as it could have been. Overall, the picture quality (considering the unrestored nature of the source materials) is very good. The sound is generally clear although some of the telerecorded episodes (episode eleven especially) are somewhat crackly in places.

Thanks to the first-class cast who rarely put a foot wrong, Dombey & Son is another impressive Dickens adaptation.  Highly recommended.

Dombey & Son is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Gary Raymond & John Carson
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