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Dombey and Son (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Dombey and Son (1983)
BBC1, tx. 16/1/1983-20/3/1983
10 x 30 minutes, colour
DirectorRodney Bennett
ProducerBarry Letts
AdaptationJames Andrew Hall
Original NovelCharles Dickens
MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Julian Glover (Dombey); Lysette Anthony (Florence); Rhoda Lewis (Louisa Chick); Shirley Cain (Miss Tox); Barnaby Buik (Paul); Paul Darrow (Carker)

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When a stern and distant shipping magnate fathers a son, his daughter finds herself not only without her mother - who died shortly after the birth - but displaced in her father's affections by her sickly younger brother.

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"There's no writing against such power as this," cried William Makepeace Thackeray to his editor after reading the fifth instalment of Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son. "Read that chapter describing young Paul's death - it is stupendous!" This is a generous tribute from one writer to another, but Thackeray might inadvertently have put his finger on a problem. If the emotional highlight has now been reached, how will Dickens sustain interest for the next 15 instalments?

Dombey and Son has never been a favourite candidate for adaptation. There is not much in the way of narrative highlights after Paul's death, and some of the characters and situations - the downfall of a colossus of commerce, the hard-hearted heroine groomed by a parent figure to ensnare men - will be developed more subtly in Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. Yet this fine adaptation has much to commend it.

Dickens told his biographer John Forster that the novel was about pride, and Julian Glover's imperious performance as Dombey certainly conveys that dimension of a character who will be brought low by the machinations of his treacherous clerk, Carker (a sharp study in hypocritical wickedness by Paul Darrow). Yet the adaptation also picks up on a theme that feminist critics were emphasising at the time, the fate of the neglected child, Florence (Lysette Anthony, a lovely performance), who is barely acknowledged by her father. The innocent heroine could hardly be more different from the cynical character of Dombey's second wife, Edith (Sharon Mughan), yet the instinctive bond that develops between them suggests a shared recognition of each other's plight: a struggle against the power of patriarchy and the monstrous disjunction between male and female roles in Victorian society.

The most chilling moment (more so here than in the novel because it is given more emphasis) occurs after the death of Dombey's son, when the father has given instructions on what is to be written on the boy's gravestone. The servant queries whether there is some mistake, and it has to be pointed out to Dombey that his phrase 'beloved and only child' should read 'beloved and only son'. In his grief, the man has literally forgotten his daughter's existence. It gives added force to the final reconciliation between father and daughter, which has something of the power and poignancy of the forgiveness scene between Lear and Cordelia.

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
1. A son is born (2:53)
2. Mrs Dombey (2:39)
3. Making friends (3:41)
Complete first episode (29:26)
Dickens on Television