BBC Charles Dickens Classics – Dombey and Son (1969) Review

By Will Barber Taylor

Dombey and Son is the original and earliest BBC adaptation of Dickens’ timeless tale of a father’s blinkered pride, public downfall and emotional rescue. The third Dickens adaptation by Hugh Leonard for the BBC, Dombey and Son is an absorbing portrayal of proud logic undone by staunch affection across all thirteen episodes. Starring John Carson (Doomsday), Kara Wilson (Grange Hill), William Moore (Coronation Street), Gary Raymond (Jason and the Argonauts), Pat Coombs (You’re Only Young Twice) and Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances).

Paul Dombey (John Carson) is the wealthy owner of a shipping company whose sole desire is to have a son to inherit the family firm. But when a sickly son is born, and his wife dies soon after in childbirth, Dombey finds no solace in the affections of his elder daughter Florence (Kara Wilson). Believing her to be of no value in his world of business, he neglects her.

 Encouraged by the sinister Major Bagstock (Clive Swift), Dombey enters into a second, loveless marriage with Edith Grainger (Sally Home). She eventually flees to France with Dombey’s double-dealing business manager James Carker (Gary Raymond). Dombey’s livelihood is further undermined by a burgeoning railway network. All seems lost unless his pride will allow him to salvage a relationship with Florence.

Dombey and Son is one of Charles Dickens’ lesser known novels. Published three years after A Christmas Carol and a year before David Copperfield, it is a novel which, whilst successful during its original printing run, has not become one of the instantly recognisable Dickensian classics. However, it has still been adapted numerous times with the earliest TV adaptation being in 1969. This adaptation breaks ground because it combines Dickens’ story of greed and corruption with the directorial style of the traditional kitchen sink drama. By fusing the past and the present together, it presents a surprisingly fresh take on a novel that was already a hundred years old at the time of the original broadcast. Yet Dombey and Son is a story that can appeal to all generations – it is a story of a man’s desire for status and profit which ultimately leads him close to his downfall until he realises that his arrogance has been the cause of his ruin.

John Carson’s central performance as the stiff, restrained and arrogant Dombey is the lynch pin that holds the series together. From the very first scene, Carson’s cool and precise reaction to his wife giving birth illustrates for the audience his contempt for anything that is not to his liking. Carson embodies the emotionally controlled Victorian absolutely and it is his inability to produce any sensitive emotions that marks him out as the anti-hero of the series.  His reluctance to find any common ground with his ailing wife gives us cause to dislike him but his eventual redemption succeeds in ensuring the audience can sympathise with him.

Clive Swift’s performance as Major Bagstock is enjoyably sinister- he plays the seemingly honest yet malevolent Major with skill and dexterity. Swift may not have as much screen time as Carson but he still makes a bold impression.

Dombey and Son is important for its social commentary, its depiction of gender politics and as an entertaining insight into the world of late 60s television. I’d recommend you watch it if not simply to enjoy a rarely adaptable but none the less enjoyable Dickensian classic.  

With thanks to Simply Media. You can purchase Dombey and Son from them here and from Amazon here

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