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Dombey and Signalman,
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This review is from: Dombey & Son - The Complete Series + The Signalman  [Dutch Import] (DVD)
A very odd piece of Dickens - it may of course be the adaptation - something of a narrative dog-leg.
The titular Dombey is a profoundly unattractive man, interested only in money and self-perpetuation; no warmth, no humour, no imagination; no doubt a product of his time, but so is Gradgrind, and I'd rather have a drink with him than with Dombey who, if bereft of virtue is also a stranger to vice, however much a force for quite considerable evil he may be, it seems more for want of imagination than anything else. Dombey is dull - his house, his society, his conversation are dull, and it is a fair bet that, whatever it is that the firm of Dombey and Son trade in, that is dull too. One reason, I suspect, that this tale has been described as boring is that the central character, if left on his own, could bore the hind leg off a donkey. Most of Episode One takes place Chez Dombey, leading us first to the conclusion that nobody has ever said 'Let's go round Dombey's house and have a laugh'.
Mrs Dombey has borne Dombey a son, and then she dies, leaving Dombey fairly unmoved, finally the mood lifts with the arrival of the Toodle Family, but Dombey is horrible to them as well, just like he is to everybody, and if people don't carry on to Episode Two it's really little wonder, but 'twould be a pity.
The only bright spot to lighten Dombey's misanthropy is the son, Paul Junior, whom he adores, and with whom can seem almost human, but this frail and hauntingly odd little boy dies far too young, and never grows up to be a consumptive poet.
We get quite close to an essay on the Victorian industry of death, but Dickens pulls up his tragic hero's boot straps, weds him to a world-weary adventuress, to whom he is (again) horrible, she leaves him, then everyone else leaves him, and Dombey is left contemplating his own phenomenal stupidity. Dombey stands proud in the ranks of diminished heroes; we can admire the prowess of Coriolanus, initially we can at least like Timon, we can even feel a little bit sorry for that monumentally unattractive local municipal dignitary, Michael Henchard, the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge (written 40 years later), but Dombey? Dombey runs far too close to being the villain of the piece.
That role however is occupied by his manager, James Carker, the amoral sidekick to the immoral boss. Paul Darrow is clearly relishing his portrayal of grinning villainy, while Julian Glover seems not to be having very much fun as Dombey, but then, it's hard to think of an actor that would. Mr Darrow, by contrast, lifts every scene he's in.
And that is pretty much the note for the whole show - there are some bright and enjoyable performances, but in a tale whose tone is gloomy inclining to gloomiest - first among these being Emrys James as Captain Haddock - *sorry* - Cuttle (!), a bluff old salty sea-dog, whose hook hand even looks convincing, and James Cossins, who'd played every buffer, bureaucrat and blimp for the BBC, as the vaingloriously lying* Major Bagstock - awful man - big mouth, large trousers and a well-concealed streak of malice half a mile wide.
Barbara Hicks has an interesting time of it as Mrs Pipchin, a harridan that should never have been given the care of any children, who runs up against the awful observations of Paul Junior: 'She [her daughter] loves you', 'Yes, that's right', 'I wonder why'.
The other end of the story is the travails of Sol Gill, ships instrument maker and all-round Dickensian good egg - losing money in a trade no-one wants anymore - he and his nephew Wally blunder around terribly virtuously back and forth to Barbados, while Captain Cuttle shreds his parrot in anxiety. In the end Wally is back to marry Florence, and Toots will marry Susan Nipper, and all is well.
But it's workaday fare, all this; I'm sure that Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks should have been able to make more out of it (mind you, their Oliver Twist wasn't much cop) but, for all of Mr Glover's fuming, this is a tepid, thin production, lacking the scale that the story really seems to require (location filming, for instance, is never really much better than adequate).
Sharon Maughan is extremely good as the second Mrs Dombey - well worth watching episodes 9 & 10 for - and Phillida Sewell as Good Mother Brown deserves a cigar.
3/5 I suppose
They took their time over telling a story in those days, but about ten minutes in, during which two guys had sat in a railway signal box in a cutting in front of a tunnel mouth talking to each other, I said to Ginny 'Nothing's happened, so why is it so profoundly bloody disturbing?'
Denholm Elliott is clearly a very frightened railway employee; there is something that stands by the mouth of the tunnel, waving at him, and every time he sees it, something dreadful happens, people die.
There is something undeniably frightening about railway tunnel mouths; black, huge, gaping, empty. All killers, and this one at least is realising its potential.
The other thing is the spectre itself; a shadow, barely visible against the stonework - if the signalman didn't know it was there, we'd probably miss it. On balance, I think we'd be happier if we did.
This is a very good ghost story indeed.
*A more fitting adjective has been coined, referring to the excreta of adult bovine males, but it doesn't seem to get past he censor.
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Initial post: 28 Oct 2014, 22:54:55 GMT
Katy Downey says:
Funniest review ever! I'd almost buy the dreaded Dombey now.
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