[31 October 2010]
A few years ago, I read about how the wonderful Andy Partridge of XTC saw his band’s position within the pantheon of rock music. Using the fantasy location of a large, glitzy family party attended by every well-known group in the public eye, Partridge wryly noted that XTC, if invited at all, would probably be the awkward, bespectacled and quirky cousin relegated to a darkened corner, unable – or more likely unwilling - to make a connection with the wealthy, the narcissistic, and those adulated in the spotlight.
If we appropriate Partridge’s metaphor for a moment and apply it to the work of the highly acclaimed British comedy writer John Sullivan, it would be fair to say that despite the undeniable critical and commercial highs of Sullivan’s career, his sitcom Dear John—if it was attending a similar party for the great and the good of British television comedy – would, like XTC, be just another shy, sensitive and literate relation undeservedly stuck away in an alcove.
Available here in its two series entirety (including a 50-minute Christmas special), and for the first time ever on DVD since it was originally broadcast on the BBC between 1986 and 1987, Dear John seems strangely forgotten today, regardless of its quality, and this may be for several reasons.
Foremost of these would be that Sullivan’s output includes several other revered comedy series. The universally lauded and thoroughly terrific Only Fools and Horses, which is often polled as the best British sitcom ever made, inevitably casts a towering, monolithic shadow over all British television comedy, let alone Sullivan’s other work (at the party, Only Fools and Horses would probably be sitting on a large gold throne in the centre of the room, maybe accompanied by Fawlty Towers).
Additionally, Sullivan’s other major success, the excellent and exuberant ‘70s series Citizen Smith (possibly strutting around the dance floor like Mick Jagger), managed to mine its humour by gently satirizing the zeitgeist of youthful political rebellion in ‘70s Britain, and in the process it made a television star of its lead, Robert Lindsay. Lindsay’s profile, still very high today, ensures his body of work is regularly discussed and referenced during interviews, the upshot of this being that Citizen Smith is never too far from contemporary public consciousness.
Indeed, it’s this last point that is also relevant in further explaining why Dear John has fallen off the comedy radar: the death almost 20 years ago of its titular star, the great Ralph Bates, of which more in a moment.
The subject matter of Dear John doesn’t immediately suggest any comedy merit. Divorced against his will, kind and gentle language teacher John Lacey is ordered by the courts to leave the family home, making way for his ex-wife to bed-in, quite literally, with John’s former best friend. Now emasculated, financially crippled and lonely, John is forced to move into a grotty bed-sit nearby.
However, amidst this misery, a glimmer of hope and potential companionship appears when John spots a small newspaper ad for a local singles group, the 1-2-1 Club. He attends, and comes to realise that compared to the issues faced by the other romantically marginalised and generally strange misfits present, his own problems don’t seem insurmountable. As the episodes progress, John inevitably begins to make genuine friends, and also becomes the fatherly voice of reason to the vulnerable coterie around him. Despite this unlikely comedic setting, the laughs are consistent from the beginning of the series, and the exciting prospect of John’s emotional rebirth looms large, providing a light-hearted thrust and purpose to the show’s entire narrative, as John constantly attempts to return to some form of order and normality.
Common to most of Sullivan’s work, it’s the delicate chemistry between the characters’ differing personalities that is the most impressive aspect of his writing. Throughout the show’s run, their strengths and weaknesses are bounced around and explored, and as the ensemble becomes more familiar to us, one is able to anticipate each character’s reaction to a given scenario, and one also accepts their motivations and interactions without question. Even in several fairly outlandish situations, Sullivan’s characters are – crucially - still very believable, and this is no doubt one of the factors that has ensured his work, and that of his actors, has been recognised so frequently by BAFTA.
In addition to John, the other main players in Dear John are Kirk (Peter Blake), a handsome, flirtatious and white-suited, Travolta-esque womaniser with a few hidden secrets, Kate (Belinda Lang), an attractive but ‘frigid’ thirty-something woman with an intriguing apathy towards the club she chose to join, and Ralph (Peter Denyer), a feeble and sickly nerd with a major crisis of self-confidence.
While the main performances are generally excellent, a couple of minor players (Rachel Bell as the 1-2-1 Club organiser Louise, and Jean Challis as the nervous club member Mrs. Arnott) indulge in what I refer to as ‘rep acting’, which involves a dramatic over-projection that is common to some repertory theatre actors. The intimacy of the small screen, with its variety of close-ups, inevitably magnifies vocal and physical overstatement, and in Dear John such acting jars a bit against the more accomplished performances of the main stars.
Of course, Ralph Bates is exceptional. Perhaps best known as a stalwart of horror movies from Hammer’s ‘70s twilight period, he is perfectly cast as John. Even his default facial expression is ideal (check out the DVD cover), encompassing a combination of bemused, hurt and emotionally innocent. Additionally, the show’s frequent juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy – often in the same scene, occasionally in the same moment even – is conveyed perfectly by the actor.
Sadly, any critical plaudits Bates received for his performance in Dear John were short-lived. In 1991 he died of cancer, and it’s arguable that his death brought about the final demise of the show, both in commercial terms (there were rumours prior to Bates’ death of a possible third series) and also with regards to its subsequent public exposure in the U.K. None of the supporting cast, regardless of their ability, was well-known or high profile enough to carry the torch after the series ended, and even in interviews with the fairly private Sullivan, Dear John warrants scarcely a mention.
Quite simply, Dear John without Bates was unthinkable, and what better eulogy for him than that? After his film successes, Bates’ late-in-coming television fame was short and sweet (happily, his fellow cast members confirm that he was a highly likeable man in real life), and without him around as a enduring reminder of Dear John, it’s no surprise that attention given to the show has dwindled rapidly over the years.
Finally, it’s perhaps also worth mentioning as a footnote that the popularity of the much longer-running and more anaemic American version of Dear John - which was rather confusingly also shown in the U.K. – probably unfairly diluted the impact of this sharper original.
All this being said, regardless of the reasons for the show’s slide into relative obscurity, it’s nevertheless a great shame, because Dear John is emotionally intelligent and full of painful and poignant subtexts. Sullivan has always been masterful at seamlessly mixing challenging, socially resonant themes with genuine warmth and humour, and Dear John represents some of his best work in this respect.
As far as I’m aware, the show has never been repeated on terrestrial British television, an honour which is afforded to myriad other BBC comedy series from the past. The show hasn’t dated too much, because it represents - albeit in a condensed form - the timeless, universal struggle and heartbreak that romantic problems can induce. As a character, the fragile John embodies what we all experience at one time or another in our lives, as he strives to maintain basic human interaction and intimacy, just to reassure himself he’s not alone in the world.
Ultimately, it’s a measure of Sullivan’s skill that he is able to imbue all his work with such spirit. Just like his most successful show Only Fools and Horses, the most tender and touching moments in Dear John are often diffused with irreverent and hilarious dialogue, and I can’t think of too many British comedy writers who are able to make hardship and humour such comfortable bedfellows.
So, perhaps with the release of this DVD box set, it’s time for Dear John to finally come out of those shadows in the corner, and once again enjoy a little deserved attention in the limelight.
The basic extras consist of cast filmographies and optional subtitles.