Reviews

'Dear John:Complete Series One and Two' Where Have You Been?

Comedy writer John 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.


Dear John: Complete Series One and Two

Distributor: Acorn (UK)
Cast: Ralph Bates, Belinda Lang, Peter Blake
Network: BBC
UK Release date: 2010-10-04
Amazon

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.