Saturday 23 April 2011

Dear John - John Sullivan's finest sitcom

By a horrible co-incidence I wrote the post below this morning aiming to come back to check for spelling later, by which time it'd been announced that the writer John Sullivan had died...

I've just watched the tv series Dear John for the first time in over 20 years and I was pleased that I enjoyed it as much as I remembered I had. I should say first that I'm talking about the UK series and not the US remake.

It was strange to see how the memory works in that I could remember very little of the specifics of the show and yet the moment an episode started I could remember the whole storyline and all the jokes. The two main things I knew in advance is that the sitcom is one of those very nearly great series. Only 14 episodes were made even though the format was good enough to run for a decade, but the tragic early death of the lead actor brought the series to a premature end. The other thing I knew is that it's strangely neglected. The writer John Sullivan's fame largely stems from his sitcom Only Fools and Horses, which is always voted as Britain's favourite sitcom while Dear John never gets a mention. Odd that.

Watching it again made me realize a few others things. I'm willing to lay a bet that the writers of Father Ted were Dear John fans. The character of John has a Ted quality (the only sane man in a world of idiots and whose only fault is not to know he's an idiot too) and there are other similarities in large and small ways. Humour often springs from John telling a small lie, and then when that's found out, he has to tell bigger and bigger lies to more and more people, which is something that Ted did a lot. Then there's the joke of the terrible disco with only one record that got re-used in Ted and Mrs Arnott, a character that get laughs because she never says anything feels like a trial run for Father Jack.

As for the characters, the down-at-heel and put-upon John is more interesting than I remembered. There's a darkness to his character after his divorce, perhaps helped by the fact Ralph Bates was such an odd choice to play a sitcom lead after starring in all those lurid Hammer horrors. It's good that everyone he rubs up against are unremittingly awful with a selfish ex-wife, and unpleasant friends who are worse than enemies. With such a terrible life, he seeks out solace in the 1-2-1 club where other sad divorcees join up to discuss their failings and annoy each other. First time round I was rooting for John to get together with Kate, but this time I found Belinda Lang's character to be horrible and there didn't seem to be any tension between them at all. She doesn't get any sympathetic lines and she disappears from the show before the end. Also Ralph, the sad loner whose only friend is his terrapin (which strangely hasn’t grown large like terrapins do), was also not as entertainingly dull as I remembered him to be. But then again there's a lot of competition in sitcoms for his type of character.

The undoubted star is Kirk St Moritz, a character who, if the series had gone on for longer, would have become a comedy great. He's a man without a single redeeming quality, being an arrogant, stupid, egotistical fantasist whose every line is crass and insulting. But what makes him so brilliant is that it's all an act and he's really a sad loner who lives at home with his mum (who for no good reason is Irish and sounds like Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) and who is essentially Ralph without the charisma. The fact that John knows this but can’t tell anyone is a comic set-up that could have been used dozens of time.

The other undoubted star is Louise, the leader of the group with her legendary catchphrase of 'were there any sexual problems?'. The glee on her face as she encourages people to bear their soul to ridicule is endlessly fascinating. Sadly though the series ended before it could get started, but 14 great episodes is better than most sitcoms manage in longer runs.


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I don't think I'd agree that this was his finest, but it was a damn good show. The Kirk character being revealed as a train spotter was excellent. Ah I remember this well. For what it's worth - I think Just Good Friends is the best thing John Sullivan ever did in terms of being a complete story.

I.J. Parnham said...

With writing as good as his, a case could be made for any of his sitcoms being his finest, but I guess my opinion is based on DJ ending early. Horses went on past its sell-by date and my recollection of JGF is that it ended well, but then had a spin-off episode and an another unneeded series. And Citizen Smith went downhill after his girlfriend and other cast members left leading to a terrible final year. DJ never got the chance to outstay its welcome.

Anonymous said...

This is one of Johns greatest, if not the best. Not just for the comedy aspect, there are so many underlying psychological themes running through this, its incredibly clever. I agree Dear John could of ran on for at least another 2 series and I do believe Kirk could of taken over the leading role in a way, there was so much potential with his character. I find it upsetting really, that this if anything feels unfinished., though a fitting legacy for Ralph Bates.