By the mid eighties John Sullivan was on something of a roll. Having started as a gag writer for the Two Ronnies in the late seventies he then quickly created a trilogy of classic sitcoms – Citizen Smith (1977-1980), Just Good Friends (1983-1986) and the series for which he’ll always be best remembered, Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003).
So despite having Just Good Friends and Only Fools and Horses on the go at the same time, Sullivan then increased his workload by adding another show, Dear John (1986-1987), into the mix. Although popular at the time (and it was strong enough to spawn an American remake a few years later) it’s possibly not so well remembered today. This may be because unlike Only Fools it never enjoyed blanket repeats (indeed the last terrestrial outing I can find a record of was back in 1991).
It also had quite a short run – two series and a Christmas Special, so just a total of fourteen episodes. It’s sometimes been assumed that Ralph Bates’ tragically early death was the reason why the series didn’t continue, but the last episode aired in 1987 and Bates died four years later, so it seems more likely that Sullivan had run out of ideas for the characters. This is something we’ll touch upon when we discuss series two, as there were several very clear attempts made to shake up the format.
The opening titles for the first series act as a very good shorthand to explain the concept of the show. John Lacey (Ralph Bates) returns home to find a Dear John letter – his wife, Wendy, has left him. We then cut to the court, where he looks optimistic (before he goes in that is). Afterwards, things clearly haven’t gone well and he’s forced to pack his bags and move into a dingy one-room flat.
From the first scene John is presented as a loser. A nice guy maybe, but a loser. He’s enjoying a solitary pint, when an old friend, Roger (Michael Cochrane), pops up. John attempts to put a brave face on his life as a divorcee, telling Roger that he’s having a great time – parties every night. Roger must be pretty dense as he swallows these obvious lies and then tells him that it’s shame he’s so busy as a few of the lads are heading out for a Chinese meal. John’s now dug himself into a hole – he’d love to go out with Roger and the others, but since he’s created such an active fantasy social life for himself, Roger thinks he’s joking. It’s interesting that Roger never appears again – he seems to have been created as a potential regular (and Cochrane is the sort of actor that would enhance any series) but after this scene he vanishes, never to be seen again.
Tired of sitting in his tatty bedsit, he decides to join the 1-2-1 club, a divorced/separated encounter group. It seems to be well attended, although it turns out that most of them are in the wrong room – they want the alcoholics anonymous meeting next door – which caps the opening gag which saw John go into the alcoholics anonymous meeting by mistake.
Once that confusion’s been settled we’re left with the motley bunch of characters who will be the main focus of the first series. Ralph Dring (Peter Denyer) is a charisma free zone – seemingly a man with little personality or self-awareness. Kirk St Moritz (Peter Blake) could hardly be a greater contrast – he has personality, far far too much of it and dresses in a way that can best be described as “flamboyant.” Kate (Belinda Lang) is quiet and fairly reluctant (at first) to be the centre of attention, but she’s not as quiet as Mrs Arnott (Jean Challis) who it’s easy to forget is there at times. Leading the group is Louise (Rachel Bell).
The characters are clearly defined in their opening scene. Ralph and Kirk are the obvious comic creations, so they’re particularly useful when the mood needs to be lightened after a serious moment (Ralph can always provide a bizarre conversational non sequitur whilst Kirk usually has an insensitive insult ready). Kate is a not such an extreme character, but she has a savage wit which is used to great effect to cut Kirk down to size (not that he ever minds, like a rubber ball he just bounces back).
Mrs Arnott rarely speaks – but this is a masterstroke, as whenever she does utter a few words they’re so well chosen by Sullivan that they invariably bring the house down. Louise is something of a monster, although it takes a little while for her true nature to come to the surface. Whilst she gives the impression of solicitous interest in her charges, it’s obvious that she really, really enjoys hearing all the gory details. Her catchphrase (“were there any … sexual problems?”) doesn’t generate any reaction from the studio audience the first time, but when it’s quickly repeated they cotton onto the fact and begin to respond.
We see her delight in learning about all the juicy bits very clearly in episode two when John inadvertently goads Kate into admitting that her three marriages broke up because she was frigid. Louise’s pleasure is plain to see and later, in the pub, she continues probing (“did your husbands try and force themselves on you?”) even after Kate’s made it quite plain she doesn’t want to talk about it.
My favourite episode from the first series is the third one, since it features Ralph heavily. Peter Denyer was a joy from start to finish – deadpanning his way through each and every episode. It’s the sort of character that has to be played completely straight (with no sense of self-awareness) and Denyer was spot on. Here, he’s holed up at home, bemoaning the fact that not only has he lost his job but he’s suffered a death in the family. Terry the Terrapin may not look like much, but he meant the world to Ralph. “He was my best friend. We’d been together for years.”
This episode also shows Kirk in a different light. He may appear to be rude, obnoxious and narcissistically self-obsessed, but when he learns that Ralph’s razor is broke he goes out and buys him a top of the range replacement. We’re waiting for the gag, but it’s a genuine present and offered in a true spirit of friendship. It’s the hapless John who provides the laughs – he borrows the razor to have a quick shave, but it drops out of his hand into the fishtank (destroying Kirk’s gift and killing Ralph’s replacement terrapins in one fell swoop). Bates, so good at both verbal and non-verbal comedy, is a delight in this scene.
The seventh and final episode of the first series is another favourite. Kirk continues to indulge in his wild flights of fancy, which nobody (except for the gullible Ralph) believes. But the extent of Kirk’s fantasy life is greater than anybody realised – as John discovers when he meets Kirk at home. He’s not Kirk at all – he’s Eric Morris, a bespectacled nerdy character who lives at home with his mother (who’s entertainly abusive towards him). The difference between the confident Kirk and the downtrodden Eric is immense (although it just about stays within the bounds of credibility here, unlike the later Christmas Special). And there’s a decent gag at the end, when Kirk returns and berates John for coming round to one of his safe-houses. Did he not realise he was undercover on a dangerous spying mission?!
So with a solid series of seven episodes it was inevitable that the show would return for a second series. But whilst series two was still extremely funny in places, there were also signs that the concept was beginning to run out of steam.