Series two opens with several new recruits to the Wednesday night meetings of the 1-2-1 club. We’ve already met Sylvia (Lucinda Curtis), possessor of an incredibly annoying nervous laugh, but Rick (Kevin Lloyd) makes his debut here. He automatically expects everybody to know who he is – as Ricky Fortune he had a brief moment of pop glory in 1969 – but is crushed when nobody recognises him. John, nice guy that he is, pretends that he owns all of Ricky’s records, but Kirk recognises this as a barefaced lie and delights in needling the unfortunate Ricky.
Ricky proudly tells them that his big hit went to number one. But not in Britain. Or America. Eventually he has to shamefacedly admit that he was a chart topper in Iceland. Not quite the same thing really. The observant viewer may have noticed that Mrs Arnott isn’t present, this is purely so she can turn up later and scream with delight when she spies her pop hero Ricky! This is another lovely use of Mrs Arnott’s character, which makes Sullivan’s decision to write her out of the series in episode two a baffling move. As I touched upon before, she doesn’t do much but her contributions were comedy gold and I missed her interjections.
But I do get the feeling that Sullivan was tiring of the 1-2-1 club format, since several later episodes are much more focused around John, with the others not featuring so much. The fact that John was becoming more central, a change from the ensemble feel of series one, might also explain why Belinda Lang didn’t appear in the final two episodes (although she briefly returns for the Christmas Special). But another series which starred Lang, The Bretts, was also in production at this time, so it could be that her commitments meant she could only do the four episodes. Either way, she’s another loss.
Ricky features heavily in the first two episodes and then he leaves. His departure is left fairly open (he’s crushed after believing he’ll be the star of a 1960’s disco – but Louise had already booked Freddie and the Dreamers) but we never see him again. A pity, since Kevin Lloyd (probably best known as Tosh Lines in The Bill) has an appealing sense of vulnerability as the faded pop star.
The third episode centres around John’s relationship with his son Toby (played by Ralph Bates’ real son, William). Knowing this, and also being aware of Ralph Bates’ early death, does add several layers of poignancy to any scenes they share. This was the younger Bates’ only acting job – he’s now carved out a successful career as a musician.
If Ricky’s open ended departure was a slight structural oddity, then so are episodes four and five. In episode four we’re told that John’s met an attractive divorcee, Liz (Lucy Fleming), but as we never see their initial meeting she just seems to appear out of nowhere. As John’s the eternal loser it seems obvious that his attempts to romance her will come to naught.
This appears to be the case when they both return to his room as he’s astonished to find his best friend Ken (Terence Edmond) sleeping in his bed. Ken’s been turfed out of his house by his wife Maggie (Sue Holderness) and has sought refuge with John. Earlier, John, Ken and Maggie shared an icy dinner together (the highlight being Maggie’s forced politeness – nicely played by Holderness). Ken’s presence puts a dampner on any carnal thoughts that John and Liz might have entertained, so she leaves. That, you would think, would be that, but the next day she returns and tells the dumfounded John that she’s booked them into a hotel in Brighton for the weekend.
But that’s the last we see of her. Next episode, John tells the others that Liz dumped him for another man she met at the hotel (well he did have a Ferrari). Given all we’d seen of Liz during her – admittedly brief – appearance, this seems rather out of character and the whole thing just feels so odd. If you create a relationship that ends on a positive note when an episode closes then the audience will feel aggrieved if it’s handled in such an off-hand way next time. Why Sullivan couldn’t have written Fleming into episode five as well is a mystery – as her final, unseen, phone conversation with John doesn’t convince.
The slightly strange tone continues with episode six. John’s got some good news, he’s shortly to be promoted to headmaster. And when he meets a beautiful young woman called Karen (Elizabeth Morton) everything seems to be going his way. The revelation that Karen isn’t twenty three as he thought, but is a seventeen year old schoolgirl just transferred to his school is a brilliant comic moment, although it’s an undeniably dodgy topic which you probably wouldn’t find in a pre-watershed sitcom today (although I’m sure the soaps do far worse).
I do find Sullivan’s treatment of Karen to be a little troubling. It’s revealed that she has a history of forming relationships with her teachers and has already cost at least one of them his job. Although it’s true that she’s not presented as a predator (more of an innocent romantic, simply not interested in boys her own age) there’s something slightly off-putting about the way her character is handled. For John, it’s just another indication that he’s born to be a loser. Although innocent of any wrongdoing, it’s enough to ensure that he’s passed over for the headmaster’s job this time. Although David (Frank Windsor) airily tells him he’ll be able to apply in a few year time, when all this blows over.
It’s always a pleasure to see Windsor, and since Elizabeth Morton (now acting under the name of Elizabeth Heery) was twenty six when this episode was made it’s possible to find her attractive as a schoolgirl with a clear conscience. But that still doesn’t stop the episode from being a somewhat strange watch.
Dear John ended with the 1987 Christmas special. Kate returns – as does Kirk. Peter Blake spends most of the episode as Eric, telling John that Kirk is dead and that he’ll never ever be him again. But when Eric, by a stunning coincidence, is present in the same pub where the others are meeting and observes Ralph being harassed by some Hells Angels, he knows what he has to do. Clutching his Kirk suit, which he planned on binning, he strides into the gents toilets – to emerge as Kirk in all his glory. The Superman theme helps to reinforce the obvious joke, but it’s clearly one that delights the audience as they launch into a round of applause.
The notion that Eric is a feeble nobody whilst Kirk is a master of martial arts is hard to swallow, which means this is the moment when Dear John jumped the shark (Kirk is able to take on and beat the gang of Hells Angels without breaking a sweat). It’s a great comic moment – as is the sight of Ralph hung up on the coatstand! – but it stretches credibility to breaking point. Still, it was Christmas so we’ll let them off.
Better defined character comedy closes the show. John has had a strained relationship with Mrs Lemenski (Irene Prador) for the whole of the run. She regards him as a nutcase and isn’t backwards in coming forwards to tell him so. But this episode is where we learn a little more about her and discover that she’s just as lonely as the rest of them. But whilst John and the others have the dubious pleasures of the 1-2-1 club, she has nothing, so when she offers to cook him Christmas dinner he – after a brief struggle with his conscience – agrees. His ex-wife has asked him to spend Christmas with her and he’d agreed with alacrity. Mrs Lemenski seems to have put a spoke in this, but I’ve no doubt that John will be able to work something out, meaning that the series ends on a slightly positive note.
Although I’ve been slightly critical here, series two of Dear John still has plenty of excellent comic moments, it’s just that when watching it back-to-back with series one it becomes clear that something was missing. Probably John Sullivan was right to introduce new characters and move away from the 1-2-1 club setting (otherwise it could have ended up in a rut) but given the strained nature of some of series two it does seem that everybody was aware that the show had run its course.