Culture: Film

Vicious – all that glitters can be old


Gay comedy. Sometimes this is a contradiction in terms. Not always from the writing of such queer laughery but from the audiences. Viewers are allegedly “mixed” about Mark Ravenhill & Gary Janetti’s new ITV1 sitcom Vicious, a simple flat-share tale of two diabolical theatricals endlessly bickering about who got the biggest applause in a rep tour of The Mousetrap.

LGBT audiences often claim they want more gay comedy but balk when it fires a big pink arrow at their eyes. If “straight acting” gay characters are barely gay it is labelled as “token”. When the curtain goes up on the polar opposite it is “insulting”. As someone already tiring of the preachy and West Coast assimilation of “what it is to be gay” in shows like Glee and The New Normal (whose straight women roles are far more brilliantly homosexual than the Osmond-toothed leads) a home-grown panto like Vicious is welcome fodder. Especially coming from a newly renovated ITV1 (Broadchurch, The Job Lot, Perspectives, Off Their Rockers) and not a natural vestibule for gay shows. Unless one counts – as one probably should – the amount of ‘gay’ transmitted by The X Factor for approximately 39 weeks of the year. Anyway, not all gay viewers want inclusion. No-one ever moaned at Broadchurch for being “just that bit too straight”. Give me a rompy, gag-filled episode of Are You Being Served or Gimme Gimme Gimme over any gay adoption story in Ryan Murphy’s head.

So enter stage right (well, the back of a staircase deliberately Norma Desmonded into the room) our two leads – Freddie (Sir Ian McKellen) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi). Knitted into a faux moneyed life and a spacious Covent Garden pad (though all sitcom dwellings are spacious), the pair of ex-theatricals have been together for nearly fifty years. All that is old sometimes does contain glitter. McKellen’s Freddie roars his acid at partner Stuart like a grease-painted Aslan, forever on the prowl for prey and egos to tear down. Jacobi’s Stuart on the other [limp] hand is the wife – less The Dresser and more The Stresser as he panics about trying to cut corners and opportunities to do anything remotely new, be it at home or in his dubious career. It is not quite a comedy mismatch made in sitcom heaven, but you wholeheartedly buy into this couple.

Tailored away from co-creator Mark Ravenhill’s own theatrical dalliances (the less TV Times friendly fare of Shopping & F*cking, Mother Clap’s Molly House and A Life in Three Acts), Freddie and Stuart’s world is an altogether more ITV1-friendly sphere of Twelfth Night and The Mousetrap. Theirs is an eternal pitstop of backstage regret, glossed over formative years and concerns over billing status. It is not the freshest of contexts, but McKellen and Jacobi – whose own early CVs were no doubt bolstered by such local theatre hell – totally sell it to the back of the stalls in every scene. Less Eric and Ernie and more Merkin & Unwise, Freddie and Stuart are delicious old queens marinated in glorious clichés (the phone calls to “mother”, special “nephews” and white lies about their real vintages). With different, less A-list casting Vicious could easily have become what detractors might circle it as. But being funny is about excess, of taking a grain of normality and running it into a gag. Television comedy is replete with enough tired old tropes and clichés (slaggy Northerners, officious bureaucrats and disaffected office workers spring to mind). That is where the real “offensive”/ lazy comedy resides.

Pairing up two beacons of British theatre to play a dedicated gay couple who have been together for nearly half a century is not currently commonplace on my television. There is something deliciously Charles Addams about this pair – with their curious fear of opening their cathedral-sized curtains, unwarranted visitors and never failing to take a seat in unison. This is a PG-rated Withnail and I plus thirty years, a simple conceit about two figures well aware of their failings as they survive in a coffin of a house laced with fading souvenirs of a repertory glory. The joke is not about them being gay. The joke is about them being vile to each other, of opportunities once missed and never to be found again, hence the show’s title. If a live studio audience sitcom (the hardest to make work) is deemed to be a dated television conceit then so too is someone sat at a desk reading the news, pointing to a map of the British Isles covered in cloud symbols and twelve year old Jennifer Hudson wannabes and their talent show sob stories. Not everything has to be revolutionary. In a television world of musical audition shows, Britain’s Got Too Much Dancing School Talent and Celebrity Bush-tucker Trials on Ice, it might actually be wise for ITV to let a show like Vicious prick a hole in it all.

Not all the lines work, granted. But not all the lines in any given episode of Steptoe and Son and The Office work either. And certainly not in the opening episodes where many a sitcom has to bed itself in. Yet barely a minute into episode a sprite new neighbour comes knocking sending Freddy and Stuart’s world into a simpering overdrive laying out the comedy blueprint for Vicious. Frances de la Tour’s Violet “from Zac Efron” carries the most ill-equipped dialogue with every line baying for trailer glory, but possibly not cutting it as the six foot, sex starved fag-hag throws all sorts of random at each scene. Better placed in Vicious’s near-baroque world is the proper crazy Penelope (the always excellent Marcia Warren) and her contradictory reminiscences derailing Freddie and Stuart’s constant need to be right about everything. Some more explanations about how these characters know each other would be welcome in the weeks to come, but what a relief to see a new comedy show not set in BBC’s Manchesterford.

But is it all funny? Yes. It is. Just as the show is clearly a fish out of water for ITV1, there is a delicious potential in seeing these two characters as fish out of water in the episodes to come. McKellen and Jacobi know how to time the comedy that is there and milk that which isn’t. The jury is out on whether it needs to be a show that is regarded as indicative of gay culture (the kneejerk naysayers certainly are, alas). But surely not all comedy (gay or otherwise) has to be progressive? Sometimes just standing still and taking stock is pleasure enough. Especially if one can be vicious.

Vicious continues on ITV1, Monday evenings. Mark O’Connell is the author of Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan.

Words: Mark O’Connell

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