These are the words that Freddie, Ian McKellen’s character in ITV sitcom Vicious says with alarming regularity. It is also a phrase that many people were no doubt thinking to themselves when they watched the first episode. It seems somewhat ironic that, in the May 2013 edition of gay magazine Attitude, Derek Jacobi (who plays Stuart, Freddie’s partner) talks about the 1969 film Staircase, based on the play of the same name about two gay hairdressers in a long-term relationship. Jacobi says of the film that “[they] cast Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, two dreadful heterosexuals who just camped themselves to death and it was disgraceful. Disgraceful! Dreadful, dreadful”. Going by this comment, it is fine for gay men to “camp themselves to death” as aging gay men, but not heterosexuals in similar roles. Gay men playing gay roles in this way is supposedly funny, whereas straight men playing gay roles in the same way is offensive.
Vicious is, quite frankly, awful. In fact, it is so bad that it is almost difficult to know where to start in pulling it to pieces. But let’s start with McKellen and Jacobi themselves, who play the lead characters – sorry, caricatures – Freddie and Stuart who, we are told, have been in a relationship for fifty years. I struggle each week to have a relationship with them for 23 minutes. The original title of the series was Vicious Old Queens, and that, dear friends, pretty much sums up these characters. There is nothing wrong with portraying an elderly couple as sarcastic and insulting towards each other – I’m sure many are – but the problem is that it is all they are. It took until episode three for a genuinely affectionate moment between the two to be portrayed. The whole thing is just so over-the-top, that one can only wonder if we are actually watching a well-worn party piece that McKellen and Jacobi have been performing for friends at dinner parties for years. That two of the country’s greatest living actors – and most-loved gay men – have made such a huge faux pas in their portrayal of gay men is really quite sad. The Attitude article tells us that the “Freddies and Stuarts of this world deserve to be looked at, and their bravery deserves to be honoured”, and I agree wholeheartedly, but they also deserve to be looked at in a way that does not adhere to the stereotypes of forty and fifty years ago. There is just simply too much…everything.
But we can not, and should not, put all the blame on to McKellen and Jacobi, because the writing really doesn’t give them much to work with. A half hour sitcom on ITV runs for approximately 23 minutes per episode, and yet the writing is so thin that jokes are repeated endlessly in episode after episode: the opening phone call between Stuart and his Mother; kicking the dog bed to make sure the 20 year old hound is still alive (it possibly committed suicide after watching this, to be honest); Frances de la Tour being ushered out of the house by Freddie and Stuart; the flirting between de la Tour and Iwan Rheon, who plays the good-looking (if slightly dopey) upstairs neighbour. These might be amusing moments in one episode, but they recur each week, therefore it seems as if we will be presented with the same joke six times in one series. That’s hardly making the most out of the little screen time you have.
The very style of the series harks back to the 1970s. The vast majority of the programme takes place in one room, with a very small group of characters, and there are even little musical motifs and pictures of the outside of the house between each scene. It’s like a gay George and Mildred or, heaven forbid, Terry and June. In other words, we are watching a programme made in 2013 about gay men that makes Mr Humphreys in Are You Being Served look progressive – let’s face it, at least he was a happy gay man.
And yet I’m still watching it after three episodes. I’m not quite sure why. But there is certainly pleasure to be had from watching McKellen and Jacobi on stage hamming it up for all their worth – they are enjoying themselves, there is no doubt about that. And the live studio audience are seemingly enjoying themselves too – is this one of those cases where the outtakes are funnier than the programme itself? There is also no denying that Jacobi and McKellen have great chemistry – in fact, the whole cast does. Frances de la Tour is quite possibly the best thing about the whole show – she too is hamming it up, but rarely crosses the line into vulgarity in her characterisation that the two leads seem to. And finally there is Iwan Rheon as Ash, the slightly dopey upstairs hunk of a neighbour. In each of the three episodes aired so far there has been a tease that he will land up at least half-naked. Perhaps the possibility that his T-shirt will come off in at least one episode is the real reason why I continue to tune in.
I so want to like Vicious, and I confess that it does raise a smile or two each episode as some of the one-liners and put-downs are genuinely funny. Deep down I hope that a second series gets commissioned and the writers and actors take note of the issues that viewers and critics have raised and the show gets tweaked to make it the success that we all want it to be. I genuinely believe there is a funny, ultimately touching sitcom hidden within Vicious, but it just needs a little help finding its way out of a rather cluttered, messy closet.