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Mike Higgins on Vicious: Forget the cast, where are the gags?


If the bitchy squabbles of ageing actors and civil service drudgery is the best ITV can offer, thank goodness for Ron Swanson…

Last Monday, ITV launched its evening comedy hour, and even six days later I feel fortunate that I came through the experience. To have endured first Vicious and then The Job Lot raised profound dramatic questions it would never have occurred to me even to ask: such as, is it possible to jolly up the first evening of the working week with several elderly people shouting at one another in a poorly lit sitting room, followed by the travails of the staff of a Midlands job centre? In terms of laugh-out-loud moments, it wasn’t clear when comedy hour finished and News at Ten started.

The premise of Vicious  is simple. An elderly homosexual couple bicker and reminisce in the Covent Garden flat they appear to have lived in for decades. Freddie (Ian McKellen) berates Stuart (Derek Jacobi) for his Leytonstone roots and Stuart takes bitter satisfaction in reminding Freddie that the zenith in his acting career was a bit part in a long-distant edition of Doctor Who.

The action in the first episode took place in their sitting room and kitchen. I say action – almost nothing happened in this gloomy studio-bound scenario. The new upstairs neighbour somehow mistook Stuart and Freddie’s flat for his own; next, there was a wake for a deceased acquaintance. Freddie and Stuart were joined by Violet (Frances de la Tour) to flirt with Ash (Iwan Rheon), the neighbour, while Penelope (Marcia Warren) acted the forgetful old dear and Mason (Philip Voss) the grump.

It’s a scenario familiar to anyone who can recall the dark ages of situation comedy. The cast – and what a cast – hammed it up desperately, intent, perhaps, on tipping us the wink that they’re in on the joke. But what is the joke?

A few people have called Vicious “nostalgic”. Miranda is nostalgic, but as well as looking back, in its best moments it manages to look forward too, with a mad energy and some cute writing. Vicious, oddly, looks west across the Atlantic.

Violet, in trying to impress Ash, refers to Zac Efron, unsure whether Zac Efron is a person or a place. At another point, Mason grumbles about the hors d’oeuvres, to which Stuart replies: “Perhaps you’d like some of what you brought – I could always cut you a slice of nothing.” It’s not a bad line, but the rhythm, and idiom are American, and unlike much else that comes out of Stuart’s mouth. Freddie too is prone to moments of transatlantic regurgitation: “You must forgive Stuart, he was never loved as a child. Or an adult.”

Would two old men who refuse to open their sitting-room curtains talk like this? The playwright Mark Ravenhill co-created the series, but for this awkward – and unamusing – cultural ventriloquism, we have, I suppose, to blame  the show’s American writer, Gary Janetti.


Janetti was the executive producer of Will & Grace, a successful US sitcom of the last decade whose lead characters were gay. No less encouraging, in this sense, has been the frequent casting of the likeable Russell Tovey, a gay actor, in straight roles. In The Job Lot he plays Karl, a fine art graduate who has somehow painted his career into a corner, manning a desk in a job centre.

Sadly, he and his co-workers appear to have been conceived on the back of a Job Seeker’s Allowance form: the needy, uptight department head, the gimlet-eyed jobsworth, the moonlighting security guard, the loony cluttering up the atrium, and so on. Instead, the writers are more interested in – guess what – the maddening bureaucracy at the sharp end of the civil service. I know! Who’d have thought it?


My current go-to show for moments of sitcom emergency is Parks and Recreation. It’s an American import to BBC4 and owes much to The Office: the setting is a government department in a mid-West Slough, and the mode is faux documentary. The tone is more playful, though, and the plotting all over the place. But who cares – anything and everything is done in the service of its characters, which the show correctly knows to be wonderful. And most wonderful of all is Ron Swanson, the department head: he looks like an angry owl and comes on like Alan Partridge’s alpha American cousin.

In last week’s episode he was smacking his lips at the prospect of a colleague’s marriage of convenience soon ending and his attractive wife becoming available : “Looking at her I feel she may be the perfect spooning size for me.” Thank you, Parks and Recreation – you let me laugh again.