Giving new meaning to the phrase “as camp as Christmas”, ITV’s sitcom Vicious returned to our screens on Friday for a one-off seasonal special; a second series will follow in 2014. True, it stars two theatre luvvies – Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as an aging gay couple – but the camp humour of Vicious mostly derives from the old-fashioned sitcom format, not the characters’ sexuality.
Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (Jacobi) were having Christmas Day at the flat, surrounded by their alternative family; the lascivious Violet (Frances de la Tour) the scatterbrained Penelope (Marcia Warren), and their heterosexual neighbour, Ash (Iwan Rheon). Ash offered to cook the turkey dinner – cue the traditional slapstick kitchen disaster.
That still left plenty of time for some caustic put-downs, for Stuart to drop a bombshell about his sexual past, and for Freddie to boast about his challenging new acting role – as a department store Father Christmas. “He’s a three-dimensional person,” he said, projecting to the cheap seats. “I can’t just play him like Father Christmas. I’ve got to play the truth!”
Perhaps that’s more than can be said for the characterisation in Vicious, but I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Co-creator Gary Janetti also worked on Will & Grace, the first US prime-time series to feature openly gay lead characters and according to the American vice president, no less, that show “did more to educate the American public [on LGBT rights] than almost anything”. By this measure, the fact that Vicious’s style of comedy is so old-fashioned might be its greatest strength. If Vicious didn’t occasionally deal in easy stereotypes, it wouldn’t be a widely-watched, primetime British sitcom now, would it?
As with Citizen Khan, the BBC’s comedy about a Muslim family in Birmingham, Vicious’s problem isn’t a lack of political correctness, it’s that it features as lead characters members of a group who are usually starved of any screen time. Thus the weight of expectation is much greater than any lightweight primetime sitcom could reasonably support. No one complained that Victor Meldrew was an old white-man stereotype. McKellen has promised Radio Times he’ll tone it down in series two, but I hope they don’t start behaving themselves entirely. Hearing Freddie call Penelope “a huge slag”, was the highlight of my evening.