Vicious has attracted a few vicious remarks. It was too dated, too theatrical and too camp for most, aside from The Metro who called it “such nostalgic fun”. The reviewers ridiculed the canned laughter and claimed that the show put too much "com" into "sitcom", setting up each line as a punchline but with little punch to go with it. The first episode attracted a fair 5.7 million viewers, but Vicious has a long way to go to reach the ratings achieved by its previous slot Broadchurch.
I don't know who it is who makes up the studio audiences for sitcoms or what they're injected with before the recording begins, but, as Ben Elton's The Wright Way demonstrated last week, there is virtually nothing that they won't laugh at. Like laboratory animals trained to respond to some arbitrary stimulus, they react to anything that is even vaguely punch-line shaped. This turns out to be quite handy in Vicious, which is full of lines that have the cadence of comedy but often prove to be devoid of wit when examined more closely.
The basic schtick in Vicious is high-camp bitchiness, a form that reached an apogee in the American sitcom Will & Grace (on which Gary Janetti also worked). This is a sadly depleted version, though, and it's delivered by McKellen and Jacobi as if they're playing in Wembley Stadium and only the upper tiers are occupied, with a heavily semaphored effeminacy that seems to belong to an entirely different era.
In this first episode – set entirely, suffocatingly, within the four William Morris-papered walls of their drab central London living room – we learnt that Freddie (McKellen) was a retired actor from Wigan whose career had peaked at “killing a prostitute on Coronation Street”. Stuart (Jacobi), was a former bartender from Leytonstone, who had still not got around to admitting his sexuality to his mother. Together they made for cartoonishly camp, rather unpleasant company, as much for the viewer as for the handful of visitors who dropped in to break up the monotony of the set up.
There was the odd glimpse of how Vicious might have amounted to something sharper, as when, for example, McKellen turned to Jacobi and said, one ageing man to another, “I don’t know which would be preferable at this point, if you woke up dead, or I did.” Jacobi left the merest pause before hissing back, “I know which I’d prefer.” But for the most part, the script fell disastrously flat.
There’s a resolute old-fashionedness in the format: a studio sitcom where the laughter track is as unrestrained as the performances — McKellen a spent thesp who delivers his insults in bass boom; Jacobi reacting to them, all shrieks and phone calls from Mother. The Vicious of the title is what our leading men are to each other, to their self-obsessed friends, even to the dead. Is that an old-fashioned characterisation too? A pair of queens shrunk into an “aren’t they outrageous?” stereotype.
But therein also lies the strength of Vicious — it’s packed with zingers. It’s like Downton Abbey if the only character was Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. The first episode, set exclusively in the dark grandeur of the men’s flat, was ostensibly a wake for a dead friend. But what the writers were playing, mainly, was punchline pinball...And yes, it’s about a gay couple, but it also punches hard on the themes of ageing and insularity. Their reaction when a guest accidentally removes their blackout blind to reveal glorious sunshine took them to almost League of Gentlemen levels of grotesque, and McKellen’s cuss about his partner’s “milky cataracts” is one I can imagine taking off in old folks’ homes everywhere.
What's (a bit) interesting about Vicious is that the leads – Freddie and Stuart – are played by two grand knights of the theatre (pronounced theatar, obvs). Sirs Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi respectively and respectfully. And they're a couple. So you've got two queeny old luvvies basically playing themselves…more like caricatures of themselves: they're camped up to the max, actual drama queens. And they're Acting with a capital A – thespian jousting. Take that darling, no you take that, ouch, you bitch. Which is rather fabulous. Something like Frasier meets Will and Grace meets Henry V. Oh, and then Frances de la Tour turns up, as their bessie mate Violet, and joins the fun.
It's just a shame that the vehicle in which they find themselves isn't a better one. It's not just old-fashioned, pre-Office TV comedy (as opposed to post-office comedy, which is something else, possibly), it's also, frankly, a bit lame. Ding dong, who can that be at the door, ooh hello, a handsome young man to see the flat above. [Turn handle that produces jokes revolving around Freddie and Stuart flirting with handsome youth, putting each other down, and trying – subtly, they think, but actually very unsubtly – to ascertain whether he's gay or not.]
A Greggs doughnut of a show – albeit filled with Gentlemen's Relish instead of jam, but still a Greggs doughnut.
Shallow and catty, vain and insecure, Freddie and Stuart really are a rather frightful pair. Which is what makes Vicious (ITV), a comedy that consists almost entirely of two old queens rubbing each other up the wrong way, such nostalgic fun.
Nostalgic? Vicious is one giant leap back into the closet, into a world where Modern Family and The New Normal haven’t penetrated. Where gay talk is conducted in code – ‘do you suppose he’s family?’ asks Freddie of the attractive young chap who comes a-calling – and bitchiness is the default dialogue setting. In terms of political correctness, it’s a horror show.
But it’s a sign of how far sexual liberation has come that we’re ready to laugh along with the ludicrously stereotypical pair pecking away at each other like camp woodpeckers. What once would have been deemed offensive now comes across as curiously endearing, a reminder that people still knew how to have a laugh, even back in the dark ages (The Village, take note).