Looking Back At VICIOUS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At VICIOUS

Tony finds his venom.
In life, and in TV, there are ideas that look drop dead gorgeous and like an absolutely tear-your-hand-off must-have.

Vicious is one of those ideas.

First of all, it’s a prime-time ITV sit-com starring two acting knights and a three-time Olivier Award winner. Because, y’know, those are ten a penny, right?

Secondly, it’s one of the first British sit-coms to put a gay couple front and centre, because likewise – common.

Thirdly, it’s not a stereotypical young, gorgeous gay couple. It is, admittedly, an OLD, gorgeous gay couple – it’s Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi, with Frances de la Tour along for the ride.

All of which should add up to a fabulous proposition, right?


Well, yes, it should. The thing about those tear-your-hand-off ideas is that sometimes you end up tearing your hand off and begging it to stop.

Vicious is an idea that absolutely should smash its comedy out of the park. And… most of the time, it really doesn’t.

The thing is, it’s by no means PROPERLY bad, either. If it were properly bad, you could happily ignore it and move on with your life. But it’s difficult to BE bad when you have a cast led by three actors of the quality of McKellen, Jacobi, and de la Tour.

The scripts by Gary Janetti aren’t that bad, either. They create a believable universe, and a believable waspish, loving relationship between McKellen’s Freddie and Jacobi’s Stuart. They deliver the sense of a relationship that’s been ongoing for over four decades, since an era when being gay was illegal in the UK. The two have been through almost everything together, and a lot of that includes the core dynamic that names the show. While their love and care for each other is never in doubt, to use a modern expression, their day-to-day ‘love language’ is sniping and snapping, acid-laced insult and vicious riposte.

That’s helped along by Freddie’s career – he’s an actor whose roles are increasingly drying up. So not only is he steeped in theatrical venom, it’s turning to increasing desperation the older he gets without his big break. That means he takes every role more and more seriously, and dominates the household in subjection to his artistic process. The two are also increasingly low on money when the show starts, and that gives their sniping an extra dimension.

Frances de la Tour is their family friend, Violet, and she exists… mostly to make a third in the sniping game. With the addition of Ash (Iwan Rheon), a handsome-adjacent new upstairs neighbour (which somehow sounds like it should be a euphemism, but isn’t), and occasional other characters like Penelope (Marcia Warren), a long-time friend of the sniping pair and a one-night stand of Stuart’s before he realised the truth of his sexuality, the world of the two ageing lovers is padded out – and we do mean padded – so as to bring occasional sources of outside plot into their lives.

Really though, the core of what action there is lies in the interactions between Freddie and Stuart, Ash and Violet. Whether it be Freddie’s initial frisson of attraction for Ash (until it turns out that Ash has a girlfriend who’s left him), and Violet’s ONGOING attraction to him, the death of old friends, the whirlwind of drama that comes with Freddie actually getting a part, or Stuart taking a secret day-job to bring in money because Freddie HASN’T got a part, the drama and the comedy is firmly centred around this small core group.

That’s both a good thing in staging terms, because it allows us to focus on the threads and plotlines that come up, and a bad thing, in that it can soon come to feel a little stale.

In fact, if you’re looking for a reason why Vicious doesn’t succeed in earning itself Comedy Gold status, that’s part of the answer: the whole thing simply feels so… unambitious. If you’re going to have the likes of Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Frances de la Tour in a major mainstream sit-com, you really rather want it to be at least SLIGHTLY less mainstream than Terry and June or The Good Life.

That’s the feeling of Vicious, essentially – it’s as boxed-in and mainstream as a Seventies domestic sit-com, with a heavy sprinkling of waspish invective over the top, reminiscent of Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. The result is that while you want it to do well, and want to support what it’s doing, turning to it for actual pleasure and laughs feels like an oddish thing to do – unless of course you’ve had a particularly bad day.

If you HAVE had a particularly bad day, Vicious begins to earn its screen-space in something like the way The Young Ones does. Sometimes, you’re just in the mood for spitting invective (or, in the case of The Young Ones, in the mood for hitting people with cricket bats). That makes a certain sense, given Gary Janetti’s record in sit-coms. You don’t get to write for Family Guy and executive produce Will and Grace without a solid nose for comedy. But more than many sit-coms, Vicious is one you need to be in just that right mood for.

The pithy zingers are fine as far as they go, but they don’t build on each other, and so don’t amount to anything that especially lasts longer than the moment.

That, combined with the boxiness of the set and the high-end thespian cast gives Vicious the feel of a weekly play, the gags delivered with a timing to reach the back of a theatre, rather than down the lens of a TV. In fact, if Vicious had been a sequence of plays, there’s little doubt that the combination of its structure and its cast would have made it run in the West End for months on end.

The disconnect of a theatrical manner of selling jokes and sharp, spiky insults, and situations that veer from the dully domestic to the contrived-to-be-funny means that Vicious tends to swing from one unfortunate stool to another. Sadly, it often falls between the translation of the Seventies-style domestic sit-com into a 21st century relationship that would never have made it onto the screen in that decade, and the ‘viciousness’ that gives the show its name, and the couple their key methods of communication.

For all of which, there’s a joy in the fact that Vicious exists at all. An older, melodramatic gay couple remains a great central dynamic for a sit-com, and you couldn’t wish for higher-calibre actors than Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi to embody the couple.

And, as we say, on days when you want to say the things that are in your head to the people who deserve it, and can’t, Vicious can reveal its merits in ways that a sunlit day won’t show you.

The point of which is that it’s easy to be funny on a good day. It’s in the shows that catch our mood when the day has been a beast, and that allow us a vindication like a really good swear-word, that there’s the highest value.

Vicious may, on any ordinary day, feel stilted, trapped between a modern intention and the dullness of its traditional form, but on the days when you need to spit and curse the world, get on your couch and get your Vicious on. It will help you in a way that more sunlit comedies can’t.

Watch Vicious today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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