Two things struck me while watching the first of ITV’s new comedy shows, Vicious, on Monday night. Firstly, shouldn’t studio sitcoms be left to the BBC (but please not Ben Elton!) and secondly, hasn’t Frances De La Tour started to look like Janet Street-Porter?
Actually, no, I tell a lie – three things struck me during the time I endured Vicious, for I also considered how overwhelming the urge was to switch over to Crimewatch. It would have been more of a laugh, that’s for sure.
A GREAT CAST
From Round the Horne’s Polari-speaking Julian & Sandy, to Grace Brothers’ ‘Free!’ Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? and Gimme Gimme Gimme’s deluded Thomas Thessalonius Farrell, gay characters (whether they be ‘out’ or not) have been integral to British comedy for many years but Vicious is the first sitcom to feature an aged gay couple as its protagonists.
Sirs Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi play Freddie and Stuart, respectively, who, having been together for over four decades, constantly bicker in their Covent Garden flat. Their life together is often punctuated by their friends – from the feisty Violet (Frances De La Tour) to simple Penelope and moody Mason. Oh, and let’s not forget their handsome neighbour, Ash (played by Misfits’ Iwan Rheon), who has just moved in and looks set to be the cause of yet more squabbles for the septuagenarian duo.
The cast is something which I cannot fault. They were all brilliant, especially Derek Jacobi, and all did their best with the disappointingly weak script they were given.
‘THIN ON LAUGHS’
Prior to watching Vicious, I had read many articles in which critics expressed their fondness of it. They didn’t rave about it, but they undoubtedly liked it. However, I am glad to find that many articles have been published today which point out quite how thin on laughs it was (although I find Benjamin Secher’s article for The Telegraph more than a little harsh – this isn’t ‘the least funny new comedy in recent memory’. Tune into BBC1 at 10:35 on Tuesdays to see that).
The mother-in-law gags became tiresome the moment McKellen uttered the first, the ambushing of Ash was so predictable and the laughter-track was embarrassing. That’s assuming it was a laughter-track. It could be that the audience were just high when they entered ITV Studios that night. I’ve no doubt it would have made the recording a lot more bearable.
It wasn’t just the poor ‘jokes’ and overbearing laughter which made Vicious such a slog: its uber camp central characters were as much to blame. In fact, my heart sank when I watched the trailers for this show and saw that McKellen and Jacobi were playing stereotypically catty (as I gauged from the title, admittedly), mincing queens. Freddie and Stuart really are your archetypal ‘queens’ – and that’s a word I seldom use, owing to my hatred of it. To me, a ‘queen’ is some narcissist, some egotistical fool who espouses scathing comments purely to get herself noticed while she runs around, screaming her tits off about her sexuality. To me, ‘queen’ makes gay men synonymous with grandiose women – something which the majority, surely, are not. Freddie and Stuart are ‘queens’, though (Vicious’ working title was ‘Vicious Old Queens’). They may not have been quite as extravagant as my perception of a ‘queen’ but did make me want to scream that I want to see less stereotypical gays on TV!
Of course, there is a reason why the quartet of characters which I mentioned in the third paragraph of this review are famous for their camp demeanours. It’s because camp is funny and camp exists. There’s no getting away from it. But when are more writers and directors going to push themselves to create more gay characters on TV who don’t conform to stereotypes? Don’t get me wrong, it’s been done before: Rob and Michael in Agony; Jason in Gavin & Stacey; to an extent, The Vicar of Dibley’s Frank; and, more recently, Sara in Sue Perkins’s Heading Out are all clearly gay but don’t have to rely on being effeminate (or, in the latter’s case, masculine) to get laughs. I honestly struggle to think of much more than a few comedy characters to add to that list but I could go on and on about how many OTT people have been, and currently are in, sitcoms.
How long will we have to wait to escape the predictable image of homosexuality?
So, just in case you haven’t yet got the gist of my review, let me put it plainly: I didn’t like Vicious. I might generously call the subject matter ‘ground breaking’ but am certain that the content was not. Would a sitcom with such a predictable script about a heterosexual couple have been commissioned, I ask myself.
Vicious is on Mondays at 9:00pm on ITV
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