It was with no little intrigue that I approached watching the boxset of ITV sitcom Vicious – memories of its run from last year focused on the absolute hammering it got, how it had apparently set representations of gay men back centuries and basically broken television. I have to admit to having no interest in watching it from the moment I’d heard about it but clearly something had mellowed by the time I spotted a bargain in a charity shop and sat down to watch Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a long-partnered, long-bickering couple.
Written and created by Gary Janetti (a veteran of US TV including Will & Grace) and Mark Ravenhill (a UK playwright of no little renown), it is an homage to, or more accurately a riff off, the world of 1970s sitcoms with its single living room set where Freddie and Stuart bitch away at each other all day long. They’re frequently joined on the sofa by barely-tolerated fag hag Violet, a deliciously fruity Frances De La Tour, and their newly arrived eye candy neighbour, the handsome but heterosexual Ash played by Iwan Rheon, and that’s pretty much your set-up from which endless capers abound.
It is hugely, ineffably, camp – with two such thespian heavyweights firing scathing insults at each other how could it not be – but this is as much to do with the format as it is the characters. This is a world where Stuart introduces Violet to Ash in every single episode “have you met our friend Violet…”, where a never-seen dog at the end of his life is resuscitated every week, where a fit young man just moved to London would rather spend his time with two elderly gay men…it’s schematic of course but entirely true to form and written from a 21st century perspective, way sharper than anything gone before.
The reception of the show also demonstrates the difficulties we have as a society (gay or otherwise) in dealing with campness. Too easily dismissed as something dated or inconsequential (I’m reminded of some people’s reaction to Captain Dennis in Privates on Parade), there’s an intimation that it somehow isn’t valid or acceptable as an expression of one’s homosexuality in this day and age when in truth, it is but one of the many shades of the rainbow.
Clumsily articulated lecture over, I have to say that I found something really rather enjoyable in Vicious. McKellen and Jacobi revel in the sheer theatrical bitchiness of this pair (“Is Leytonstone any better than Wigan”), razor-sharp with their put-downs and comebacks, yet suggesting subtly the underlying affection that has kept them together for nearly half a century but without ever becoming mawkish with it. Marcia Warren and Philip Voss add value as two old friends and there’s a brilliant voice cameo late on in the series from another of our theatrical dames.