ITV’s Vicious – the sitcom even Ian McKellen can’t save

Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in Vicious. Photo: ITV/Brown Eyed Boy
Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in Vicious. Photo: ITV/Brown Eyed Boy
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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When ITV’s new sitcom Vicious premiered last week, I quipped on Twitter that the only way it could be any worse was if Miranda Hart suddenly popped up in it.

I’d like to take that back.

Because, having tuned in for the second episode on Monday this week, I’ve realised that this comedy can’t actually get any worse. Indeed, and I hate to say it, if Miranda had suddenly appeared in it, and had she thrown herself on the floor or fallen off a settee or made a joke about Heather Small, I might have cracked a smile. Yes, it’s that bad.

[pullquote]I’ve no doubt that once Vicious has ended, they will be able to put this "comedy" behind them with ease, and find their talents used on more appropriate projects[/pullquote]

Vicious, in case you’ve missed it, sees Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi play Freddie and Stuart, a gay couple who have been together for the best part of 50 years.

Over the course of 30 long minutes the men bicker with each other, lust over a young, good-looking man by the name of Ash in his tight-fitting t-shirt, and generally mince around, all limp wristed, calling each other things like “You stinking pile of turd” or ‘You cheating slut”. Classic one liners, I'm sure you'll agree.

While it bothers me that these gay characters are nothing more than camp stereotypes, my main issue with this show is that it just isn’t funny.

When I think about what makes me laugh, it’s comedies such as Getting On, or Twenty Twelve, both shown originally on BBC4.

They are fantastic examples of series that make beautiful observations of real situations and of the people you often find in them. We laugh because we recognise people we know in the brilliantly drawn characters. We may even recognise ourselves in them.

The problem with Vicious is that – as with a lot of the comedies that find their way on to BBC1 or ITV1 – it features characters and situations that bear no resemblance to the lives of the viewers at home.

All of this is made even more disappointing by the fact that the names McKellen and Jacobi normally indicate a certain amount of quality. Not in this case, sadly. Instead, you find yourself asking: what could have prompted McKellen and Jacobi to sign up in the first place?

That said, I’ve no doubt that once Vicious has ended, they will be able to put this "comedy" behind them with ease, and find their talents used on more appropriate projects.

And given the ratings for the comedy aren’t particularly high, and seem to be falling, McKellen and Jacobi don’t have to worry that they will end up being remembered for Vicious.

This, surely, must be what all actors who find themselves cast in something that has not been well received must hope for.

Just this week in The Stage, for example, I have an interview with Paddy Considine, who told me that there is an impression of him that he chooses “only great roles”. He adds:

But that is because no one has seen the shit I have done. I am lucky in that respect, as it seems like, unless you stir the pond, no one gives a crap. They still quote the good stuff, which is lovely.

And I think that this will be the case for McKellen and Jacobi post Vicious. Let’s just hope that no one stirs the pond too much.

43 Comments

  1. Can’t help thinking you’re being a little hard on this, Matt. As with all (OK: many) new comedies, it takes time to bed down the situation and ink in the characters. Especially when the degree of artifice is as pronounced as it is in Vicious.

    Agreed, this second episode was flatter than the first and glaringly clumsy in places (those uninspired and uninspiring one-line put downs you mention not least) and the scenes in the department store reeked too much (and unhelpfully so) of Grace Brothers, but there was much in the sheer emphatic energy of the first episode, in the delicious ebullience of McKellen’s performance, in the pared-back restraint of Jacobi’s and in some wickedly waspish support from Frances de la Tour and Marcia Warren to suggest that once the writing calms down a little, becomes more concentrated and distilled and finds its arc and rhythm that Vicious could become a very sharp and funny proposition.

    I also really rather liked the old-fashioned, sepia-tinted gloss of the setting and the comedy. If the writers can move away from feeling obliged to justify the title line by line in some of the more outlandish barbs and weak put-downs (sic) and allow themselves to become more comfortable with the characters and their sexuality – few people, by the way, have remarked upon the attitude of Frances de la Tour’s character, though she seems just as heterosexually arch as McKellen’s and Jacobi’s homosexual campery – Vicious might well yet find a less deliberately provocative tone and get more comfortably into its stride.

    Given the contributors in front of and behind the camera, expectations were always going to be high for Vicious. Perhaps they were too high, or that the show chose to try to do something that deliberately challenged those assumptions?

  2. Couldn’t agree more Matt! I was so looking forward to this show but only managed 4 minutes of the first episode!

  3. I enjoyed it and will be watching again. Obviously its all down to personal opinion, and in my opinion it is camp and deliciously funny. Why do crics assume that comedy has to be clever to be funny. I loved it.

  4. I think it’s brilliant. Acted by two amazing actors who are obviously mocking the stereotypical view of a couple in ‘show business.’ Or is it the truth?!

  5. as I said in a comment after a previous review, it’s disgraceful that McKellan who bleats on and on about being homosexual is making any young man that wants to ‘come out’ to his family. He and the show totally reinforces stereotype view.
    High profile men in the past attacked
    Larry Grayson & John Inman for their portrayals. Neither Mckellan or Jacobi
    have the comic timing of those two.
    Awful. Why do it? Keep in the public
    eye. Get it off

  6. Look at the title! It’s tongue in cheek folks. I-ron-y. These two old queens living in a self imposed time warp where their behaviour and quips to each other are part of this life and time. Ian’s character languishing under the illusion that ‘C’ grade actors are just waiting to be discovered darling! It’s only because we’ve moved on (hopefully) to a more tolerant attitude that some people are reviewing this as dated and unfunny. I love the campery and the women are excellent. Also get off your high horses with the ‘modern gay people rent like that’ – I know many male gay relationships that talk like this to each other ‘she’ being obligatory references to their other half.

  7. The problem with this sitcom is that ITV caused the Audience expectations of this to be too high. This was due to the overbearing number of trailers, containing the same three jokes. For example, on Saturday and Sunday early evenings, when there was a lack of advertising, the same trailer was repeated over and over again in between and during each programme broadcast. In addition, all of the three jokes in the trailer (possibly the best ones??), were used up in part one of the first episode, leaving the rest of that episode flat. There is no need for these constant trailers. When the episode is eventually aired, it leaves the audience feeling that they have already seen the programme and lose interest. This is something the BBC are guilty of especially at Christmas time. In the battle for ratings, they lose the audience. The trailers are not needed and it should be left to the audience to decide – a good example of this was Mrs Browns Boys. It came onto our screens in a post news schedule out of the blue, no trailers, not even choice in listings. Love it or hate it the audience found it, liked it and look at the ratings now.

  8. Tongue in cheek? Irony? Comedy? Camp? What is remotely amusing about rape or amputation? Vicious is a disgrace.

  9. I like it, I laugh at it, it is outrageous and deliciously funny, the idea that modern gay men aren’t so camp anymore is absurd, very many aren’t, and our understanding of gay men is far less stereotyped than in the past, the public is now aware that most gay men are as ‘manly’ as any straight man. However I do know some who are this camp and they do make sharp and barbed remarks, even when it is obvious they adore the person their wit is aimed at. My main gripe about the series so far is that it only really focuses on one thing…..the attraction to the ‘boy upstairs’ which if they persist with this storyline as the only theme will soon get tedious. There is the potential to expand this comedy to introduce different situations, if they do that it could be a winner; especially with the supremely talented cast it has.

  10. Personally I know several elderly gay couples who are exactly like this. It is remarkably accurate. I can name several people similar to either character. It is very good observational comedy and those who don’t see that and bleat about stereotypes are clearly defending a lifestyle of which they know nothing.

  11. Previous comments on this show are surely missing the point. I have no problem with the campness of it all. The problem is it is just not funny. And it’s trying too hard. McKellan in particular seems to look at the camera every time he makes a barbed witticism, expecting a reaction. A golden opportunity to portray a section of society that is now almost dated.

  12. It’s simply quite awful, but watchable because of that. It’s a valuable lesson in comedy: if you think you’re being funny then you’re probably not, and should go back to basics and be truthful. All acting students should watch this as a reinforcement in how not to do it. I don’t apportion blame to the actors … they’re all a talented lot when given the right roles … but to the writers (the material is the usual curate’s egg of quality) and the director, who has allowed this sad display to flourish. Why didn’t he rein them in ? he one truthful performance is the actor playing Ash … he doesn’t have to drive it of course, but he remains a shining light of reality; and of course, good comedy is reactive not active.

  13. This is a “Windup” it has to be ! How anyone doesn’t find this at the very least amusing..are we being provocative,a parody of the characters maybe ?
    I don’t watch TV “live” anymore.. it’s too awful but when I saw Ian and Derek advertised I had to try it and of course they didn’t let me down with the fabulous Frances a wonderful bonus and even the “kid” Ash..odd at first.. already making me laugh.

    It’s still raw and they’re trying a touch too hard but that won’t last too long with such class performers,I could turn off the volume and just watch the wonderful expressions and unless the PC brigade “kill it off” it will be huge.

    Well done Hemley ? you got me to respond..very rare

  14. Have tried to like this show and have watched each episode hoping it to be better than the last but sadly it is the same show each week. Chat and then the doorbells rings, in comes Frances de la Tours character,
    chat and then the doorbell rings, in comes the young man, chat and then there’s mention of the near dead dog!
    There are some funny lines I grant you but on the whole they do not work nor is the situation remotely believable. Frankly it is just awful and a waste of so much talent

  15. The critics and people that don’t like this list as their reasons everything I do like about this show. Yes it’s stereotypes which makes it funny, yet it’s old fashioned which makes it refreshing, yes it’s campy which makes it so different than everything else around. It dares to be different by paying homage to old sitcoms and theatrical over the top kind of acting. It’s gay stereotypes but it works because you have two old people playing them, which highlights just how old these stereotypes are now. We can finally laugh at these stereotypes for the right reasons – because campiness and bitchiness is funny and not because it is offensive to gay people. And the 3 veteran actors do a fantastic job, hilarious, poised and accomplished. They are a pleasure to watch, and again it is so refreshing to watch actors that can act so well and effortlessly.

  16. I love it, I think it’s funny, and it’s something different. Even the wife likes it and she’s well hard to please believe me.

  17. I actually enjoyed it. It made me laugh. I love both these actors and will be tuning in again to watch the whole series. It all boils down to personal taste and one person’s view cannot speak for everyone. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, don’t complain about it.

  18. Perhaps it should be looked on as a guilty pleasure more than something to be censured? (It’s pretty bad, but I watch it every week and quite enjoy it all the same, after all). Just a thought…

  19. I, personally, find the programme amusing and entertaining – as do a large number of people I know. I think that the sitcom isn’t designed to be a ‘ laugh out loud every second ‘ show, more than something to sit down and enjoy on a monday evening, something I have done for the past 3 weeks. I will continue to watch this show, and I’m hoping for a 2nd series in a few months ; I’d recommend it to anyone who wants something different.

  20. I absolutely love it, it’s my guilty pleasure. Sir Ian McKellen looks like he’s having the best time ever. It’s known as Rising Camp in our house.

  21. I really like it. I didn’t think I would, I saw none of the trailers and a friend recommended it to me. As it starred McKellan and Jacobi I expected more dryness and plot – it took two episodes and I love it. I accept it for what it is: stand alone amusing quips. I am in the ‘acting world’ and know people EXACTLY like this. Some are straight, some are gay, but there are so many luvvies who are just like this, darling. Really, there are. I think Jacobi and Mckellan must have met so many luvvies that they related to the script a lot, as do I. I’ve met many extravagant characters just like them (Frances included). It’s personal choice, personally I hope they’ll be back for a second series.

  22. I love the show, the laughs pour out of me. I believe it is over the top for a reason for tongue-in-cheek purposes. I think it is less based on a portrayal of gay persons than it is of elder people and those in the acting business (gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, whatever). I see there are people with experience in this matter commenting and I do not believe they are lying.
    I think we’re far beyond the need of protection through being portrayed as infallible. I hear enough from right-wing arses talking aobut immaculate portrayals of gay people when the straights are demonised. They are being ridiculous of course. If people really are stupid enough to interpret this as something that all gay couples are like or indeed even all gay people in the acting business are like then the joke is on them, the same as the people who think Al Murray himself is the Pub landlord. Al Murray himself as call these people silly. That lacking in critical thinking of people does not mean we have to make everything fiction into non-fiction, turning to the camera and saying ‘you know not all actors or gay people are like this’. ‘Not all middle-aged women are cougars as portrayed by Ms de la Tour’.

  23. Think you might need a change of career as this is one of the best comedies on TV at the moment and beats anything the BBC are coming up with, at least they don’t try to be PC about every aspect and tell it like it is.

  24. I have enjoyed the series (far funnier than the programme which follows it – The Job Lot.

    Somebody else mentioned Rising Damp, and there are similarities, not only with Ms De La Tour in the cast, but the slightly seedy old house, and “Ash” is charmingly naïve and open, very much like “Alan” of Rising Damp.

    I hope it gets a second run. It deserves it.

  25. So that’s an end to it. So very disappointing. The only truly funny bit was Judy Denches voice over at the very end!

  26. I love it, every episode had me laughing. Funny its new its fresh, it made Monday night tv come alive. I do hope they make another series.

  27. My osteopath told me to rest this afternoon so I watched Vicious on my iPad in bed. I laughed so hard I will have to call him out again tomorrow.

  28. The reviews may have been bad, but Vicious has been great fun to watch. Don’t underestimate the joy of seeing two of our greatest actors snarling insults at each other in authentically “old queen” style. I’ve laughed out loud every week, and despite some creaky moments in the script, Freddie and Stuart’s relationship always feels genuine. I’ll be very disappointed if there’s not a second series.

  29. I think you are being very stereotypical. I don’t think this was seen too much as a comedy series it was seen as a message to all the people, that people are gay and they can be in a long lasting relationship and yes they do have a go at each other but don’t all couples do even if they were gay or straight. I think if this was about a straight marriage people might have a different aspect of the tv series and remember its quite low budget tv series so they can’t get that much celebrities to be on the show and I defiantly think that Ian Mckellan and Derek Jacobi went into this hearts open because who would know better to be stereotyped about being gay then these two they are wonderful and fantastic actors to do this and they have been through a lot in their years of acting to hide their secrete that they were gay and the world will need to understand that you can’t change people’s minds about who they love.

    I love this tv show its amusing and sometimes very heart warming to see these two gay couple have a intimate relationship on cameras and try to get the audiences to see that they are like any normal couple even if your straight or gay.

  30. I really question your judgment on vicious. Myself and my boyfriend aren’t camp but we honestly find vicious hilarious mainly because we can imagine it being us in 30 years time.

    I for one think vicious is genius!

  31. I absolutely love it!! Made me laugh so hard at times I couldn’t stop. I don’t suppose many people like the style and humour of the show but can you please stop making it about yourselves? Us that love the show feel left out and we deserve to watch the comedy we like… And Miranda Hart is fantastic ;)

  32. I’ve absolutely loved Vicious.
    Even if you remove the obvious part of the series of sexuality, they represent many couples I know where sarcasm is a lively part of a relationship. My husband and I have been together 22 years and we joke much like that on a regular basis. All of it may sound malicious but all is said with affection and being open about what we say.
    I also laughed as the dog reminded me of our cat. I have checked on many an occassion to see if the cat is still alive (I really don’t want to find him dead!) and on bulk buying catfood have said it would be just our luck if he passed away.
    This series is a definitely a breathe of fresh air and something I would definitely watch again. I love the flamboyancy of the pair (so what if people think it’s stereotypical) and the dancing scene was both sweet and had me grinning from ear to ear with the campness of it all. Hell I’ve even danced like that to lighten a mood or two before.
    Personally I dislike soap operas. So I don’t watch them. If you didn’t like it switch off, but for all of us who want to see more – please leave us be and let us equally have the shows we want :)
    Bring on a season 2 with this fabulous pairing of actors. Thank you Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi – loving it :D

  33. I absolutely love the series. It is my type of humour and the acting is fabulous with perfect timing. I shall look forward to the Christmas special and the second series.

  34. it’s a great show in a similar vein to ‘gimme gimme gimme’it has touches of reality,some laugh out loud moments and even a bit of pathos, more power to them all !

  35. I think it is a funny sitcom. It does show the best of old queens in the world that there are people like them. I might be one of them. The aging homosexuals are mostly home bodies who are alive and well. I think there is no other shows could match it.

  36. You are right, about the stereotypes and the classic jokes and etc. There’s an old couple, but gay, living a middle class life.
    But, its absolutely funny, because they are great actors, and this is what great actors do: renew old forms, and make shine a simple, or not so new, text.

  37. really liked the series..witty..camp..funny..and will be a shame if it does not return for another series…

  38. What are you guys talking about???

    The show is HILARIOUS. I laughed through the whole 6 episodes, and so did several of my friends. It’s funny because while joking about various things and people and groups, they never make it sound like any of them are actually bad, just that the main characters are cranky (which is very comedic, in case you guys missed it).

    I’m only in my early twenties, but even I can relate to a lot of what they’re talking about when they joke about things typically relating to elderly individuals.

    Is it totally new? Not quite. A group of friends hanging out and being funny and “vicious” isn’t new (HIMYM, Happy Endings, etc.), but their people and settings are unique and fun, and I think given time they’ll hit a very good stride on the show.

    I’d personally love to see more. I’m not sure what you guys were watching that you didn’t like it. ;)

    We all have our opinions, of course. Mine is that it’s highly entertaining, made me laugh for a straight twenty minutes, and I want more.

  39. And just for clarity, my surprised and slightly indignant “what are you guys talking about???” was directed at the naysayers, not you lovely people who agree with me and recognize how funny the show is. ;)

  40. Personally I didnt find it funny…But its great that so many did…I felt bad for McKellen and Jacobi all the way through but these comments have made it all better…Isn’t it extraordinary what pleases some people and not others? If they make another series then those of us who it didnt please can turn over cant we?

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