Vicious (ITV) – Review

ViciousI so wanted this show to be good. That’s why, against my better judgement, I watched the second episode of Vicious (ITV), hoping against hope that episode one had merely suffered from the fairly common condition of “Gratuitous Scene-Set Syndrome”. Unfortunately, episode two was even worse.

Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi are undoubtedly two of the finest actors of their generation. Frances de la Tour is probably the best comic actress we’ve had in this country in the past 30 years.

The CVs of Olivier award-winning playwright Mark Ravenhill and “Will & Grace” writer Gary Janetti speak for themselves. So what in God’s name has gone wrong here? What did I just watch?

OK, we have an old gay couple who, after nearly 50 years together, both love and hate each other in equal measure.  Freddie (McKellen) was once an actor, so I suppose we can forgive him for his overly theatrical, deeply dated, and mildly offensive portrayal of a gay man.

Freddie doesn’t belong in 2013, he belongs in the cast of “Round the Horne”, somewhere in the early 1960’s. And that’s the joke. I get it.

Meanwhile, we’re told that Freddie’s partner Stuart worked as a barman in a pub in Leytonstone. But despite this less than glittering background, for some reason Jacobi’s performance as Stuart is virtually identical to that of McKellen’s.

In the character of Stuart, surely there was an opportunity to write a gay character who wasn’t an archetypal mincing old queen – creating a striking contrast from which conflict could arise, and at the same time exploring the differences between gay culture then and now. Instead, our two central characters are merely a couple of identical, two dimensional “old poofs.” They’re not Will and Grace, they are Will and Will.

But there’s actually something far more worrying than that: Whereas portraying gay men like this 50 years ago was considered hilarious, doing it today tends to lead to a reinforcement of mindless homophobia among the slow-of-thinking classes. Reviving Barry Cryer & Marty Feldman’s Julian and Sandy on primetime ITV may seem like a great idea, but have the comedy commissioners really thought it through?

Politics aside, I have yet to meet either a gay or straight person who has managed to raise a single laugh from this sitcom.

Most puzzling of all is the character of Ash (Iwan Rheon) the young man who has moved into the flat upstairs. He knocks on the door, he comes in, he sits down, he drinks tea, he looks a bit uncomfortable and then he leaves. Over and over again. Why?

This character does not possess the slightest motivation to visit, socialise with, befriend or be even remotely concerned with Freddie and Stuart – two men with whom he shares nothing in common. Rheon’s performance is flat, wooden, without energy and glassy eyed. His character utterly pointless. But then, that’s not the actor’s fault.

Meanwhile, Frances de la Tour is basically playing Miss Jones from Rising Damp. When she played it in the seventies it was funny. Now it’s just sad. Women aren’t like that anymore.

Maybe in writing a show that sets back both Womens’ Rights and Gay Rights 40 years, writers Ravenhill and Janetti are trying to be post modern. Perhaps it’s supposed to be awful. If it is, it has succeeded brilliantly.

I can only assume that the gales of laughter coming from the audience after every single line, can be put down to the fact that the producers are bringing in bus loads of sherry-filled pensioners from a nearby old-people’s home, at which the favourite TV programme is the Black & White Minstrel Show.

Oh, and by the way, the opening titles contain the worst music edit in the history of British television.