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It was with trepidation that I switched on the television last night. Half fearful of being exposed to an awkwardly lascivious and unwizardly Ian McKellen, I was more concerned however that what would follow would be an eerie premonition of life in 40 years time, doilies and all. As Vicious opened and McKellen let out a shrill “Stuart!” at a timid looking Derek Jacobi, it seemed my fate was sealed. Doomed to be a luvvie.
What followed was in a word, a “journey”. Switching from laugh out loud punchlines to Points-of-View worthy awfulness, the camp, unabashed style of the comedy pairing left the audience amused and cold at each turn. Vicious, in itself, is a remarkable sitcom, if for nothing else than occupying a prime-time slot with a central focus on a gay relationship. Through solely focusing on the relationship of nearly 50 years between Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (Jacobi) in their small Covent Garden flat, the gay relationship is to an extent normalised, shown as a surviving connection where all too often it falls apart on screen. In my mind this is unprecedented for British television. With this semi-trailblazing aura surrounding the show, and the burden of representation that follows, it is perhaps no surprise that its reliance on stereotypes, canned laughter, and then more canned laughter divided its audience.
It seemed impossible to gather a consensus from Twitter on the show, with equal shouts of “Stereotypical bollocks!” and “Best thing on television for ages” levelled at the programme. This was my own inner struggle, feeling that I should hate Freddie and write a snide article about the dearth of gay sitcoms post-Will&Grace, but I didn’t hate. Despite the awful moments, and there were awful moments, oh God there were awful moments, I felt drawn to the two and found myself looking forward to next week’s show. Head says hate, heart says love.
Whilst unashamedly pursuing camp, old, slightly leery stereotypes, you have to admit that such lovie characters do exist in real life. A PC show ticking boxes would perhaps be more intellectually rewarding, but no doubt more boring, lacking the cutting wit and general sass gentlemen of a certain age and orientation often possess. Within all this however, the connection between Freddie and Stuart was not one of total dysfunction, but one coloured by love, with throwaway moments of real authenticity amidst the canned laughter. Imagine George and Martha, but as a faded bit-part actor and ex-barman living out their days resigned to age, always rocking between being happy and resentful of each other, but really totally in love.
So on to the awful moment. My world jarred when Violet (Frances de la Tour) waltzed onto the screen with an air of a Southern (London) Belle, with all the sexual urges, faded looks and tired eyes of Blanche DuBois. Her prompt reaction to finding out that a man (Iwan Rheon) was in the toilet of “I hope he doesn’t rape me” was so out of sync, so utterly unnecessary, and so unbelievable that my stomach lurched a bit. Who thought that was ok? As if not content to let this shock factor lie, the rape joke resurfaced 30 seconds later in an equally jarring manner. It was perhaps the biggest comedy misfiring I can remember in a long time, utterly misjudged in the context of the show, and the worthy target of much scorn. However you present it, rape jokes are not passable. For the undeniably stellar cast of McKellen, Jacobi & de la Tour, with a century’s worth of screen and stage experience between them, to be readily associated with such humour shocked me. It was not funny, it was not progressively shocking, it was just awfully vicious.
Perhaps that out-of-sync scene is an apt marker of what to expect from this series as a whole. Moments of sincere humour, enlivened by McKellen’s world-weary and egotistical Freddie, will undoubtedly be shot down by holes in the script and misjudged moments of humour. The balancing act was not quite successful on this first occasion, but nevertheless did enough to entice me for next week.
As sitcoms go it will not make history, but as a light-hearted centralising of an albeit stereotypically eccentric gay couple on the nation’s screens, it could have been a lot worse. Judgment reserved for now. Make up your own mind, and close your eyes/ears/hearts when de la Tour comes on.