TV review: Vicious

Steve Bennett on ITV's new sitcom

Before the launch of Vicious, its star Sir Ian McKellen hailed it as a sign that TV ‘has grown up’: a sitcom whose protagonists just happen to be gay.

But while it’s progressive that Freddie and Stuart’s sexuality isn’t the target of jokes, as characters they are straight (if that’s the right word) out of the stereotype drawer: theatrical, bitchy, vain old hams. This is not certainly gay as the new normal, as portrayed in Modern Family or, well, The New Normal.

It’s part of the apparently increasing trend in British TV comedy that equates ‘mainstream’ with ‘70s throwback’ –  Mrs Brown’s Boys, Miranda, Ben Elton’s The Wright Way – with various degrees of success.

Clearly McKellen and Derek Jacobi are relishing the chance to overact every catty line as kings of drama playing drama queens. Their script is pretty much an exchange of pointed one-liners, though the underlying sentiment suggests this is all part of a game, not a real antagonism born of a claustrophobic 50-year relationship.

And talk of claustrophobic, all the action is set in one room of a semi-lit flat – a single set that, combined with the exaggerated performances – adds to the air that Vicious is more broad stage farce than televisual subtlety.

The barbs they trade seem to have little quality control, just as long as they keep coming. It makes for a lot of predictable comebacks – such as the apparently academic boast ‘I’ve been to Oxford’ punctured with ‘Yes, for lunch’ – alongside more deliciously acidic swipes.

And the less said about Frances De La Tour taking ‘comic’ offence at the idea she might be too unattractive to be raped, the better. Quite what such an uncomfortable idea was doing amid all the over-the-top preening beggars belief. It’s aim was to serve the slight and straightforward plot that all three elderly lead characters wanted to seduce the attractive young man moving in to the upstairs flat, but their predatory desires were woefully ineffective. Like so much of Vicious, it’s a dated idea.

Yet for all that is wrong here, McKellen and Jacobi come with a certain camp chemistry, that’s fun and forgiving. It’s a thin basis for a comedy classic, admittedly, but can just about sustain half an hour of no-brain frippery.

Published: 30 Apr 2013

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