Two knights of the British theater, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, cut loose as a bickering elderly gay couple in Vicious, a new half-hour Britcom premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates (check local listings).
Created by an American, former Will & Grace executive producer Greg Janetti, the farcical comedy (which originally had the working title Vicious Old Queens) follows fading actor Freddie Thornhill (McKellen) and his partner of 48 years, Stuart Bixby (Jacobi), who share an overstuffed, overdecorated two-level London flat with their 20-year-old dog, Balthazar. The series opens on the day of a funeral for Clive St. Clair, who worshipfully adored Freddie from afar and carried a lifelong torch for him – at least, according to Freddie. Joining Freddie and Stuart for the wake is their best friend of several decades, Violet Crosby (Frances de la Tour, The History Boys), but all three of them immediately become distracted by the arrival of a new neighbor in the apartment building: Ash Weston (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones), a very handsome working-class lad of indeterminate amorous inclinations.
When Stuart ponders whether Ash is gay or straight, Freddie immediately promises to solve the mystery.
“After all, I did spend a year playing the detective in The Mousetrap,” he tells Stuart, referencing the venerable Agatha Christie play that has been running continuously in London since 1952.
“Oh, please,” Stuart snaps back. “Our POSTMAN has been in The Mousetrap.”
Although it is set in the present, in general tone and broad performance style Vicious is a throwback to such vintage Britcoms of the ‘70s as Are You Being Served? In fact, one episode features Stuart earning some extra cash by working in the men’s section of a department store, and I half expected Mr. Humphries to pop into the scene with his characteristic “I’m free!”
Yet while Mr. Humphries’ off-camera personal life was a matter of sniggering speculation in that bygone sitcom, the loving yet fractious relationship between Stuart and Freddie is very much at the heart of Vicious. These two cranky old gents may get on each other’s nerves, but they also share a long history that stretches back to a time when things were not at all easy for men like themselves.
“The point of those old-fashioned sitcoms was that to be gay was, in itself, funny and that you laughed at the characters rather than with them,” says McKellen, who, like Jacobi, is gay in real life as well. “This is not true of (Vicious), and I don’t think Derek and I would have wanted to be involved in this script if it were old-fashioned in that sense. We don’t get laughs as Freddie and Stuart because we are gay, but because we are the people we are. … It’s just two real men surviving with all the problems that many, many people have.”
Filmed before a live studio audience, Vicious just wants to make you laugh, and it’s a treat to watch these two stage titans setting aside any traces of dignity to achieve that end. McKellen in particular is absolutely hilarious. Watch for an episode in which Freddie auditions to play a character who has a single line on Downton Abbey. He has just barely received the thrilling news that he got the job when Ash turns up at the door to announce that, despite his complete lack of experience, he has just been hired for a part in an independent film.
Watching McKellen react to that news is a master class in comedy acting, as Freddie, completely numb, at first thinks he must have misheard, then struggles in vain to process this impossible development and finally chokes back the bitter jealousy he is feeling. The actor does all of this wordlessly, too. It’s an absolutely brilliant moment.
Vicious was an runaway smash when it ran in the UK, where it already has been picked up for a second season. Meanwhile, don’t miss this chance for the next few weeks to watch McKellen and Jacobi as you’ve never seen them before.