Two of Britain’s most revered theater actors set Shakespeare aside for a sitcom.
When the comedy series Vicious premiered on Britain’s ITV network in 2013, it immediately raised questions.
Was it a hilarious comedy or a sly political statement? (Both.) Did it stereotype the gay experience or celebrate it? (Both again.) Was it subversive or mainstream? (And again.)
Created by American writer-producer Gary Janetti from an idea by British playwright Mark Ravenhill, the show stars Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as Freddie and Stuart, a gay couple in their 70s who have been together for 50 years.
But instead of affirming their devotion to one another with tenderness and fealty, they mask it with relentless sarcasm and ridicule.
Freddie: Tell us, what crime against nature will you be serving this evening?
Stuart: Well, that depends. Will you be eating with or without your teeth?
The show gained steam after a meeting between Janetti, whose résumé includes Will & Grace and Family Guy, and Gary Reich, one of Britain’s leading comedy producers, about potentially working together.
“Gary is incredibly funny,” Reich says, “and that’s worth saying, because some comedy writers are funny on paper and then quite depressing to actually spend time with. But he’s very playful and mischievous, and he’s also a phenomenal showrunner.”
One of Reich’s projects was a comedy with the working title Vicious Old Queens. Originally developed by Ravenhill, writer of such audacious plays as Shopping and F—king, as a vehicle for McKellen and Jacobi, the project was shelved when Ravenhill became writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But as soon as Janetti heard about it, he was hooked. Though he had never made a television show outside the U.S., he knew it had to be done in the U.K.
“It felt quintessentially British,” says Janetti, who, like Reich, Ravenhill, McKellen and Jacobi, is gay.
“There’s a culture of eccentricity there, and a theatricality to the kind of couple I envisioned, and it fit into a British milieu more than an American one. Also, Ian and Derek are two of my favorite actors, and I couldn’t get them out of my head.”
If it’s a bit startling to see two of Britain’s most revered theater actors — both of whom have been knighted for their contributions to the dramatic arts — hamming it up in a traditional multi-camera sitcom shot before a studio audience, the archness of the material and the novelty of the genre were the attraction.
That the show would air on ITV — home to such commercial hits as Downton Abbey and Britain’s Got Talent — made the irony even more irresistible.
“Ian and Derek were very interested in doing a project that was subversive,” Reich says. “That was part of the appeal of playing a gay couple who have been together for 50 years. No one has seen that on TV, which was one of the big things that interested them. Then, when I told them I wanted to take it to our most mainstream channel, that very much intrigued them.”
“There’s a faction in the U.K. that thinks they’re slumming,” Janetti says, “but there’s another faction that thinks, ‘It’s hilarious and wonderful to see them like this.’ It’s fairly divided.
“I don’t treat them like they’re preserved in aspic, like they’re revered performers who can only do Shakespeare. We’re doing a really big, funny sitcom, so I’ll give them fart jokes. It shouldn’t be that Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi can’t do a fart joke — they’ll do any kind of material if it’s funny.
"Although I did have moments where I thought, I can’t believe I’m telling Derek Jacobi to call Ian McKellen a big bitch.”
When the show premiered on ITV, the biggest bitch — as in complaint — in some quarters was that Vicious denigrated gay men by depicting them as clichés. Janetti disagrees.
“Some people have said the characters are stereotypical or they’re too camp, or they’re setting gay rights back,” he says. “To me, that’s nonsense. First of all, there’s nothing self-loathing about these men. If anything, they love themselves a little too much. They think they’re a little too fabulous.
“They’re also part of a history of gay men having that camp sensibility,” he adds. “To be witty, to be able to make jokes about yourselves and others, has always been part of the gay community, and it’s always come from an outsider status. When you’re an outsider, you develop a wry way of looking at things. I think that’s how gay men started getting a reputation for a certain sensibility and communicating that way.
“It’s also how you develop a sense of humor. So for gay men to suddenly not want to be a part of that is such a shame to me. It’s something I think is getting lost a little bit, and flattened out, in this goal to be generic. Why not celebrate it?”
The response may have been heightened by the fact that Vicious airs on ITV, hardly a bastion of niche programming (it’s on PBS in the U.S.).
“For them to put their flag in the ground and say, ‘We are going to be the first broadcaster in this country to have a gay couple who, despite the fact that they are bitchy and carp at each other, have also been together for 50 years,’ is radical,” Reich says.
“Because there is a whole history that we imply and occasionally refer to — 40 years ago, homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. So these are people who have lived through some of the most tumultuous cultural, historical and political events, and they’ve stayed together through it all.”
Happily for the show’s many fans, ITV and Vicious have stayed together, too. Season two, which premiered in Britain in June, comes to PBS August 23. For Janetti, an Anglophile who grew up watching classic British comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served?, it’s a perfect balance.
“Over there, it feels like a big, broad comedy, because it’s on ITV. Over here, it feels more niche and sophisticated because it’s British and it’s on PBS. We have the best of both worlds.”