Not a vicious review
I was kind of dreading watching new ITV sitcom Vicious, despite liking retro. Vicious is just like a 1970s sitcom, filmed in an obvious set, with studio laughter and comedy gay stereotypes - played by Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen. This long-standing, ageing gay couple are an only slightly updated version of the 1960s camp radio pair Julian and Sandy, with lineage to Larry Grayson and John Inman of the 1970s. Piss-elegant, melodramatic, bitchy, vain, delusional and somewhat predatory, they embody almost every Daily Mail stereotype about gay men ever spat out over the last 50 years. As third wheel, Frances de la Tour plays their faithful fag hag, a role that she has been preparing her entire career for. When a handsome young man moves in upstairs, how we will laugh at the tragic way these two vicious queens and their hag pointlessly fight over him. The curtains in their living room are always drawn (because daylight is so cruel on withered skin, as Blanche Dubois first told us), Mother is always on the phone, there's a 20 year old dog called Balthazar about to join a half dozen urns of previous dogs on the mantlepiece and the pair trade quips about their cataracts, failed careers and the humble working class beginnings that they struggle to hide. "You're from Wigan!" "Oh you bitch!"
But it's all been done before though - as the 1960s film based on a play, Staircase, starring similarly respectable actors Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as the couple in question. Although that film was disliked at the time, and pretty much sank without trace, some of its put-downs are outrageously funny, and there's enough pathos to slightly elevate it above mere slapcampstick. It's perhaps surprising that it's taken all this time to come full circle, although perhaps not. I was prepared to hate Vicious. But I couldn't. Sure, the main characters are not likeable or good PR for the gay community, but I no longer feel that any single gay character on tv is having to do the work of fully representing all gay people who ever lived. When, finally, a 7ft tall, black, NBA player can come out of the closet and the world doesn't come to an end, when my nephew can tell members of his class "My uncles are gay and there's nothing wrong with that!" when some random child tells him he's gay, then perhaps we can view Vicious as silly, camp fun and not get too upset about its political ramifications. We will never move to being "post-gay" (whatever that means), but I suspect that in a couple of decades we will be "post-gay-rights" (at least in the West), and my nephew won't have to make any defensive statements because gay won't even be an insult. We are not there yet, but it's coming.
I've never met anyone exactly like the characters in Vicious in real life - as stereotypes they're total exaggerations of course, but I do recognise little glimpses of them in other people, and sometimes in bits of myself. But their bickering also reminds me of plenty of long-term heterosexual couples I've seen arguing while "in company". Vanity and delusion are clearly not the province of gay people - and the most predatory person in the programme is actually the heterosexual woman. I guess I feel that Jacobi and McKellen are slightly wasted on these sorts of roles - after one episode they feel somewhat one-dimensional and predictable. I'm not sure that an ITV sitcom format will even allow character complexity to develop, or whether it even should. But I will continue to watch. If anything, it's a respite from the parade of beautiful under 30s who it's impossible to escape from on telly.