By way of Matt Baume’s fascinating YouTube channel, where he takes a light-hearted look at issues affecting and involving the LGBT community, we recently discovered the British TV comedy series Vicious.
The primary stars of Vicious are Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi. With a core cast like that, how can you lose? There’s not a lot of characters throughout the episodes; the regular cast never goes beyond six members. There are the two central characters Freddie Thornhill (Ian McKellen) and Stuart Bixby (Derek Jacobi), their friend Violet Crosby (brilliantly played by Frances de la Tour) and younger upstairs friend/neighbour Ash Weston (Iwan Rheon). Occasionally we see the mostly-senile but lovable, long-time family friend Penelope (Marcia Warren), and Mason (Philip Voss) as Freddie’s acid-tongued brother who is also gay but disapproves of Freddie and Stuart’s relationship.
Vicious is very British with its sly insult-humour, a genre the English do especially well. The plot centres around the love-hate relationship of gay male couple Freddie and Stuart (played by our two aforementioned knighted actors) who have been together just shy of fifty years. Each episode’s plot also includes their circle of friends – Violet, Ash, Penelope and Mason – each generating their own form of lunacy. The two seasons weave the characters in and out of various hilarious predicaments, ending in Freddie and Stuart’s wedding (after fifty years of being together) in the final episode of the second season. This wedding episode is not to be missed.
Only two seasons of Vicious plus a Finale were shot and each season has only six or seven episodes, which is very typical of a British television series. The series premiered in April 2013 but was cancelled by ITV in the U.K. in 2016, with the Finale special airing in December of that year. The series was panned by British critics but, nevertheless, did well during its run. PBS in North America carried the show in 2014 but I’m not sure what the success rate was on this side of the Atlantic. The humour in Vicious does not appeal to everyone, and you have to approach the series with an appreciation of camp, gay humour, comedic put-downs, dark humour and a general love/appreciation of British comedy (which is interpreted somewhat differently by our North American sensibilities).
The series was twice nominated for the GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, while the finale was nominated for Outstanding TV Movie or Limited Series.
If you do find the series somewhere online (i.e. streaming services, YouTube, etc.) and begin watching, my advice is to stick with it through the first season. I found the first two episodes of the first season, especially, just plain mean-spirited and cruel, and I felt quite uncomfortable watching them; I just about gave up on the series at that point but I’m so glad I stayed with it. The script, characters and tone does soften, however, and the series becomes much more enjoyable and hilarious with each episode. By the end of Season One I was howling with laughter! I read somewhere that Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi had a hand in rewriting some of the script and making the dialog a little “softer” and the characters more empathic.
The opening and closing theme is an abridged version of The Communards version of Never Can Say Goodbye (which is on my list of Desert Island Songs by the way); this scored big points with me.
You may love Vicious or you may hate it – everyone’s mileage will vary. I’ll leave you with a clip of Season One’s “Best Of”: