TV Review: Vicious, ITV1

There is much talk in media circles about ITV being on a roll at the moment. They've cracked costume drama with Downton Abbey and contemporary drama with Broadchurch. But can they crack that toughest nut of all, sitcom? Well this Monday could be make or break. At 9.30pm they've got The Job Lot starring Miranda's Sarah Hadland which BTJ will be reviewing when it goes out and before that at 9pm, Vicious, starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as two perma-bickering partners.

ITV probably hasn't had a decent sitcom since Rising Damp, which was made so long ago the world thought Ian McKellen was heterosexual back then. By a nice coincidence Vicious, based on an idea by playwright Mark Ravenhill, co-stars Rising Damp's Frances De La Tour, so I guess you could call this Rising Camp. There is nothing new about gay characters on TV theses days, of course. In fact writer Gary Janetti is well cast – he wrote for Will & Grace and can certainly pen crackly, bitchy dialogue. McKellen's character Freddie is always quick to put down Stuart with a well-turned bon mot: "I never know when I'm going too far, but I'm so glad when I do."

But is Vicious funny? Well, it certainly hits the ground flouncing and it is hard to fault the acting. McKellen (who looks weirdly like a cross between Michael Gambon and Stanley Baxter) and Jacobi clearly had a hoot making this and, although they are mainly known for their straight - no pun – work, in some ways it is not even that much of a stretch. Freddie comes from Wigan, where McKellen actually grew up, while Stuart comes from Leytonstone where Jacobi was born: "I've been to Oxford," Stuart declares. "For lunch," Freddie replies.

The plot is fairly basic sitcomland stuff. They live in a period flat in Covent Garden and youngster Ash (Iwan Rheon from Misfits) moves upstairs (god knows how he can afford it), prompting much lusting after fresh flesh. Violet (De La Tour) always seems to be popping round and when not lusting after Ash as well seems to be worried about imminent sexual assault. The clunkiest line in the first episode is when Violet arrives to find Ash is in the toilet: "what if he comes out and rapes me?"

There are plenty of good gags to make up for this stinker though. As well as the in-jokes blurring fact and fiction there are some very satisfying one-liners. Freddie, it transpires is not quite the grand Shakespearean thespian he initially appears to be, but he has had his soapy moments,at one point listing his triumphs and ending with "I also killed a prostitute in Coronation Street" – McKellen famously did have a Corrie cameo. 

Vicious – originally called Vicious Old Queens but McKellen jokily objected to being called "old" whizzes along with minimal time spent on set-up and maximum time spent on laughs. Even the bit players during a post-funeral wake in episode one get some good lines and it actually feels more like a farcical slick US sitcom than a creaky ITV production, which is both good and bad. It sticks out like a sore thumb in the schedules but that should help it make its mark. I can also see ITV flogging the formula to America, where there is a greater tradition of camp on TV, which should keep the accountants happy.

Will it be a big hit though? Now that I'm not so sure about. The subject matter and the fact that the two leads are old might put some people off though neither factor should. Maybe ITV is hoping that some Tolkien fans will tune in to see Gandalf and stick around. And funnily I, Claudius has recently been on BBC4, so Jacobi's TV profile is higher than it has been for years. The two stars certainly put a lot of themselves into it, the least you could do is give it 23 minutes of your life for the next six weeks.

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