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'Vicious': New Comedy Import from Sirs, with Love
June 28, 2014  | By Donna J. Plesh

[Editor's Note: TVWW contributor Donna J. Plesh died April 2, 2015, from ovarian cancer. She was 71. Donna covered television since the early 1980s, initially for the Orange County Register and its TV magazine. She also was a member of the Television Critics Association. Donna was always a cheerful spirit within the TVWW network and often gave readers a kind, up-close viewpoint in her interviews with a wide variety of television stars. She will be missed.]

When you have two “Sirs” starring in a television series, you know it might be something special, especially when the “Sirs” in question are British acting greats Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi. The duo are starring, no not in a drama, but in Vicious, a new half-hour sitcom.

In the series, which premieres Sunday night on PBS at 10:30 ET (check local listings), McKellen and Jacobi play Freddie and Stuart, gay partners who have lived together in London for 48 years. The series, filmed before a live audience, features a lot of laughter and zingers between the two leads. The cast also includes Frances de la Tour as their best friend Violet, and Iwan Rheon as Ash, their new, young upstairs neighbor, and Marcia Warren as Penelope, a friend who seems to have intermittent memory problems.

Though both leading stars are most often thought of for their stage work, and McKellen for films as well (The Hobbit, X-Men), both are television veterans. Jacobi is starring in PBS’s Last Tango in Halifax (right), which returns to PBS for a second season on the same evening, Sunday night at 8 p.m.ET (again, check local listings). He also has many TV credits, including Cadfael, his breakout role as the star of I, Claudius, as well as Dr. Who and an episode of Frasier in 2001. McKellen’s TV credits range from Britain’s long-running soap Coronation Street to voicing himself on an episode of The Simpsons.

The creator and writer of Vicious is Gary Janetti, an American whose TV credits include Will & Grace and Family Guy.

“I had wanted to work in the U.K.," he explained at a Television Critics Association press event. "I’ve been a big fan of British television since I was a child. Actually, mostly from watching PBS and from watching the British sitcoms that I grew up with on PBS, I was always very much fascinated with it. I grew up in Queens and it was a different world, and it was a very exciting world for me. And at this point in my career, I felt I wanted to do something there [in the U.K.].

"So I looked into that and I heard that Ian and Derek actually wanted to work together and were interested in doing a project together. So that was the genesis. That was the starting off point. Once I heard that, I was, like, I will move heaven and earth to work with Ian and Derek. I would do anything in the world to make that happen, and it did eventually,” Janetti said.

“Early in the process, I was in London to have dinner with Ian and Derek when I discussed the show and how I was seeing the show, and both Ian and Derek had a lot of wonderful questions. That forced me to continue to dig deeper into everything about who these men [Freddie and Stuart] were, why they were together. So even though what you see in the 22 minutes that we have is a snippet of their relationship, there’s so much that we are aware of that is unsaid, you know, that is part of their history, that is underneath everything that is being played.”

Both McKellen and Jacobi are now 75, and show no signs of slowing down. Earlier this year McKellen, starred in two alternating shows on Broadway — No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot.

“The audience that we met whilst we were recording Vicious in the studio, because it’s recorded with a live audience, was not of one demographic," McKellen said. "It was carefully a mixture of the sort of people who might be sitting at home, wanting to have a good laugh. And audiences that I’ve subsequently met have been right across the age range. So I don’t think there’s anything about age which would stop you relating to this show. Particularly, Iwan Rheon is a nice young man and carries the youth banner. And never let it be said that Marcia Warren and Frankie de la Tour are tending towards middle age.”

His co-star Jacobi added, “I think one of the reasons for the success of Last Tango and Vicious is that the public are gagging for programs featuring people who are older. I think the television and films are so seemingly, until now, obsessed with youth and beauty. It’s very refreshing -- and certainly very good for us and our bank balances -- to be in your 70s and to still be asked to perform such great shows, such well-written shows. Because one of the things about both of these shows, Vicious and Last Tango, is the writing, just wonderful, wonderful writing.”

Unlike many sitcoms today, Vicious has a theatrical feel to it, especially since it is filmed before a live audience, and Jacobi said he had to think which way he was going to play the role.

“I think one of the first problems I had was deciding whether we were in a stage situation or a television situation. We have that one set. We have five cameras and about 350 people behind the cameras stacked up watching us. And it was a question of knowing which one to play to, whether we played camera performances or we played a more theatrical style to reach the audience behind them. I think eventually we found the happy medium of those two. And one of the things that struck me was a lot of people said to me that, ‘Of course, that was a laughter track you had on, wasn’t it?’ And it wasn’t, absolutely not. The reaction from the audience was absolutely wonderful.

"And particularly, we had to get used to the moments that went wrong. We forgot our lines or we bumped into the furniture or fell over or whatever, and it was those moments that brought us together with the audience. We shared a moment with the audience and they felt that they were part, actually, of the performance, of the three hours of the transmission. And once we realized that we can’t do both, that was when we reached calmer waters,” said Jacobi.

“To my taste," McKellen said, "theatrical is a compliment, whether you are referring to a TV program or a stage show. And anyway, television can take anything. It can take real live action. It can take the most exaggerated of storytelling forms. But what I never quite felt in the old days, in the old sitcoms, that there was anything beyond those doors. You saw a door opening and closing, and I was always rather vague as to what happened beyond it. But we used to ask our audiences in the studio when we were recording Vicious, in between takes, what they thought was at the top of the stairs where there was a door leading to, clearly, a bedroom. And we said, ‘Do you think Stuart and Freddie have single beds or a double bed?’ and they resoundingly agreed that it was a double bed they slept in, and they got the point of this relationship, that it was a working, conceivably still a sexual relationship, whatever the bitterness and the bickering and the banter that went on downstairs.

"When they’re in bed, something loving and private, of course, could happen, but as far a distance as possible, I suppose, from being theatrical,” concluded McKellen.

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