A NEW sitcom is about to be delivered by the television gods and this one really does look like it’s breaking new ground.
Vicious boasts acting luminaries Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi in the lead roles as two gay gentlemen who have lived together for almost 50 years. With those two legends on board, any project that revolves around them stands a decent chance of success, but this one is different.
“It isn’t a satire or an exposé of gay life. These characters just happen to be gay,” says McKellen of the six-part series penned by Gary Janetti, the man behind Will & Grace.
Sir Ian, 73, stars as Freddie – “a pain in the neck but he’s also a survivor,” says the esteemed actor, who is openly gay and a keen activist for same sex rights. “He’s also honest and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. I really do like Freddie.”
His partner, Stuart, is the sweeter of the two, “but he can give as good as he gets when he’s up against it,” says Sir Derek, 74.
At the show’s conception, Sir Ian and Sir Derek were both mentioned as dream casting, “and after that I thought those characters could not be played by anyone else,” says Janetti, the Emmy-nominated writer and producer. “I just knew they would bring a whole new dimension to the show, and I was right. They have given us something quite extraordinary.”
Freddie was a budding actor and Stuart a barman when they first met in their twenties but at this point, with their careers pretty much over, their lives consist of reading books, walking their dog – and bickering.
“It’s a relationship of long standing but they’ve fallen into the habit of being horrid to each other,” says Burnley-born Sir Ian, who recently reprised his role as the wizard Gandalf in The Hobbit.
But while their barbed comments can be “vicious”, it’s simply the pair’s way of communicating with each other. No doubt many people in long-term relationships will identify with that. “They clearly still love each other in a way that people who have been together for nearly 50 years do. They’ve survived,” says Sir Ian.
“Their bickering is a modus vivendi for them and some couples do work like that,” adds Sir Derek, who registered his civil partnership with long-term partner Richard Clifford in March 2006, after 27 years together.
“Although the lances generally don’t penetrate, just occasionally a few splinters get stuck and every once in a while, there are a few tears from Stuart.”
It’s Stuart who has taken care of the pair’s day-to-day existence. “Stuart was in awe of Freddie’s career as an actor to begin with,” says London-born Sir Derek, fresh from the success of the TV comedy drama Last Tango In Halifax.
“So he’s just devoted his life to him, looked after the house and finances and made sure Freddie’s ego was always boosted, which has been absolutely a full-time job!”
Both men admit it’s a huge advantage that they don’t have to pretend they share a long history – they have known each other for half a century, since their days at Cambridge University, although they’ve rarely worked together.
“It was a great relief when I saw the first episode and Freddie and Stuart looked as if they’d been together forever. That ease with each other is essential to the show,” says Sir Ian, who’s talked in the past of having had a crush on his co-star when they were students. “A passion that was undeclared and unrequited,” he has said.
Sir Derek agrees. “We didn’t have to use up valuable time getting to know and like each other. We started from the point of view of being very happy in our mutual skins. It’s been a delight collaborating with Ian.”
The world that Freddie and Stuart inhabit is an intimate one. As Sir Ian puts it, “they keep their curtains closed to shut out the outside world”. But their small flat isn’t only conducive to the studio set-up (the show is filmed in front of a live audience). The serious point is that for much of their lives they have had to live privately.
“Anyone who was gay in the 1970s was rather heroic, and when Freddie and Stuart first knew each other, it [homosexuality] was actually illegal,” says Sir Ian. “But they’ve come through thick and thin together and are still incredibly close.”
A few people do pop by though. There’s Violet (Frances de la Tour), their young-at-heart best friend who shares a wicked sense of humour; dizzy Penelope (Marcia Warren) who doesn’t realise Freddie and Stuart are gay, and grumpy Mason (Philip Voss), the freeloading loner.
But it’s the arrival of a young man called Ash, played by Iwan Rheon, in the flat above that turns their cosy world upside down. “It’s a fairly traditional sitcom, which reminds me of The Golden Girls or I Love Lucy,” says Sir Ian, who recalls the read-through for the show that he and Sir Derek arranged with friends.
“We went round to Derek’s and read the script, and our friends laughed all the way through. I thought, ‘Aha, it works!”’
So after all these years, what still motivates veteran actors to keep on taking new parts? “Something that I’ve never done before,” is Sir Ian’s answer. “Which is why I’ve just done my first sitcom. After Gandalf, I got offered an awful lot of roles for very old men with beards and I didn’t want to do another of those, so either a different sort of character or a different medium, that’s what keeps me stimulated.”
The working title was originally Vicious Old Queens, Sir Ian revealed recently. “When it was suggested to me that I might be involved, I said, ‘What on earth do you mean? I’m most offended – I’m not old’.”
He’s joking – partly. When he admits that he thinks about death “every day”, it is clear that mortality is never far from his mind. “People of our age, when we get together, talk about decrepitude all the time,” he admits.
“We know we’ve got our lives behind us now. Friends keep dying, or get very ill. I’ve got a lot of young friends – that’s how I bolster myself against the inevitable. I’ve just arranged my house so that I’ll still be able to live in it when I can’t walk, so now there’s a lift in it.”
But for the moment, both men have been re-energised by their latest project, which they believe could provide some sort of watershed in the way it is received.
Sir Derek says: “We’re asking the audience not to laugh at these characters because they’re gay or old, but because of their relationship and their views of themselves and the world.”
For both, this sitcom feels as if TV has grown up. “In the past, gay characters in sitcoms have been figures of fun,” says Sir Ian. “They were funny because they were gay. But I like the fact these characters are funny because of the people they are. That’s a real advance.”
• Vicious begins on ITV on Monday