TV preview: Vicious| The Job Lot

Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi trade insults in Vicious. Picture: ITV
Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi trade insults in Vicious. Picture: ITV
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No-one would’ve believed, in the early years of the 21st century, that human credulity would be stretched to breaking point by the arrival of a sitcom power-hour on primetime ITV.

Vicious - Monday, STV, 9pm

The Job Lot - Monday, STV, 9:30pm

But it’s true, it’s here. It’s happening. In a turn of events so shocking and bizarre it’s actually quite frightening, the notoriously laughter-shy broadcaster – whose pantheon of classic sitcoms amounts to piddling single digits – has decided to take comedy seriously again.

Given the BBC’s total domination of the field, it’s long felt as though ITV were simply unwilling to compete, preferring instead to concentrate on glum thrillers, cloying dramas, and Ant & Dec’s pension plan. But the huge mainstream success of BBC sitcoms such as Miranda, Outnumbered and Mrs Brown’s Boys has obviously spurred them into belated action.

What’s even more remarkable – staggering, even – about this dedicated comedy offensive is that one of their new efforts, VICIOUS, is actually very funny. You may wish to take a moment to process that information.

A studio-bound, single-set, multi-camera sitcom, it’s a gratifyingly old-school farce in which thespian deities Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi have a char-grilled whale of a time as an incessantly bickering homosexual couple. Sealed within their sepulchral Covent Garden abode – they shriek like vampires when the curtains are accidentally opened – pompous actor Freddie (McKellen) and retired bar manager Stuart (Jacobi) tussle waspishly over decades of perceived slights, while never missing an opportunity to mock each other’s supposed decrepitude.

Now, these are hardly original comic creations – the vituperative, hammy old queen has long been a staple of popular culture – and there is nothing especially notable about the premise. But that simply doesn’t matter when the execution is as strong as this.

Resembling a startled, wounded guinea pig, Jacobi squeals and frets amidst a knowing flurry of camp mannerisms, while McKellen booms fresh insults in that oak-lined voice of his. He also pulls some of the funniest “Why, I’ve never been so insulted in my life!” expressions this side of imperial phase Frankie Howerd. It’s an impeccable dual assault of seasoned comic timing.

Enjoyment is magnified by the addition of Frances de la Tour as their dotty, man-hungry pal. Famously, she starred in Rising Damp, one of ITV’s few great sitcoms, and it’s tempting to view her presence here as a deliberate nod to the past. Not that her involvement is merely symbolic – she’s a peerless comic actress – but you could argue that she’s essentially playing lonely Miss Jones 30 years on. Even the dingy brown set recalls her most celebrated role.

Broad and boisterous in the best possible sense (ie it’s nothing like that aforementioned avalanche of horror, Mrs Brown’s Boys), Vicious is jam-packed with gags, hitting the ground running with an impressive opening episode which establishes set-up, character and backstory with consummate ease.

A co-write between acclaimed playwright Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, a former executive producer on Family Guy and Will & Grace, it revels in its camp bluster with such benign relish, I doubt it’ll get into too much trouble for reinforcing stereotypes. It’s obvious that Freddie and Stuart are blissfully happy in their enmity, and it’s that undercurrent of warmth – the spoonful of sugar beneath the barrel-load of bile – that make these characters so engaging.

I’m no soothsayer – I’ve never said “sooth” in my life – but I predict that Vicious will be huge. A hit sitcom! On ITV! Nurse, the smelling salts...

The madness continues with THE JOB LOT, which, while nowhere near as sharp as Vicious, is a perfectly amiable and amusing sitcom set in a drab job centre (is there such a thing as a bright, welcoming job centre?).

Despite being a single-camera comedy with no laugh-track, it’s essentially a traditional sitcom populated by dysfunctional characters and daffy situations. It is, however, blatantly influenced by The Office, not because it’s a workplace comedy – Gervais and Merchant didn’t invent that genre – but because of the exceedingly Tim-like lead played by Russell Tovey. A bright, likeable everyman trapped in a job he detests – his feelings for an attractive female colleague stop him from leaving – the similarity is compounded by the fact that Tovey appears to have partially based his acting style on Martin Freeman.

While Tim-bot 2000 is mildly distracting, he doesn’t detract overall from a show which, given the danger inherent in its recession-fuelled premise, mercifully refrains from sneering at the unemployed. Granted, one of the regular job-seekers is portrayed as a harmless oddball, but it’s significant that the villain of the piece is a rude, sadistic and actively obstructive job centre employee played by the excellent Jo Enright.

This character has an obvious antecedent in the monstrous Pauline from The League of Gentleman. She also shares a few genes with Little Britain’s “Computer says ‘No’” grotesque. And yet despite these visible origins, Enright imbues her with a distinctive, deadpan venom.

What this all adds up to is a derivative yet serviceable sitcom with a smattering of potential. But it undoubtedly succeeds in being an ITV sitcom that’s Not Appalling. I still can’t quite believe it and Vicious exist at all.

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