Sir Ian McKellen: My new sitcom is Vicious!

Lord Of The Rings star Sir Ian McKellen joins another acting legend, Sir Derek Jacobi, in a new ITV comedy Vicious (Monday, April 29). They portray a volatile older gay couple alongside Rising Damp’s Frances De La Tour as their friend Violet and and Misfits star Iwan Rheon as the young lad who moves upstairs.

Sir Ian tells What’s On TV about the sitcom and his latest role…

Were you immediately sold on the idea of these two elderly gay gents bickering with each other each day, having lived together for nearly 50 years? The original title was Vicious Old Queens, wasn’t it?
“Derek and I both said that Vicious Old Queens as the title was bit too on the nose and my response was ‘I’m not old!’ I wasn’t immediately sold then because I was playing an actor. To play someone my own age, who’s gay and an actor, I just thought well I’m just playing myself. But we had a reading of the script at Derek’s house with some of our friends and Derek’s partner Richard and they all laughed so much. That seemed to be it really in deciding to go ahead. Gary Janetti, the Will & Grace writer who penned this marvellous comedy, helped enormously too.”

How would you describe the relationship between Freddie and Stuart. There’s a lot of love, but lots of bickering, too?
“It surprised me the number of people who’ve watched the show as we filmed it and said to me ‘Oh I know a couple just like that’. I know a very happily married couple who actually bear the physical scars of pans being thrown and things like that. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a relationship where the staple was being horrible to each other, but it does seem to strike a chord with some. It does amuse.”

Why is there all this bitterness between them?
“I don’t know where it comes from, but us actors are a pain in the neck, aren’t we? To live with an actor if you’re not one yourself must be like living with two people and an over-developed ego. It must be so irritating. The pair mock themselves about being old, and that’s fine. They know they’re decrepit. If they’re horrible to others about something physical it’s because they feel it themselves, so they have the right to. The pair do have a friend, Mason, played by Philip Voss, who gives as good as he takes.”

Did you have any worries about portraying an older gay character?
“I hope people don’t think this is how all old gay people talk to each other, but that was the only worry. I showed four episodes to a younger friend of mine, a 32-year-old gay man who’s married, and when Iwan Rheon’s young character Ash says: ‘I hope one day to have a relationship like Freddie and Stuart’ I heard sniffling and looked over to see he was crying. It had struck a chord, he’d seen right through the viciousness to the love. The viciousness seems to be part of the cement which glues them together somehow.”

Would you feel frustrated if Vicious became labelled just a gay sitcom?
“It depends who you are how you take it. I know ITV is very pleased and quite proud to put two gay characters at the centre of a sitcom it thinks is going to be universally appealing. The world’s grown up a bit, hasn’t it? And I’d say the comedy is as much about being old as it is about being gay. Also, our jokes don’t exclude any groups.”

What do you think a wider audience may learn?
“It may come as a surprise to some straight people who’ve not thought about it much that gay peoples’ relationships aren’t unlike their own. When two people live together for a long time their sexuality doesn’t really come into it. Freddie and Stuart seem to be a little removed from the gay scene; they live in Soho and they don’t seem to be even aware Gay Pride takes place. They’re not overtly political, they don’t talk about the possibility of gay marriage turning up, but they’re survivors, they’ve got on with their lives despite everything that’s been thrown at them by public attitudes and the bad laws they grew up with. When they first made love they were breaking the law. It’s not something they talked about, but they did break the law. Now the law’s come round to being on their side so they’re quite heroic really. They haven’t been cowed.”

Were you afraid of being seen as caricatured gay characters?
“The traditionally funny gay character who has cropped up in sitcoms in America has lost the caricature nature. There have been screaming queens on television which people have laughed at and they don’t seem to be like any gay person you’ve ever met. Also they talk about sex the whole time, but have never had it.

“Freddie and Stuart share a bed, a double bed they’ve occupied for 48 years. They’re ordinary people, they’ve had sex, probably still having it they don’t talk about it, but it’s there. That wasn’t true about gay characters in the past, they were there to be poked fun at. Larry Grayson for example, he was always talking about sex, always innuendo. That’s why gay people took offence because it made them just figures of fun. Freddie and Stuart are figures of fun, but on their own terms hopefully.”

There are mentions of Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Graham Norton in the show. Do you think they’ll be watching?
“I bumped into Graham Norton the other day, as we were both shopping in Waitrose and he said to me: ‘How’s the sitcom going?’ and I when I told him he’s mentioned in the first episode, he was so excited. I hope Judi and Helen feel the same.”

Can you tell us about Ash (played by Iwan Rheon), the young lad who’s moved upstairs from Freddie and Stuart?
“It’s sweet because he’s new to London, just arrived, family life is both parents are in prison so he’s making his way and he chances upon this couple who befriend him at quite a deep level and help him really. The person who goes for him is the older straight woman Violet, played brilliantly by Frances De La Tour, and he’s a straight man so a lot of comedy flows from that. Iwan’s a brilliant young actor. I’m in awe frankly and Alexandra Roache who appears in the fifth episode plays his girlfriend. She was astonishing and wonderful.”

Does the fact that you and Derek have a long-standing friendship make lines in this comedy richer and funnier?
“The fact that we’ve known each other a long time, that’s just a given and once you’d done the first episode we did look like an old couple, like an old professional couple who’ve got his sitcom around our relationship. In a way, it just seemed like the Two Ronnies. If we had to start acting that we liked each other it would have been a bit too difficult I think. We were lucky in that respect, that we didn’t have to get to know each other and could hit the ground running.”

Do you remember first meeting Derek at Cambridge University in the 1950s?
“Derek was very much the actor when I arrived because he’d worked locally in Cambridge and elsewhere and I was very in awe of his reputation, by what he’d done and what clearly he was going to do. Derek was always clear he was going to be a professional actor which I wasn’t when I arrived at university, so that’s what I saw, someone who was really confident in his abilities.”

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