There are times when Vicious makes Are You Being Served? seem almost nuanced

Reviewed: Vicious.

Vicious
ITV

Vicious (Mondays, 9pm) is a new, muchplugged sitcom about two hammy old queens played by Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi. It’s written by Gary Janetti, late of Will & Grace, and the playwright Mark Ravenhill and I would really love to know what Peter Tatchell makes of it. On the one hand, how amazing that ITV has made a prime-time sitcom about two blokes who have been in love for 48 years. On the other, would the channel have commissioned a pair of straight men to write this kind of hackneyed, stereotyped drivel? And would two leading gay actors have agreed to star in it if they had? In 1973, they certainly would have. But in 2013? I think not. Affectionate though it is – all hail the adorable, ageing poofs, with their flapping hands and their superannuated phraseology! – there are times when Vicious makes Are You Being Served? seem almost nuanced.

If I’m honest, though, it isn’t the characters of Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (Jacobi) who make my blood boil, for all that Stuart in particular is cut from the same cloth as Mr Humphries (I was so amazed/appalled by episode one of Vicious that I watched a preview of episode two, in which, in a kind of homage to Humphries, Stuart even lands a job working in the menswear department of a large store). I like a decent luvvie joke as much as the next person and Freddie, voted by fans the tenth most popular baddie in an episode of Doctor Who, has a good if somewhat predictable line in those.

No, it is their friend Violet (Frances de la Tour), a deluded and desperate fag hag, who really bothers me. If Freddie and Stuart, with their tired gags about mascara and Leytonstone, are there to be laughed at, Violet – “I go to yoga; I’m great fun” – exists only to be pitied. Newsflash: misogyny is not only the preserve of straight men. In Vicious, it rises off Violet like Shake’n’Vac from one of Freddie’s and Stuart’s horrible rugs.

Violet arrives at Freddie’s and Stuart’s camp and dinky flat – they keep the curtains permanently drawn, the better to hide their wrinkles, and the place is lit entirely by frilly lamps – pretty much every five minutes. “These aren’t calling hours!” cries Stuart, when the bell goes before they have even finished their morning tea.

In episode one, she pitched up just as Ash (Iwan Rheon), the hunky prospective tenant of the next-door flat, disappeared into their loo. Informed that a young stranger was using their facilities, Violet, her voice full of longing, said: “What if he comes out and rapes me?”

The dialogue then went like this:

Violet (sounding breathless but distinctly un-panicky): “I’m so frightened I’m going to be raped!”
Freddie (with venom): “For God’s sake! Nobody’s going to rape you!”
Violet (disappointed): “What an awful thing to say!”

Hilarious, eh? I do love a good rape joke, especially when delivered by some of our very finest actors in their very fruitiest voices. This scene was fairly gross, in a lazy, Roy- Chubby-Brown-meets-Uncle-Monty kind of a way, and I’m amazed it made it to the screen. Mostly, though, the problem with Vicious is that it simply isn’t funny enough. Or funny at all. In the main, the laughs are supposed to come from the calcified bitchiness that overlays Freddie’s and Stuart’s love for one another. And I can imagine a series in which this sort of thing could be hilarious. You’ve only to read (for instance) Brian Sewell’s memoirs to know that, done right, such fossilised malice can be seriously, outrageously brilliant.

But Janetti and Ravenhill seem not to have the requisite firepower. Their “jokes” are so laboured. “Who do you think you are, the Earl of Grantham?” says Stuart to Freddie, who can be rather grand, what with having played the detective in The Mousetrap for a whole year. And then, by way of a punchline: “You’re from Wigan.” I know. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? All the hammy old queens of my acquaintance (quite a few, as it happens, for all that I don’t long to be raped by a stranger) could have come up with a line 50 times wittier than that and in less time than it takes to say “bridge roll”.

Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and the cast of ITV's vicious. Image: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves - even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war