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 hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.