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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era