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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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