Veteran thespians Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi were the ideal candidates for ITV’s new sitcom, even if they didn’t fancy being Vicious Old Queens. Steve Pratt reports

THE new ITV1 sitcom Vicious was originally called Vicious Old Queens. Somewhere along the line – apparently someone objected to the word “old” – both the old and the queens have been dropped. It’s just Vicious.

Nothing to do with Sid Vicious, but Freddie and Stuart, two ageing partners who’ve lived together in a small London flat for nearly 50 years. Freddie was a budding actor and Stuart a barman when they first met, but now their careers are pretty much over and their lives consist of reading books, walking their dog – and bickering.

They are played by two of the country’s most respected thespian knights, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, with Frances De La Tour co-starring as their best friend Violet.

The show, filmed in front of a studio audience like sitcoms used to be, is written by Gary Janetti, the Emmy-nominated writer and producer behind hit shows Family Guy and Will & Grace.

It’s not a gay comedy, it just so happens that Freddie and Stuart are of that persuasion.

“It’s not aiming to shock people,” assures McKellen.

“It won’t alarm anyone. It isn’t a satire of an expose of gay life. For me, it’s as if TV has grown up.

In the past gay characters in sitcoms have been figures of fun. They were funny because they were gay.

I like the fact that these characters are funny because of the people they are. That’s a real advance.”

Jacobi agrees. “The fact that there are two older gay men is incidental. At the same time, that is one element which makes this unique. It’s not our brief, but this could well help change people’s minds,” he says.

McKellen and Jacobi arranged a reading of the script with friends and when those friends laughed all the way through, McKellen recalls, “I thought, ‘aha, it works’. Its aim is to entertain people by making them laugh, and once I realised it did, I was very glad to do it.”

The two actors have known each other for more than 50 years, but rarely worked together as their careers have taken different paths. The prospect of doing a very funny sitcom with McKellen sounded too good to miss, says Jacobi.

“We didn’t have to use up valuable time getting to know and like each other. That was already a given.

We started from the point of view of being very happy in our mutual skins. It’s been a delight collaborating with Ian,” says Jacobi.

As McKellen points out, they look as though they’ve known each other for 50 years because they have. “It was a great relief when I saw the first episode and Freddie and Stuart looked as if they’d been together forever,” he says.

“That ease with each other is essential to the show.

Some people will be delighted that Derek and I are making fun of ourselves. We’ve had a ball making Vicious.

It’s been an absolute delight.”

Their on-screen relationship as Freddie and Stuart is very different as the couple have “fallen into the habit of being horrid to each other”, says McKellen.

“Although they’ve got into this habit, they clearly still love each other in the way that people who’ve been together for nearly 50 years do. They’ve survived.

Anyone who was gay in the 1970s was rather heroic. When Freddie and Stuart first knew each other, it was actually illegal. But they’ve come through thick and thin together, and are still incredibly close. They’re not aware of much outside their own flat. They keep their curtains closed to the outside world. The serious point is that for much of their lives they have had to live privately.”

THE experienced theatre actors have enjoyed recording the series in front of a studio audience.

“It gives you a huge adrenaline rush which you might not get otherwise. I get nervous beforehand, but once you’re on stage, the studio audience really gives you a buzz. It’s a wonderful thrill,” says Jacobi.

McKellen admits to enjoying it too after an initial confusion. “You think the audience is out there, but you have to remember that you are also playing to an audience down the camera,” he explains.

“You have to rely on the wonderful director, Ed Bye, who is a veteran of this type of comedy, to make sure you get the level right. Also, at first it’s worrying as you think, ‘Am I going to remember the lines?’.

“In the theatre you have more rehearsal time, and in film you can stop and start. But with this, you just have to keep going. However, it’s really useful to have the studio there because they tell you exactly what’s funny.”

  • Vicious, ITV1, Monday, 9pm