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Saturday 3 December 2016

TV Review: Vicious returns direly in need of a fresh comic bite

Ian McKellen as Freddie and Derek Jacobi as Stuart in Vicious
Ian McKellen as Freddie and Derek Jacobi as Stuart in Vicious

NOVELTY will only take you so far. The novelty of seeing theatrical knights Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi striking sparks off one another as an elderly gay couple who’ve sniped and snarked their way through 50 years together has carried Vicious to a second series.

The reviews of the first were mostly tepid, and one write-up by art critic Brian Sewell, himself an elderly gay man appalled by what he saw as regressively camp, 70s-style stereotypes, savagely dismissive. The viewing figures were excellent, though.

But, fun as it might be (and I’ve always found it a lot of fun) to see McKellen’s Freddie and Jacobi’s Stuart engaging in their duelling-hams routine all over again, the novelty factor was already looking a little shopworn during last night’s resumption of hostilities.

Sitcom characters, even ones as thinly-drawn as Freddie and Stuart, need to develop a little as time passes.

One of the great strengths of the grossly undervalued Count Arthur Strong is the ultimately tender and touching relationship between Arthur (Steve Delaney) and Michael (Rory Kinnear). It gives the silliness heart.

There were superficial signs last night that Vicious’ American writer and co-creator Gary Janetti, who gave the world Will and Grace, the first sitcom to make gay characters something more than punchbags for punchlines, might be trying to shake things up a bit.

The episode briefly took Freddie and Stuart out of the confines of their flat, on a shopping trip and a visit to a sushi restaurant, and introduced a couple of new characters.

Ash, played by Iwan Rheon (the vile Ramsay Snow in Game of Thrones), has acquired a girlfriend, while oversexed Violet (the ever wonderful Frances de la Tour) has a sister (Celia Imrie), who believes Violet is married to a rich man and is waited upon by servants.

When Lilian comes to visit, Stuart poses as Violet’s super-butch husband (the real one having gone missing, presumed scarpered) and Freddie as their cantankerous butler. It’s a plot device as old and mechanical as a grandfather clock, and with less potential for surprise moves.

Despite its title — and a late cameo by the F-word — Vicious is mild fun at best. The chemistry between McKellen and Jacobi, and the public affection for them, are the only things keeping it a breath away from needing life-support.

Where Am I Sleeping Tonight? was a powerful argument for BBC3, which is destined to become an online-only channel, retaining some kind of television presence.

Martin Read’s shaming, quietly heartbreaking (unless the heart in question is rotting in the chest of Katie Hopkins) documentary focused on Bristol’s “hidden homeless”, the mostly under-25s who aren’t even officially registered as homeless. Read knows these people well; he used to be one of them.

“This life I’ve had, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” said Anthony, who’s 17 and has been homeless for three years. Before that, he’d spent half his broken life living in, and often running away from, care homes and foster families.

Being slight and vulnerable, he’s often bullied in hostels and feels safer on the streets, where the “family of homeless” look after their own when no one else will — not least the government, which cuts off their meagre benefits if they’re so much as late for a job centre appointment.

An unbearably sad snapshot of societal brutality, it was worth a million Benefits Streets.

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