There may be some scenario where two people are more arch than Sir Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as longtime lovers, but it would require a screenplay, Bette Davis, George Sanders and pitchers of martinis.
PBS airs “Vicious” Sundays (check local listings) and for anyone who loves British situation comedy, this is a treat. The title is an accurate description of how they talk to each other, but make no mistake — these men love each other deeply.
McKellen plays Freddie, a not very successful actor. He was Dr. Who’s 10th most popular villain of all time. But he puts on airs as if Laurence Olivier groveled before him.
Jacobi is the long-suffering Stuart, who so adores his egomaniacal lover that he takes a job at a department store to qualify for the employee discount so he can buy Freddie a new coat.
“It was funny, and it was very stylish and I wondered whether I would be able to get it right,” McKellen says, reflecting on reading the initial script. “It’s an odd system, you know. These episodes all recorded in front of an audience. People think we have a sound track. On the contrary the audience was making such sounds of approval, they had to be reduced.”
The comedy is set in Freddie and Stuart’s well-worn apartment. A handsome young neighbor whom Freddie fawns over visits them. They have a few friends who make for wonderful secondary characters. Violet (Frances de la Tour), in particular, is hilarious as an aged cougar, who remains randy.
The show already aired in the United Kingdom and was a huge hit, though some of McKellen’s friends did not automatically embrace it.
“I have a lot of friends who were rather snooty about it,” McKellen tells Zap2it. “It is so big and so exaggerated. Yes! It is called farce. It is an exaggeration of farce. Deep down or not too deep down, it is about a relationship going on for a long time.
“They really are two men who love each other and are horrible to each other at the same time; it is an example for how people survive,” he continues.
McKellen, who has been out for decades and has been an advocate for gay rights, says he understands how some gays thought that the show could be seen as reinforcing stereotypes, but adds, “There are many, many people who just go with it and love it. It has divided audiences. The pretty snooty criticism is a sort of snobbery; they don’t quite like the idea of actors with divinity of Shakespeare letting their hair down with farce. I think that is a mistake.”
McKellen and Jacobi have been friends since 1958, and McKellen has acknowledged that he harbored an unrequited crush on him.
“When I arrived in Cambridge and Derek had been there a year and was well established as the romantic actor and great actor,” McKellen says. “And I rather looked up to him.”
Despite a lifetime of varied roles — Gandalf in The Hobbit films, Magneto in the X-Men series, King Lear, Hamlet — over 50 years, McKellen had never plays a character this flamboyant.
“It is odd that Stuart and Freddie don’t make much reference to it,” McKellen says. “They are pioneers, in a sense. They never saw anything wrong in falling in love or living together.”
“When people try to make comparisons with others gay characters, it is not quite the same,” McKellen says. “The general TV viewer is at ease with gay people being themselves, and openly gay would not have been possible five or six years ago.”