“Vicious” Viewers’ Guide.

from http://tellyspotting.kera.org/2016/05/14/pbs-to-get-vicious-one-final-time-in-june-with-special-series-finale/

Oh, Vicious. Have you seen it? Vicious is SO lovely. (Not if you ask The Telegraph, but still.)

And by that I mean, of course, that Vicious is so lovely in a totally British way. Remember when I talked about British TV being great because of its mastery of dark humor? Well, Vicious is the perfect example:

The ITV series Vicious focuses on the relationship (it’s most often referred to as “love/hate,” but I prefer just to call it a love story) between Freddie (Ian McKellen) and Stuart (Derek Jacobi), whose relationship of fifty years endures despite (because of?) their constant barbs at one another. Freddie is an actor (largely a former actor, although he does snag a small part on “Downton Abbey” during the first season, making him insufferable to be around, of course), and when they met Stuart was working as a bartender, although now Stuart’s primary job seems to be making tea and enduring long, painful phone calls from his mother Mildred.

I honestly think I could just watch Freddie and Stuart snap at one another for each full episode of 30 minutes, but the show’s supporting cast is what truly makes it great. There’s Ash, the handsome young man who moves in upstairs from Freddie and Stuart, and who seems to spend most of his time during the first season trying to understand the dynamic between the pair. When he’s not busily trying to figure out if they really do love each other (Ash is a total sweetheart, so this whole “showing love by taking the piss out of the other person” thing is new to him), he’s also trying to avoid the decidedly unsubtle amorous attentions of Violet, another friend of Freddie’s and Stuart’s.

Violet is perhaps one of my favorite characters on British TV ever, full stop. She’s an older woman, of course, but she’s not to old to stick it to Freddie and Stuart with her own jabs (although they are so good at the vicious insult that she can rarely beat them at that game) or to proposition Ash every time she sees him. In the first series she runs off to Argentina to marry her lover, but even when that ends poorly (as you know it must) she comes back swinging.

Two other characters rounding out the cast are Penelope and Mason, old friends of the pair. Penelope never seems to know where she is or who she’s talking to, except for certain bright-eyed moments when she nails someone with the perfectly timed truth. (Actually, Penelope gives Violet a run for her money as one of my other favorite characters on British TV.) Mason is a curmudgeon (it’s genetic; he’s related to one of the other characters, which you don’t find out until series 2, so I’m not going to tell you which one) but that only makes him perfectly suited to hang out with the rest of this crowd.

Many of the episodes are set almost entirely in Freddie’s and Stuart’s flat, but I think my favorites are the ones which take them out of their comfort zone and put them in places they decidedly do not belong: a dance club; an upscale clothing store where Stuart gets a job when he thinks they are running out of money; or taking ballroom dancing lessons.

So why don’t I refer to the relationship between these two characters as a “love/hate” one? Well, because the love it just too obvious. After they’re all done saying vicious things to each other, vicious things to their friends, vicious things to Stuart’s mother on the phone (and about her, after he hangs up), Stuart and Freddie always end up sharing a pot of tea with one another, commiserating on the health of their ancient dog Balthazar (much talked to and about but never really pictured; don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this series), and clearly, clearly, not only in a loving relationship but IN love.

It’s great stuff.

Years aired: 2013-2016.

Episodes and seasons: 12 30-minute episodes, 1 Christmas special, and 1 finale special.

Christmas episodes? Yes, the “Christmas Special,” which aired between series 1 and 2.

Primary Stars: Ian McKellen as Freddie; Derek Jacobi as Stuart; Iwan Rheon as Ash; Frances de la Tour as Violet; Marcia Warren as Penelope; Philip Voss as Mason.

Creator and primary writers: Created by Gary Janetti and Mark Ravenhill; written by Gary Janetti.

Setting: London (Urban)–Covent Garden, to be exact.

First aired on: ITV.

Streams on: YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, Google Play.

Fun trivia: Gary Janetti, the creator and writer, is actually American, and was born in Queens. (The co-creator, Mark Ravenhill, is British.)

None of the critics can quite wrap their minds around this show. And, courtesy of that article, we have the tidbit that Ian McKellen actually did have a crush on Derek Jacobi when they were at university together.

Iwan Rheon, who plays the sweet but not overly mentally burdened Ash, evidently plays a slightly different role on “Game of Thrones”: the complete rat bastard Ramsay Bolton.

All out of Vicious Episodes? Watch these next, luv:

Absolutely Fabulous. One of British TV’s other famous “love/hate” relationship shows, although the relationship between the two principal characters is once again primarily about love, friendship, and putting up with someone no one else can stand, is Absolutely Fabulous. The characters, Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, played by Brit comedy legends Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, respectively, play two women aging (not gracefully), running Edina’s PR agency (well, Patsy is supposed to be a magazine writer, but spends most of her time tagging along with Edina or attending work lunches at her nearly defunct fashion magazine), but mostly just finding ways to keep busy drinking, shopping, being generally as shallow as possible, and picking on other people. The people they most often pick on are Edina’s studious and long-suffering daughter Saffron, and Edina’s mother, who is seemingly never bothered by their barbs and instead just waits her moment, every episode, to give as good as she gets.

Are You Being Served? Okay, this is an older series (it premiered in 1972), but also specializes in a cast of characters who often lob verbal darts at each other: the staff members of an upscale-ish (or at least trying to be upscale) department store. These characters are not together because they love each other, but because they have to show up and work their retail jobs together. Famous for its innuendo and a main character (Mr. Humphries) who has been called an “outrageously camp” gay man (when he died one headline was “Mr. Humphries, a gay icon who was hated by Gay Liberation“; this seems similar to many reviews of “Vicious” which criticize the show for being too campy), this show was hugely popular and ran for ten seasons (which explains why you can almost always still find reruns playing sometime, somewhere on PBS).

Jeeves and Wooster. Now, Jeeves and Wooster (as portrayed by British acting legends Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie) are not gay, but they most definitely are in a relationship and they live together: Jeeves is Bertie Wooster’s butler. Based on the classic books by P.G. Wodehouse, this series is all KINDS of awesome. Laurie as Wooster is a delightful dunderhead; Fry as Jeeves is oh so dry as Bertie’s much-smarter and Machiavellian-in-his-schemes butler; the supporting cast of upper-class male idiots and forceful females and Bertie’s widely varying but all dominating aunts cannot be beat. (And just check out that theme music!)

And now for something completely different:

Fans of Derek Jacobi who are looking for something different in tone (you know, sometimes when you finish a series you’re in the mood for something different) might consider Sally Wainwright’s drama Last Tango in Halifax. In that program Jacobi stars as a man reunited with his first love, which brings him (and her) great happiness…until the many complexities of their various family members’ lives inject constant doses of non-rose-colored-glasses reality to their lives. It’s not really gentle, but it is more stereotypical romantic than is Vicious.


  1. I like to watch Brit Christmas shows with my family (mostly teens now). Do you think Vicious is appropriate?
    Also, Last Tango sounds somewhat like As Time Goes By? Is it?
    Last but not least, do you think it would be wiser to read Wodehouse before watching the adaptation?

    • Ummm, Vicious for teens. That one really depends. It’s a bit sharper in its humor than something like “The Vicar of Dibley,” and of course not everyone wants to watch an older couple snip at each other (although Ash does bring the median age of the program down). I think if you’ve got younger teens there’s probably other Christmas specials you might want to watch first; especially as I do believe the Vicious Christmas special is best when you’ve watched the rest of the series and know the characters better.
      Last Tango in Halifax has the same theme as As Time Goes By (rediscovered love) but is an hour-long drama, as compared to a comedy, and is in general much darker in terms of relationship problems.
      Ah, the Wodehouse. Just read the books and watch the show, do both, in any order. It won’t matter and they’re both genius!

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