A Look At Life: Comedy

13th December 2013

A Vicious Sense of Humour

Jack Watkins

It’s a good rule of thumb that if the TV’s critics don’t like a programme, it’s probably unmissable, and if they’ve given it the thumbs up, you’d be wise to give it a wide berth. Ample proof came earlier this year when ITV launched a half-hour sitcom Vicious, starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi. The show pulled in just under six million viewers on its first screening, but was largely sneered at by pundits.

Not long after, Barry Cryer stuck his oar in. Writing in the Radio Times, he cited it as a deplorable example of the return of old fashioned ‘back-to-basics’ sitcoms, the script relying too much on insult after insult for laughs, whereas ‘the great sitcom writers of the past didn’t think jokes were remotely important’. Now, of course, Barry Cryer knows more about the art of comedy than 99% of the nation. He’s worked with many of the greats, and really is one himself. But looking at his CV, I’d say he’s a proponent of a particular type of comedy, based on character rather than pace and repartee, and he’s applied his critical brush to the wrong canvas here.

No-one would argue that Vicious is subtle, but it’s not trying to be. Nor were the Marx Brothers, for example – and Groucho’s act was built around nothing but a continuous volley of, yes, insult after insult. The Marxes never paused to worry about character; the thrill of the thing was in the pace with which the gags were dispatched. And this is one of the characteristics of Vicious, in which, in case you’ve not seen it, the two theatrical knights play a couple of extremely camp flat-sharing gents, Freddie and Stuart, whose love-hate sparring doesn’t even pause for the visits of friends like Frances De La Tour, lusting after virile young Ash (Iwan Rheon) from upstairs, and delightfully vague Marcia Warren who, despite having known the pair for over forty years, still has trouble remembering which one is the actor. (It’s Freddie, incidentally, whose greatest moment was being voted the 10th most popular Doctor Who baddie of all time).

The fun here is the way in which McKellen and Jacobi stoke up the pace, creating such an energetic frisson that you feel they are perfoming for you in your living room. Now, of course, po-faced critics don’t like this, one scorning the over-enunciation, the theatricality of it all. You see, the cliché expectations of acting for the small screen, and even for the cinema, are that everyone tones it down a notch. It’s all in the eyes, you see; the camera photographs thoughts, and the rest is down to the direction, editing, camerawork and soundtrack. ‘Real acting’ has no place at all.

Yet the more you think about it, the more you realise what rubbish this is, especially for comedy. As Simon Callow, to name drop with no shame at all, once told me: “They say that less is more when it comes to acting in front of the camera, when so often less really means less.”

I would argue that the more mobile the camera has become in recent times, the more static is the acting, whereas in Vicious it is relishably alive: McKellan, with those hooded yet so expressive eyes, and Jacobi like a crisp, piping little robin.

The pair also remind us that acting owes much – or did once, anyway – to the beauty of the human voice. In the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to interview several luminaries of British acting – Timothy West, Donald Sinden, Robert Hardy, and Mr Callow himself among them – and playing back the tape afterwards, what hits me every time is the splendour and resonance of their voices, even at the low tones required for our chat. It’s fashionable to decry plummy-voiced actors of the theatrical variety, but we’re going to miss them when they are gone and their successors are those whose only experience is in front of a microphone.

Anyhow, the good news is that Vicious is back for a Christmas special and Sir Derek hopes to film a new series next spring – it’s going to take that long, he says, “because, damn him, of Sir Ian’s busy film career”. I look forward to it, and in the meantime, here’s a big, fat, juicy raspberry to the critics. You got it all wrong – again!

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