Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi are Vicious-ly funny

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Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi are set to star in ITV’s new show, Vicious, centered around an older gay couple, set to air in April. CULTURE EDITOR MATTHEW BENTLEY attended the taping of the pilot episode

Written by Gary Janetti, director of episodes of Will and Grace and writer on Family Guy, Vicious centers on Freddy (Ian McKellan) and Stuart (Derek Jacobi), an older gay couple. Freddy is an actor and Stuart is a stay-at- home husband. The pilot episode centers on the aftermath of Freddy’s ex-lover,Clive’s, death. Add into the mix the arrival of Ash, played by Iwan Rheon, a good-looking younger man moving into the apartment upstairs, and comedy is supposed to ensue.

I managed to get tickets to the pilot taping, and while the comedy on the whole was hilarious, the entire experience opened my eyes to the process by which TV shows are made.

In a truly London experience, I had to wait out in the wet drizzle for an hour to get in. While it was never really raining, I was just damp enough to be uncomfortable by the time I arrived in the studio. The studio looked like a long train station. We sat in 15 ascending rows. Littered in front of us were a series of TV cameras with the red and black logo for Vicious on screen. Music, starting in the ’80s and travelling forward in time to 2012, blared on the big screen. A red curtain hung across the entire set.

After half an hour of filing in, we were greeted by a comedian, who called himself the “comedy fluffer,” as he had to tell jokes in order to keep the mood up while we were waiting between takes. He was fairly forgettable.

Then, we were introduced to the head writer before the show began. We mostly watched on the screens, occasionally glancing at the actors. It was difficult to see, as boom microphones, cameras, people and bounce sheets were in our way most of the time.

There is something incredibly gratifying, as a young actor, watching these old professionals – pinnacles of their profession – flub a line. Or to watch McKellan drop a piece of paper, whisper, “Oh bloody s***,” and start the scene over again. These people, as talented as they are, are human. On top of that, the banter between the two was fantastic. The best moment was Jacobi forgetting a line, McKellan assuring him it was okay because it was “past his bedtime.” Jacobi responded, “Not when I’m with you,” to the raucous applause of the audience.

There is a progression to each taping. The first time a scene is performed is hilarious. The second is funny because you notice things you had not noticed the first time around. But, by the third and fourth takes, it becomes progressively less funny until it drags on a bit. I often felt like I needed to laugh for the sake of the take, and not because it was funny. My hats off to the entire cast for finding the humor every time, and performing brilliantly despite the audience not being too into it.

Jacobi is funny, but McKellan is hilarious. He can say nothing, merely make the slighest gesture, and still be fabulous. Their fantastic chemistry was electric. Their ability to play off of each other even when off-camera was very funny. I realized that it was not canned laughter on all the sitcoms I had seen, as, in a crowd, you really laugh hard.

Francis de la Tour, co-starring as their friend Violet, also shone. Her one or two witty quips were just excellent, and the way she held herself on screen was very funny.

The writing was fantastic. From only a 20-minute episode, the relationship between the two men was so well articulated that every line made total sense. These two people clearly knew everything about each other. The fact that Stuart had not told his mother about the two of them added to the hilarity.

This was a marrying of my two loves, theater and TV. It was like watching rehearsals for a comedy play starring McKellan and Jacobi, which had always been a dream of mine. It was great to see the two stand off-screen, preparing to re-enter.

I am excited to see the rest of the show, premiering in April, which will feature a six episode season.

matthew_bentley@asl.org