Premiering on PBS on July 6th, Vicious follows the tradition of British sitcoms known for their broad, boisterous humor. In the series, Freddie (Sir Ian McKellen) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi) are partners who have lived together for nearly 50 years and, like many couples with decades of history, they find themselves constantly making snide remarks to each other, though they also have a deep love for one another.
While at the PBS portion of the TCA Press Tour, Sir Ian McKellen (who was via satellite from New York City, where he is currently starring on Broadway with Patrick Stewart) talked about why this show is relatable for people of all ages, what has sustained this 50-year relationship between Freddie and Stuart, success at this age in his life, how much he enjoys working with co-star Sir Derek Jacobi, why he was attracted to this project, and what he thinks should happen in Series 2. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
SIR IAN McKELLEN: The audience that we met whilst we were recording Vicious in the studio – because it is recorded with a live audience – was not of one demographic. It was carefully a mixture of the sort of people who might be sitting at home, wanting to have a good laugh. And audiences that I’ve subsequently met have been right across the age range. In fact, outside the theater the other night here, there was a young lad about 16, waiting to say hello, and he said that he’d managed to see some pirated version of Vicious in the States. And after I’d reprimanded him, I said, “Did you enjoy it?” He said, “Enjoyed it?! I adored it!” And I said, “But you didn’t think it was a little bit too exaggerated,” because that has been a criticism of the show. He said, “Of course, it’s exaggerated! That’s why I adore it!” So, I don’t think there’s anything about age, which would stop you relating to this show.
What do you think it is that has sustained this relationship between Freddie and Stuart? What is it that’s kept them together for 50 years?
McKELLEN: Because Freddie is such an understanding, kind, gentle and loving partner, he’s irresistible to Stuart.
What is success like, at this age, as opposed to when you were younger?
McKELLEN: I’m a latecomer to popular TV. Derek has a string of successful television behind him, but this is rather new to me, being in a sitcom. It’s been an ambition of mine. In the theater, we categorize plays into tragedy and comedy, and then light comedy and the lower end of the scale. But to me, the most enticing is something called farce. The only aim of farce is to make the audience roll around with laughter in the theater. And that’s what this sitcom is attempting to do, and has succeeded in doing. At any age, that’s a thrill to be involved in.
Does it feel like there are richer roles now for older actors?
McKELLEN: Well, we are very lucky to be men because women have a terrible time getting older parts. It’s much more difficult. But I’m in two plays on Broadway, at the moment – one by Harold Pinter and another by Samuel Beckett – both of which were written for men of my age. And Derek and I recently played King Lear. So, there are plenty of opportunities. What’s a bit unusual is that there are two elderly men, who are both gay, at the center of a sitcom. But, everyone seems to have taken that in stride and the laughter keeps coming.
This is very theatrical production that’s very much conversation and banter based with small sets, in an intimate setting. How has the experience been?
McKELLEN: To my taste, theatrical is a compliment, whether you are referring to a TV program or a stage show. Television can take anything. It can take the most exaggerated of storytelling forms. But in the old sitcoms, I felt as though there was anything beyond those doors. You saw a door opening and closing, and it was always rather vague as to what happened beyond it. When we were shooting Vicious, we would ask our audience, in between takes, what they thought was at the top of the stairs, where there was a door clearly leading to a bedroom. We said, “Do you think Stuart and Freddie have single beds or a double bed?,” and they resoundingly agreed that it was a double bed they slept in. They felt that they had gotten to that point of this relationship. That it was a working, conceivably still sexual relationship, no matter the bitterness and the bickering and the banter that went on downstairs. When they’re in bed, something loving and private could happen.
Do you ever crack each other up on set, or does anything funny happen?
McKELLEN: I love to see Derek hone his work. It’s a joy to be up close to Derek Jacobi’s work. Alas, we haven’t worked very much, over the years, since we were at university together, but I don’t think I’ve missed many of his great shows and performances. And to be right up close, to see how he does it, after all these years is, in itself, wonderful. And then, because we’re friends, we’re allowed to set each other up and poke fun at each other, and that keeps the relationship with the two characters. We are genuinely fans of each other, and that isn’t always true when actors are working together.
Do you know if any changes will be made to Series 2, or will it just be more of the same, since it worked so well?
McKELLEN: There’s going to be a lot more of Freddie in the second series. That’s my understanding. Just as Freddie was auditioning and successfully getting his part on Downton Abbey, wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could, perhaps, audition and land the part in Last Tango in Halifax? That would be nicely complicated for us all.
Do you think this show could have been made, even 10 years ago?
McKELLEN: These scripts have been compared with earlier British television sitcoms, in which there were gay characters with gay stereotypes. In those old-fashioned sitcoms, to be gay was, in itself, funny, and you laughed at the characters rather than with them. This is not true of this show. I don’t think Derek and I would have wanted to be involved in this, if it had been old-fashioned, in that sense. We don’t get laughs as Freddie and Stuart because we are gay, but because we are the people who we are. That’s the crucial difference. Gay is rather just taken for granted. That’s why it doesn’t give offense to anybody. It’s just two real men surviving, with all of the problems that many, many people share.
Vicious premieres on PBS on July 6th.