I can’t take on all the worries of the world, you know. I can only talk about being gay and being an actor. I’ll have to leave those other battles to somebody else.
– Ian Mckellen –
Vicious, which aired for the first time last night in the UK on ITV, is a far cry from the ground-breaking watershed it promised to be for gay relationships in TV drama… let alone the face of gay culture in mainstream entertainment.
When I first heard that legends of stage and screen Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi were to play a gay couple, I was genuinely excited. Even more so when I read an interview with Sir Ian McKellen — no doubt the poster boy for gay rights in the UK — who said, “It’s not aiming to shock people. It won’t alarm anyone. It isn’t a satire or an exposé of gay life. These characters just happen to be gay. For me it is as if TV has grown-up…
In the past gay characters in sitcoms have been figures of fun. They were funny because they were gay. But I like the fact that these characters are funny because of the people they are. That’s a real advance.”
Finally, I thought, something fresh; something true to life for the gay community.
I was disappointed that instead of being ‘funny’, ‘grown up’ and ‘advanced’, Vicious was nothing more than a sad display of gay typecast.
Written and created by Will & Grace writer Gary Janetti and award-winning playwright Mark Ravenhill, Vicious is the first time that an LGBT couple has been cast at the fore of an ITV comedy. However, judged by the dated and predictable recipe the creators of the series followed, it may very well be the last time too.
McKellen and Jacobi play an elderly gay couple, Freddie and Stuart, who, after 48 years together, find that their mutual affection is matched only by their mutual contempt. They spend their days in their Covent Garden flat, exchanging barbs or scowling at one another from either end of their sofa. Tragically, the lame jokes, cheap gags, faux 70s slapstick humour and lazy script, are barely held together by these two grand knights of acting.
Acting they did… with a capital A. Apart from the promising Iwan Rheon, who portrays the young heterosexual Ash Weston — albeit a two dimensional character by no fault of his own — the rest of the cast resorted (through need not want) to the kind of caricature acting one expects to see in a pub-theatre production of Hamlet. Unfortunately, McKellen and the company’s efforts can only do so much to salvage the script and I am yet to see if these skilled and admirable thespians are able to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse. Ultimately, what the audience is left with is something that is way off the mark in terms of how a modern and liberated gay community (in particular older LGBT people) deserves to be portrayed in the media.
In 2006, the UK charity, Stonewall, published Tuned Out, research into the invisibility of gay people on television. It found that in 168 hours of primetime broadcasting on BBC1 and BBC2, gay lives were represented positively for just six minutes. The research also found that heterosexual licence-payers expected the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, to honestly portray other communities they might not be well acquainted with.
Whilst Vicious is not a BBC production, but ITV’s solution to the missing link of gay lives in mainstream media, I still have to ask: Is a bad remake of the 1969 film Staircase, which starred Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, all these media aficionados could muster.
Staircase, is about an ageing gay couple who own a barber shop in the East End of London. One of them is also a part-time actor. Charlie (Harrison) and Harry (Burton) have been ‘roommates’, business partners and intimates for many years. Charlie thinks he can do without Harry, but Harry knows better and patiently bears the barbs and arrows that come his way.
Spot the achingly obvious similarities?
At least Staircase was original and indeed ground-breaking for its time. I suspect that back in 1969, gay men revelled in the fact that such a film was made, even though it was a commercial failure. After all, the 1960s and 70s was a pivotal time in gay history. We were starting to show ourselves to the world with the release of films like Victim in 1961 — still regarded by many as the most important British gay-themed film pleading for tolerance towards homosexuals and an end to the blackmailing of gay men.
Six years later, in 1967, the Sexual Offences Act came into force in England and Wales and decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over 21 years of age and ‘in private.’ In 1970, the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded at the London School of Economics and the first gay demonstration in the UK took place in Highbury Fields, in Islington.
Amidst all the political activism and small sparks of liberation, films like Staircase provided some degree of insight for the mainstream into the lives of older members of the LGBT community, who back then, like today, were left in the shadows.
Staircase was rated R and instead of marketing it as the comedy-drama it was, studio executives treated it like a ‘camp comedy’. At the time, critics panned it. Some said that it was “an unpleasant exercise in bad taste… giving the audience no warmth, humour or even the dregs of understanding.”
Dare I ask again, “Do you spot the achingly obvious similarities?”
Unlike Vicious, Staircase did not enjoy primetime broadcasting. In fact, it was rarely seen on television. However, when the film was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies during its June 2007 tribute to gay cinema, film critic Armond White called the film “a rare Hollywood film to depict gay experience with wisdom, humour and warmth”, and “a lost treasure.”
Viewed within its historical place and context, Staircase is indeed a lost treasure. I loved it. Yes, the characters also play on the stereotypical bitchy and bitter drama queens. However, in 1969, this was probably all that audiences (the heterosexual majority) could palate. Back then, ‘camping it up’ was the kind of ‘gay humour’ we used to speak our truth, without causing too much offense.
One must also consider that, at the time, gay people were stringently marginalised in all aspects of society, so this level of platonic characterisation was perhaps all the gay community could safely afford to show the public. However, in the past 44 years, the gay community and our television audiences have grown up. We have moved on and we have moved forward. I honestly cannot say that in 50 years from now I will refer to Vicious as a ‘lost treasure’… it’s more of a cultural insult for gays and heterosexual alike.
In a world where Modern Family and The New Normal already happened, Vicious feels like a step backwards in terms of portraying the gay community accurately. To start with, the name is an instant repellent. Vicious ~ Deliberately cruel or violent and when it is an animal, wild and dangerous to people. Synonyms: wicked, malicious, evil, bad and perverse. Really? The award-winning screenwriters couldn’t come up with something less obvious and dare I say, insulting? Perhaps a bit more creative? Or if they were that lazy and unoriginal, why not just call it Staircase?
The plot produces ‘jokes’ revolving around Freddie and Stuart, portrayed as two over-the-top drama queens, flirting with the handsome youth Ash, putting each other down, and trying – subtly, they think, but actually very unsubtly – to ascertain whether he’s gay or not.
I cannot help to think: “Are we still in ‘that place’?” If that’s not a gross exaggeration of every unpleasant stereotype in the book, then I don’t know what is. It leaves no room for character development and not a glimpse of hope is in sight that it will eventually amount to anything sharper.
And I am not saying this because I suffer from some misplaced degree of internalised homophobia. Personally, I don’t feel represented by this kind of ‘entertainment’. I shudder to think that, in the majority of cases, gay lives are still stereotypically portrayed in the mainstream. Is there no other angle instead of portraying gay people as bitter and twisted men who have nothing good to say about anyone? There is even the risk that this kind of larger than life stereotyping can scare young gay people, who are struggling with their sexuality, back into the closet… It certainly propagates a degree of self-loathing, to start with… Again I ask “are we still in ‘that’ place?”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that older gay people are represented on television and some might argue that the occasional sitcom featuring two bitchy queens is far from being the only characterisation of gay people on television, but instead is one of many. However, Vicious is not ‘occasional’ it’s the first of its kind in a primetime slot, which is why I was hoping to see a bit more artfulness, wit and surprise. We don’t live in the 70s anymore, audiences expect more and gay people deserve more. There is more to the gay community than a bit of slap and tickle. I am yet to see a UK television series that is gutsy (and informed) enough to portray all aspects of gay life without the exaggeration and the humdrum of stereotypes. Yes, we’ve had Queer as Folk… but that was an odd ten years ago. Even that will now be outdated.
Television commissioners are clearly still missing their brief. Like it or not, there are still too many examples of programmes poking fun at gay people (sometimes unbeknownst to themselves), or suggesting that we’re almost entirely defined by our sexual orientation (nudge-nudge Vicious). Like our heterosexual counterparts, we come from many different walks of life, and it’s important that this reality is more visible.
If gay people don’t appear as a part of everyday life on television, viewers will deem broadcasters to be inauthentic. So why not also portray us as well-rounded, normal-behaving African, Asian, Middle-Eastern and European gay people across the entire social spectrum; people who are funny because of our personalities and backgrounds, not because of our sexuality or because we bitch, slap, girl-scream, mince, gawk at fresh man-meat and gossip tiresomely. The ‘normal’ ones are out there — the ones who don’t need the fanfare. Oh yes, and don’t forget the Lesbians… they deserve some primetime telly in their own right.
Images – All images from various online sources including ITV.COM. No copyright infringement intended.
Text: FR Lubbe