Gary Janetti :: On Bringing 'Vicious' to the States
What do you get when you take three of Britain's leading actors, put them in front of a studio audience and give them dialogue dripping with comic venom? The answer is "Vicious," the hit British sit-com that has found its way to these shores this summer on numerous PBS stations. It was a hit last Spring when it appeared on England's ITV, and is repeating its success here, where its season of six episodes continues through August.
The stars in question have a pedigree unique for television comedy: Ian McKellan has won six Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tony), one Tony, a Screen Actors Guild Award, A Golden Globe and has been nominated for two Oscars and two Emmys. Co-star Derek Jacobi has won two Olivier Awards, a Tony, a BAFTA and two Emmys. And Frances de la Tour has amongst her accolades three Olivier Awards and one Tony.
"Vicious" is something of a throwback to the popular British sitcoms that flourished twenty-five years ago and became staples on American public television, specifically "Are You Being Served?" and "Keeping Up Appearances." Like those shows, it features top-flight actors in a sitcom filmed with multiple cameras before a studio audience, which gives the shows a theatrical feel. The big difference is that "Vicious" concerns two gay seniors in a long-term relationship.
Loved British comedy
That the show's original title was "Vicious Old Queens" points to its cheeky intent - that is to get comic mileage about a pair of aging gay men whose sharp-tongued commentary makes for much-see television. "...it's nasty, all right," writes critic Mike Hale in the New York Times. "Where else on television are you going to see two superb classically trained actors calling each other a rotting corpse or a big bitch?"
The show came about when McKellan and Jacobi, both long out of the closet in real life, expressed interest in working on a sitcom together. Playwright Mark Ravenill ("Shopping and Fucking") was brought on to write a treatment, but commitments with the Royal Shakespeare Company kept him from completing the task. Enter Gary Janetti, an LA-based producer and writer whose credits include "Family Guy" and "Will & Grace," to helm the show. (Fans of the reality show "It's a Brad, Brad World" know Janetti who was designer Brad Goreski's longtime boyfriend.)
"Right away I thought that it was a project I wanted to be involved with. I love British comedy and at some point I thought I'd like to do something there. I flew over and met with this producer named Gary Reich, who told me that Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi were potentially looking to do a project together as an older couple who had been together for a long time.
"I pitched them my idea for the show - who these characters and what their world of the show would be."
Janetti was familiar with the work of both McKellan (best-known for his film work in the "X-Men" series) and Jacobi (who had his breakthrough role on the television series "I, Claudius"), and he shaped the characters to their personalities. McKellan plays Freddie Thornhill, a retired actor with an inflated sense of his success; and Jacobi plays Stuart Bixby, an ex-pub manager with a tight relationship with his aged mother who initially doesn't know her son is gay. Into their world comes Ash Weston (Iwan Rheon), a handsome, straight upstairs neighbor that finds himself the object of affection of Violet Crosby (Frances de la Tour), a close friend of the couple.
"I wrote the show for each of these actors based on my instincts about what felt right for me. And now that I am working on the second season, I think there are definitely things I have picked up from observing these actors and from the way they interact with each other that informs how I write."
For Janetti, though, there was a bit of culture shock when he arrived in London to work on the series. Unlike the States, a season of a British sit-com runs just six episodes with one writer - in this case Janetti - providing the scripts.
"I have worked on 'Will & Grace' and 'Family Guy' for the past 15 years continuously, so I haven't worked outside the country. But I've spent a lot of time in London over the years and felt familiar with the city. Perhaps at the beginning I felt like a fish out of water, but I think that helped. It made me look at things with a different way that challenges you. After being there for a while, I felt I had always been there. It felt so natural to me."
Trading in stereotypes?
But was it daunting being solely responsible for the writing?
"It was a little. But I had a very strong idea for the arc of the first six episodes. I knew where I wanted to start, where I wanted it to end. When you are doing six you have a chance to thread things through and play the arc of the story line in a way you don't get to do here with so many episodes. That was something I wanted to do myself. I missed having other writers to bounce jokes and story points off of, but for the way it unfolded, I enjoyed the challenge."
When the show appeared on ITV (the British network that also airs "Downton Abbey"), it split audiences. "A lot of people loved the show there and many of the critics were very, very warm to it," Janetti recalled. "But we also had another huge extreme of people who found the characters stereotypical."
That schism followed the show when it appeared in the States. Just prior to its premiere, the New York Times ran a piece that asked: "Is a television character who exhibits stereotypically gay qualities a stereotype himself? Or does the presence of such figures demonstrate that TV is making progress on gay representation? And who gets to decide what attributes are offensive, or stereotypical or gay?"
"I did not find them to be stereoytpes," Janetti responded when asked about the Times piece. "I think they have stereotypical attributes, just like the characters on 'Will & Grace' had stereotypical attributes, and Mitchell and Cameron from 'Modern Family' have stereotypical attributes; but they are also three-dimensional people. If you watch it and look further, there is something that goes a little bit deeper.
"But we should be able to celebrate the parts of us that do have certain camp elements," he continued. "It is part of our gay history. We've always been able to make fun of our ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously. We shouldn't always have to be policing how every gay person is portrayed. The other extreme is on 'Looking,' people thought those guys weren't gay enough. These people seem too gay. On 'Will & Grace,' people thought Jack was too gay and Will wasn't gay enough. It can be a tricky kind of thing, but it is about writing the characters and to create the world you want as a writer."
How vicious is 'Vicious?'
One thing Janetti wanted when he started to work on the show was to work with Frances de la Tour, one of Britain's finest actresses best known to American audiences for her Tony-winning role in "The History Boys," which she repeated in the film version.
"I love Frances. She's brilliant. I wrote the part of Violet with her in mind. I wrote it before I met her. I saw her in 'The History Boys' in London, then again on Broadway, and I kept it in my mind that I would love to write for her. So when I was thinking whom Freddie and Stuart's friends should be, I wanted a woman like Frances. I wrote it, she read it and loved it, and was onboard instantly."
When Janetti wrote the initial six scripts, the show was called "Vicious Old Queens," but as he worked with McKellan and Jacobi, the title was abbreviated to "Vicious" and it stayed. But does Janetti see a downside in the use of a word with such negative connotations?
"You have to have a sense of humor about it. It is like calling a show 'Wicked.' That word also has connotations to it that are very strong. But 'vicious' is also a good word. It's sharp. There's a playfulness, a mischief to it. And these men definitely are not vicious; they're tongue-in-cheek. They're very much in love. It is meant in a way that is playful and not judgmental. I approach it from a place of love. I love these men. Ian and Derek love them as well, and the place we are coming from is joyful. And beneath the surface, there's a real love there. And over the series we get the chance to see that develop. It's like peeling an onion, you get to see more and more of their relationship."
Would he like to redo the series in American context?
"It is not something I want to do here. It feels specifically British, and you're never going to beat working with actors like Ian and Derek. We spent a lot of time together and they taught me so much. And we got renewed - we start filming series 2 in the fall."
"Vicious" airs on PBS stations. To find a station or to watch episodes online, visit the show's PBS website.