Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in VICIOUS artwork | ©2014 BBC / PBS

Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in VICIOUS artwork | ©2014 BBC / PBS

In the comedy VICIOUS, premiering its first season on PBS Sunday, June 29, at 9 PM, Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen play, respectively, Stuart Bixby and Freddie Thornhill. Stuart and Freddie are a gay couple who have been together for fifty years. They love one another dearly and insult each other – and anyone else in the vicinity – incessantly.

This very British series was created by American Gary Janetti, with Mark Thornhill. Janetti has written and produced on FAMILY GUY and WILL AND GRACE. After a Q&A session PBS holds on VICIOUS for the Television Critics Association with the writer, Jacobi, who is on video satellite from Britain, and McKellen, who is on video satellite from New York, Janetti remains to answer more questions.

ASSIGNMENT X: Why did you make the series in London?

GARY JANETTI: Well, Ian and Derek are based in London.

AX: You wrote the roles specifically for them?

JANETTI: Oh, a hundred percent. I only would have done it with them. That was how the show came about. The idea that they wanted to work together was the genesis of the whole show.

AX: And did you immediately think, “What if they were a couple?”

JANETTI: Yes, a hundred percent, and what kind of a couple that would be. But it was pretty clear that I had a sense of something that would be special between the two of these men, and it was very specific to the actors, which isn’t always the case, but in this case, it was very specific to these two men.

AX: Were the actors familiar with you through your work?

JANETTI: I told them who I was [laughs]. Through their representation, they were familiar with my work. And they had both watched WILL AND GRACE, so I believe they felt they were in safe hands, certainly as far as the gay content went.

AX: In America, there are gay civil rights historical markers like Stonewall, the Brown bill in 1976 that decriminalized gay and lesbian sex, and so on. Are there similar historical markers in England? Does that matter to VICIOUS at all? Because Start and Freddie would have lived through them.

JANETTI: I don’t know what their marker would be, but yes, they completely lived through everything. These are men – which is very rare, I believe, and it’s part of the celebratory nature of this show that I feel not everybody has picked up on – the truth of the show is, they’ve been together for fifty years, which means they’ve been together since 1960, I think, since they were in their twenties, they’ve lived honestly and truthfully. They’ve never pretended that they were something other than they were, and that must have come at great cost. What cost did that come at in their personal lives and their private lives and their work lives? And that’s the truth of many men and women who lived honestly. And they don’t see themselves as heroes. They don’t see it as anything heroic. I liked that. We talked about that. I believe if a young person from a Gay Pride parade came up and thanked them [Freddie and Stuart], they’d be like, “What? What? What are you thanking me for?”

AX: Are they married?

JANETTI: They’re not married, no, but gay marriage passed through Parliament the day we taped one of our episodes, actually. It was the second episode and Ian announced it to the audience. It happened during the taping. It was a very special moment.

AX: Does marriage now being on the table change a lot?

JANETTI: It’s going to factor into Series 2. It’s something that I’m going to look towards how these men would address a question like that. You’ve been together fifty years. If you get married tomorrow, do you have to start from scratch again? Does it not validate what happened before? What does it mean? What would it mean to men of that generation? And I think that there’s a real comic way to look at that that’s kind of truthful. It seems strange to be together for fifty years and then to be celebrating your first anniversary

AX: How many episodes is your first season?

JANETTI: It was six episodes, and then we did a Christmas special, and Series 2 is also going to be six episodes.

AX: Do you do all the writing here and then go over there for production? Do you have a writers’ room, or is it just you?

JANETTI: It’s just me. So this is the writers’ room. It’s very small and compact and it travels …

AX: But it gets along with itself remarkably well.

JANETTI: Some days, not so well, but yes, in general. Here, I do the writing.

AX: And then go over there for production?

JANETTI: Correct.

AX: What’s it like working with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi?

JANETTI: I adore them. Working with them is a gift as a writer – it’s beyond a gift. It’s an honor. But we got past it very quickly. It’s about the work. We do the work. They want to work with somebody who’s going to work with them. This is a new medium for them that they’re both very interested in, and we’re all in it together, and it’s just about doing our work.

AX: Do you punch up jokes during tapings the way you do here?

JANETTI: Yes. We did do that with Ian and Derek. It is just me. But sometimes you’ll see something, and we were very fortunate – we had wonderful audiences in London, and they were very, very lovely, but if a joke doesn’t work, and we’re going to do another take – we used to do that on WILL AND GRACE for years, and you want the opportunity to kind of improve that, so I would pick and choose very carefully. It’s just me coming up with it, but I have a few minutes to try something. But Ian and Derek were game. I didn’t do it the first episode – I did it for the first time in the second episode, with Derek. It was the last line to a scene which didn’t work. We never really had an audience, and then sometimes an audience will tell you. And I wrote another joke, and it was quite wordy, and I didn’t know if it would actually work or not, but I gave it to Derek, and we went over it a few times, and then he did it, and it got a nice laugh, and it was a lovely button to the scene, and then they were both like, “That’s fun! We’ll do that.” So I kind of did do it during the course of it.

AX: Was working this way in television comedy a new experience for them?

JANETTI: Completely new.

AX: Do you think there could be an American version of VICIOUS?

JANETTI: I’m sure any country could do a version of it, because while I do believe there’s something specifically British about it, that’s the way I envision it, I believe it speaks to [people in other cultures]. It was very popular in China, weirdly. It was really popular inChina, and people can relate to these characters, so I think that there’s a version of it in every culture. Personally, I only will do it – to me, the show is Ian and Derek.

AX: Could you sell the idea of a comedy about a couple who had been together for fifty years to an American network?

JANETTI: And if they were gay or straight or either. It is kind of funny. Somebody asked about the age of the characters. To me, that was what was very interesting about the show, more than the gay angle, was to have a couple of a certain age, because what comes with that is a history. If you’ve been with somebody for fifty years, you’re so intertwined and you’re so co-dependent and you don’t even know where one person starts and the other begins, you can hold back a petty slight from thirty, forty years ago. And then to play these men as vital and in the game, and this is their world, that felt very refreshing to me in a way. I do believe that the British culture has more comfort with people as they age, more than we do, but I believe all it would take is one show to become a success here and then THE GOLDEN GIRLS was a huge success.

AX: How is working in British TV comedy different from working in U.S. TV comedy?

JANETTI: It was remarkably similar, actually. The people were wonderful, the cast and crew. It started to feel actually, on the stage, too, we filmed in London Studios, I would sometimes have this weird, out-of-body, “I feel like I’m in L.A.” It felt like going onto the set of WILL AND GRACE or something, because so many of the trappings were the same and there are a lot of similarities.

AX: Is it easier to do a shorter episode order?

JANETTI: To me, that’s the biggest difference, the fact that doing seven episodes is wonderful, because I can write seven episodes. I couldn’t do twenty-two episodes by myself, but it allows there to be an arc, a little bit of a journey to go on in a way that you can go on and have more continuity and end in a place after six episodes, which is very satisfying as a writer. I do think, seeing it happen now with shows that have [shorter episode runs]. Television is changing very quickly, and the way we watch TV, [the way] I personally watch TV, binge-watching series that are ten episodes feels very doable. “It’s only ten episodes.” That’s what people say. “Watch ORPHAN BLACK – it’s only ten episodes. You can watch it this weekend.” “All right, I can do it. It’s not too late for that.” And I think there is more acceptance for more diversity in how we watch television.

AX: How long does production of six episodes take? Is that six weeks?

JANETTI: It was a little longer. We had our rehearsal week – we had a week and a half of rehearsal beforehand for the first episode, which was wonderful. And we pre-shot some stuff. But then it was one episode a week. It was exactly the same as it would be here.

AX: Ian McKellen just spent five months opposite Patrick Stewart in repertory productions of NO MAN’S LAND and WAITING FOR GODOT, and of course they’re in the X-MEN films together. Might you tap at the fourth wall by bringing in Patrick Stewart as an old boyfriend of Ian McKellen’s character Freddie?

JANETTI: I would be open to anything like that. I would totally be open to – there are so many wonderful British actors to have. I would love to have Judi Dench back. She is in the first series.

AX: And of course, practically any British actor of that age has worked with one or both of your two leads.

JANETTI: Yeah, exactly. They all have worked together and there’s nobody I wouldn’t want to work with.

AX: Given that the characters are so much older than you are, do you have to do any research or ask them about any aspects of just the physical realities of being that much older?

JANETTI: It hasn’t really come up. Maybe a few little things. We have a wonderful dialogue between us always – we’re very open to talking. If there’s anything I can do to make something more true to their situation, I will do it. But it’s not been an issue, surprisingly.

AX: What about Britishisms in the dialogue?

JANETTI: They’ll help me if I ever get something wrong. People will always try to correct me, and I try to be very exact. “We would never say, the bathroom, the washroom, the men’s room, we would say the toilet.” And a person of their generation would say, “The loo.” And they don’t use the word “quite” the way we use the word “quite.” There’s lots of little bits of language, but I’m pretty good at getting it. By the last episode, I think there was nothing – I was like, “I’m actually British!”

AX: Are you working on anything else for England while you’re over there?

JANETTI: No, just this. This takes all my time. Happily.

AX: When VICIOUS is over, do you want to do other projects in England?

JANETTI: I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m enjoying doing this right now, so we’ll see what happens.


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Article: Interview with VICIOUS co-creator Gary Janetti


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