Gary Janetti Talks Shaping ‘Vicious’ With Iconic Stars Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi

Sir Ian McKellen as Freddie and Iwan Rheon as Ash in 'Vicious' (PBS)

Things continue in hilarious fashion on this Sunday’s episode of “Vicious” with Freddie (Sir Ian McKellen), who has an important audition coming up, falling into a depression when newbie actor Ash (Iwan Rheon) lands an audition of his own on his first try. Will his lover of 49 years, Stuart (Derek Jacobi), help him out or make things worse?

The first season is airing now on PBS after a successful run last year in the UK (the second season will begin shooting soon) and the series, about a pair of gay men who have been in a relationship for almost 50 years and trade more vicious barbs than adoring, was created by Gary Janetti, best known for his work writing “Will & Grace” and “Family Guy.”

I sat down with Janetti recently to talk about shaping the series and how he nabbed legendary actors McKellen and Jacobi to play Freddie and Stuart.

Gary Janetti, creator of 'Vicious'

Gary Janetti: I know. It’s pretty amazing. They are legends and I also adore them. I mean, I have been a fan of their work for years and have seen them perform countless times and I dreamed of working for them. Once the idea of the show came and for these two actors, I was hell-bent on working with them and making this happen with Ian and Derek.

Was there any pressure? Just knowing you’re writing words for these two men?

GJ: Yes, but you have to let it go. I have to be writing Freddie and Stuart, writing the characters, and what I think is funny and truthful and what I want to see, and the other stuff…not think about.

How do you navigate the viciousness of some of the things they’re saying to each other without it coming off as mean?

GJ: Yeah, we do, because sometimes I want it to show. Obviously, this is a very heightened world…but every episode is always about some real thing. There’s actually always a moment of tenderness between them. Even from the first episode, underneath all of this they couldn’t live apart. They love each other very dearly and they would defend each other to the death in front of anybody else, and all of this I discussed with Ian and Derek. It’s not cruel for the sake of being cruel. It’s sportsmanship. They put on a little show for company. It’s how they entertain each other. They keep each other a little bit sharp. It’s how they express themselves, and sometimes they go too far, but they love each other.

Being gay men 50 years ago was very different than being gay men now. Does that come up at all?

GJ: In some later episodes, it’s touched on just a little bit when they go out to a club with Ash and talk about what it used to be like to go out to a club and things like that. So, yes, when it feels organic and things can work themselves in in the right way, it’s certainly a rich area that you can go to. Then versus now.

The original title was “Vicious Old Queens.” Do you think it would’ve turned some viewers off had that been the title?

GJ: I don’t know, honestly. We called it “Vicious” amongst ourselves and internally, myself, Ian and Derek kind of talked about “well, why not just call it ‘Vicious?’” We kind of liked it. It was just as simple as that.

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I like that this is a British sitcom, not the U.S. version. There doesn’t need to be a U.S. version of this, right?

GJ: No. We all speak English. It feels redundant. And who better than Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi would you get? You wouldn’t, and it also feels specifically British to me. It’s like, “well, you wouldn’t remake ‘Downton Abbey’” and now we’re going to be on PBS…I always wanted the show to be at PBS. It was the network when I was a kid that I watched British sitcoms on. It was as place that I felt was the right home for it here.

Sir Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi (PBS)

“The Golden Girls” taught us that women and people of that age still have sex. They still think about sex. How much is sex a part of this show?

GJ: Nobody’s desexualized, you know? Violet, [played by] Frances de la Tour, is always looking for somebody and trying to connect and always having horrible failed romances. In a very early conversation with Ian, he asked me, when we were talking about these characters, “Do they still have sex?” And that was such a good question because I just recently had asked that question of myself about them and the answer is yes. So much more interesting, obviously. Yes. They love each other. Yes. That part of their lives is still alive. They’re very completely vital people.

“Vicious” airs Sundays at 10:30pm on PBS. Check your local listings for correct air times.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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