Sir Derk Jacobi couldn’t be happier to work alongside lifelong pal Sir Ian McKellen on ITV sitcom Vicious - even if their characters are at each other’s throats. He discusses the “Marmite” show with Jeananne Craig.
As friends for more than half a century, playing long-term partners on screen isn’t much of a stretch for Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen.
I think the cruelty indicator is still registering quite high this series,” says the acclaimed stage and screen actor, who also stars in much-loved BBC One drama Last Tango In Halifax.
The veteran actors met as student at Cambridge - where Lord Of The Rings star McKellen had an “undeclared and unrequited” crush on his pal - but had only worked together a couple of times before ITV sitcom Vicious came along in 2013.
The pair play sweet-natured Stuart (Jacobi) and acid-tongued jobbing actor Freddie (McKellen), who have been in a relationship for the past five decades, despite constant bickering.
“Vicious has been really wonderful, it’s kind of neatly bookended the career,” says Jacobi, 76, who is reprising his role for an equally acerbic, six-part second series.
Despite Freddie’s constant barbed comments (a YouTube compilation lists some of the best lines, from, “You look smart, I see you’re wearing an extra chin for the occasion”, to, “What crime against nature will you be serving this evening?” at dinner time), the relationship is a loving one.
In fact, Jacobi reckons that former barman Stuart rather likes his partner’s jibes.
“I think the cruelty indicator is still registering quite high this series,” says the acclaimed stage and screen actor, who also stars in much-loved BBC One drama Last Tango In Halifax.
“Stuart does give it back. He should give it back more...”
The show, which is filmed in front of a live studio audience, also features a stellar supporting cast, with Stuart and Freddie’s close friend Violet (played by Rising Damp’s Frances de la Tour), hunky neighbour Ash (Game Of Thrones star Iwan Rheon), and ditzy Penelope (Marcia Warren).
This series, it’s all change among the couple’s pals, with Violet married to a mystery man who now seems to have disappeared and Ash enjoying a new romance with Jess (Georgia King).
There’s also a spot of dancing, a trip to the gym, and the group’s first taste of sushi.
“We go to ballroom classes, and I turn out to be an ace dancer,” Jacobi reveals with a smile. “They talk about me being a very good waltzer, and I do a very good tango - Frances and I do a tango together.”
This time around, episodes begin away from Stuart and Freddie’s rather cramped flat.
“It takes the pressure off the actual night of recording, and I like the idea that the characters live in the real world,” says London-born Jacobi.
Episode one sees a guest appearance from Celia Imrie as Violet’s sister Lillian.
And the Calendar Girls star isn’t the only well-known name who wants to join in the fun; Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart and funny man Harry Enfield are also keen to make cameo appearances on the show.
With its high-camp comedy and less-than-subtle characters, Jacobi admits Vicious is “Marmite TV”.
“I think somebody involved actually said that about it - you either love it or loathe it.
There are enough people who love it for it to come back, but at the same time there are people who don’t like it, and that includes gay people who don’t like it.
“As Ian has said, it’s farce, it’s kind of beyond comedic, it’s unreal.”
Fans of the show can be rather fervent, adds the star, who registered his civil partnership with long-term partner Richard Clifford in 2006, after 27 years together.
“I went to a weekend birthday bash for a friend, it was her 50th, and they’d taken over this big basically bed and breakfast house, and it was run by two gay guys. I’d just got in the door when they both greeted me. And as I walked in the door one of them screamed, ‘I’m you, he’s McKellen!’”
The son of a tobacconist father and a mother who worked in a drapery,
Jacobi starred in a production of Hamlet while still at school and won a scholarship to Cambridge (where his contemporaries also included Sir Trevor Nunn) to read history.
After graduation, he joined th Birmingham Repertory Theatre (“For Ian and I, the rep system was our drama school”) before being invited by Sir Laurence Olivier to join the National Theatre.
Jacobi won a Bafta for the 1976 TV hit I, Claudius, and went on to take roles in BBC productions of Shakespeare’s Richard II (1978) and Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark (1980), as well as US sitcom Frasier and Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park (both in 2001).
Vicious also airs on public service broadcaster PBS in America, where McKellen has joked that “they’re constantly having Jacobi-fests”.
With a laugh, Jacobi reveals: “I’m very lucky at the moment because they’re showing Last Tango at the same night as Vicious, so at about 8pm, I’m married to Anne Reid, and at 10pm I’m with Ian McKellen.”
:: Vicious returns to ITV on Monday, June 1