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Stephen Merchant Used ‘Dark And Tragic, But Also Funny’ Stories To Influence His New Series

by : Julia Banim on : 15 Oct 2021 18:22
Stephen Merchant Used 'Dark And Tragic, But Also Funny' Stories To Influence His New SeriesBBC

Those on the lookout for a witty and thought-provoking new British comedy are in for a real treat with Stephen Merchant’s heartfelt new series, The Outlaws.

With plenty of inspiration drawn from the professions of Merchant’s own parents, The Outlaws follows a group of misfits as they navigate the highs, lows and animal poop regulations of community service.

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Each individual comes from a very different background, with varying perspectives on life and the criminal justice system. However, stereotypes and assumptions are challenged at every turn, and nobody can be summed up quite so neatly as first appearances might suggest.

This results in an interesting, topical – and often quite touching – look at divisions in modern British life, shot through with Merchant’s signature deadpan wit.

The Outlaws (Ian Johnson (IJPR)(Ian Johnson (IJPR)

First up, we have stratospherically high achiever Rani (Rhianne Barreto). Bound for a life of Oxbridge and boundless accomplishment, it’s soon revealed that she’s a kleptomaniac, stealing clothes and Pandora necklaces as a means of momentarily breaking free from the intense constraints of her life.

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Next, there’s Christian (Gamba Cole). Labelled as a ‘bad boy’ by Rani in the early episodes, we soon learn that this isn’t strictly accurate. This becomes ever more apparent when we learn just how far he’s willing to go to protect his bright younger sister, Esme (Aiyana Goodfellow).

Politically minded Myrna (Clare Perkins) makes for another intriguing, and at times secretive, character, portrayed as a lifelong militant campaigner suddenly cut adrift in the modern climate of #activism.

Myrna finds her polar opposite in the form of John (Darren Boyd) a right-wing businessman full of bluster about all things ‘PC gone mad’ and cancel culture. In a lesser series, John would have been far too irritating to watch, but here he’s written in a more human and nuanced way.

The Outlaws (Ian Johnson (IJPR)Ian Johnson (IJPR)
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During a press conference attended by UNILAD, Merchant reflected on the character of John, remarking that ‘sometimes people who have the wrong opinions can still be funny and maybe can still be sympathetic’:

Just because you don’t agree with them or you are appalled by something they say doesn’t mean that they are necessarily bad people.

I think that’s the danger. That you can’t see the wood for the trees because of something someone said. […] You might find a character offensive, but you could perhaps still understand where they’re coming from, or perhaps see what led them to that place.

Merchant himself plays Greg, a corporate lawyer who is all too painfully aware of being ill-suited to his chosen field. Although Merchant says he didn’t write himself a ‘crazily major role’, you can’t imagine the show without ‘awkward, gangly nerd’ Greg and his various laugh-out-loud clangers.

The soon revealed reason behind Greg’s run-in with the law is both funny and embarrassing in equal parts, and left me hiding behind my hands during one mortifyingly hilarious moment.

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The Bristolian group is afforded a touch of Hollywood sparkle by enigmatic, ageing crook Frank, played by none other than the great Christopher Walken. Frank is seen moving in with his estranged daughter after a life spent doing pretty much everything under the sun, and is, naturally, great fun to watch.

The Outlaws (Ian Johnson (IJPR)Ian Johnson (IJPR)

Reflecting on how he managed to get Walken involved in the project, Merchant revealed that Walken had been top of his list when it came to finding the perfect Frank:

The idea was we always wanted an actor of that kind of status, the idea that an exotic person who would sort of land in Bristol, and reveal that he’s really just another kind of seedy criminal like everybody else.

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As part of his determined efforts to reel him in, Merchant actually flew out to Walken’s home in Connecticut, where The Deer Hunter actor agreed to come aboard after serving up a batch of omelettes.

Merchant had already had a big breakfast beforehand but, in his words, ‘you don’t go to Christopher Walken’s house and not eat some of his omelette’.

The Outlaws (Ian Johnson (IJPR)Ian Johnson (IJPR)

Finishing up the group of likeable miscreants is Lady Gabriella Penrose-Howe – or Gabby – an uber posh influencer whose fabulous, fictional Instagram I admittedly kind of want to follow.

Introduced initially as a flashy and somewhat clueless celeb, Gabby’s recent heartbreak and unfiltered kindness quickly shines through, and it’s unsurprising Merchant would choose her as someone he’d be happy to do community service with, if, of course, he absolutely had to.

Merchant, whose character ends up in an unlikely double act with glam Gabby, said:

When I was thinking about the show, I realised how many celebrities have done community service. And obviously people remember Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Boy George, but also Naomi Campbell did community service in New York.

There’s a great article that she wrote for Vanity Fair or something in which she talks about that. At one point she says something like, ‘I met somebody on community service who’d never been on a plane! I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d been on two private planes that week!’

And I just love that. It’s just so sweet to me that she just didn’t see the kind of inherent humour in that.

The Outlaws (Ian Johnson (IJPR)Ian Johnson (IJPR)

Although not strictly part of the group, the ever wonderful Jessica Gunning, who I personally fell in love with as Jan in Back, gives a brilliant performance as Diane, a supervisor for Bristol’s Community Payback programme who regularly becomes consumed by her own, very minor, position of power, pouncing on minor indiscretions while failing to spot much more significant goings-on unfolding mere metres away.

Merchant’s own parents worked in similar roles while he was growing up, and would often tell him about the lives and misdeeds of those who found themselves picking litter out in the community, some of whom he went to school with.

For Merchant, this provided an intriguing premise for a show, while solving that age-old telly dilemma of convincingly bringing together a group of jarringly different people.

It also presented an interesting way to show the multitude of ways people end up committing crimes, with reasons swinging from the bizarre to the quietly tragic.

The Outlaws (Ian Johnson (IJPR)Ian Johnson (IJPR)

Recalling some of the stories his parents would tell him, Merchant said:

There was a guy I remember my mum telling me about who used to steal cabbages from allotments, and they realised after a time, because they were always seeing his face, that he was just lonely.

So you do these minor crimes just to get 10 hours of community service. So he sort of liked the social aspect of it. I would have thought bingo would be easier, but he chose to steal things.

Having always intended to write the show as a ‘low level thriller’, Merchant wanted to ensure that the comedy and drama was balanced in such a way that the villains never appeared ‘comical’, while avoiding the grim ‘bodies in lakes’ misery you might see in darker, more ‘earnest’ thrillers.

The Outlaws (Ian Johnson (IJPR)Ian Johnson (IJPR)

With this blend of light and dark in mind, Merchant is also interested in exploring the sometimes humorous contrasts which can lie beneath a seemingly tough criminal exterior.

‘I’ve never been in a criminal situation,’ said Merchant, ‘but Elgin [Elgin James] who I created the show with has. He was in gangs growing up, and went to prison later in life’.

Merchant continued:

He would tell me these stories that were by turns dark and tragic, but also funny, you know. He was in a gang, but he was a big reader.

He didn’t want the rest of the gang to know he would read books, so he would secretly read books and then have to hide them if the rest of the gang came around. Such a funny idea to me.

He’s a tough guy, has tattoos and stuff, reading Middlemarch and such, and the gang come in and it’s like, ‘what are you reading there?’ ‘Oh nothing, just gang stuff!’

Thrilling, funny, and filled with characters you root for even when you’re infuriated by their decisions, The Outlaws is an absolute must-watch, whatever label you may ascribe to yourself.

You can catch the first episode of The Outlaws on BBC One on Monday, October 25.

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

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