As The Outlaws returns to BBC One, the RTS in Bristol hears the creators’ formula for mixing comedy and drama
The eagerly awaited second series of Stephen Merchant’s comedy thriller The Outlaws received its premiere in Bristol in front of a sell-out, home-town audience, ahead of its return to BBC One on 5 June.
The first episode of a series that follows the lives of seven minor felons completing a Community Payback sentence marked a hugely confident return, delivering big laughs and jeopardy as the characters try to escape the clutches of a violent drug lord.
Comedy thrillers are a tricky proposition: the risk is that they are neither comic nor thrilling. That is something The Outlaws avoids by being very good at both, often at the same time.
The series was created by Merchant and US film-maker Elgin James, best known for the Amazon Prime crime series Mayans MC. “He’s renowned for tough, gritty drama,” said Merchant. “Elgin himself ran with gangs when he was growing up, and did some prison time. He always jokes about the fact that he and I together are an unlikely mix.
“This is going to be hard to believe but I’ve been in very few street gangs and spent very little time in prison.”
Despite the obvious differences in background, Merchant said he and Elgin shared similar interests. “He told me that, when he was in a gang, he liked to read, but he didn’t want the other gang members to know he liked reading books, so he’d hide [them]…. This is a tough gang member reading Pride and Prejudice. So, it seemed to us completely believable that you could have humour and then moments of great tension. That was what life was.”
Executive producer Luke Alkin from Big Talk Productions took Merchant’s idea to the BBC’s comedy department, which instantly greenlit the show: “It wasn’t just the brilliance of the scripts but also the timing – the distinctions between comedy commissioning and drama commissioning were breaking down.”
He added that Big Talk’s early successes, such as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, were also known for “melding genres, particularly with comedy. It’s part of the heritage of our company.”
Merchant wears many hats on The Outlaws: co-creator, writer, actor (he plays lonely lawyer Greg), executive producer and even director of episodes in series 1. “As an actor, you see it from a different perspective… from the inside out… whereas, as a writer or director, you’re on the outside looking in. I have great faith in the actors telling us when something feels phoney.
“I hope the actors would say that I’m not precious about the dialogue and if they’ve got an improvement, an improvisation or a note on it, then I’m happy to welcome that.”
“I feel very free to have a bit of improv here and there,” said Jessica Gunning who plays Diane, the deluded community project supervisor. “The original scripts are a great foundation – I thought they were brill.”
“It was a real joy – the actors were amazing and you could rely on them to get the tone right. I had the time of my life,” added Alicia MacDonald who directed episodes 3 to 6.
Gamba Cole plays Christian, whose relationship with Rani (Rhianne Barreto) develops in series 2. He said: “I’ve worked with [Rhianne] before [on US drama Hanna) so we already had that trust.… We’ve got a great friendship.”
Series 1 and 2 of The Outlaws were shot back-to-back in Bristol to make up for time lost during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was a mad idea and very exhausting but we managed to stagger through.… It helped us in a way because we were like a team in the trenches fighting through and everyone getting to know each other.”
“It feels like a proper love letter to the city,” said MacDonald. Gunning added: “I think Bristol’s the ninth main character in the show – it looks so great on screen and I’m so pleased the world’s getting to see it in all its glory.”
Alkin added: “It’s a strange thing but contemporary Bristol hasn’t been seen that much on screen, because it’s got a unique atmosphere and culture, and it looks great.”
Both Merchant and Cole are Bristol natives. The latter recalled: “I’ve got so much family here… and it was nice to be in the same city as them – but I couldn’t see them because we were in the pandemic. It was bittersweet: you’re doing what you love and you want to share that with the people you love, but you can’t see them.”
Referencing the latest Downing Street partygate revelations, Merchant interrupted, to huge cheers from the audience: “You didn’t go and have a drink, perhaps at a leaving do?”
Merchant recalled flying to Connecticut to entice Christopher Walken, who won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter, on to the show. “He asked me what Bristol was like. I said it was very hilly, colourful, has a big suspension bridge, it’s on the water, it’s artsy and bohemian, so it’s exactly like San Francisco. And the good thing was, because we’re in the pandemic, as Gamba says, we couldn’t go out and show him that it wasn’t.
“We seemed to hit it off and he came to Bristol.… It was nerve-racking because we were filming in a pandemic and he’s 78 years old, so you’re always a little bit jumpy… but we managed to get through it without him dying, so it was the best outcome, really.”
Hollywood legend Walken, surely the definition of a cult actor, plays small-time crook Frank, and is a huge catch for the series. “We always wanted a character who felt like he’d fallen to Earth and landed in Bristol,” added Merchant.
Will there be another outing for The Outlaws? “We have ideas for a third series, but if I say it’s definitely happening and it doesn’t then I’ll have embarrassed myself… but hopefully it will.
“Originally, the thought was that you could have a different set of offenders in different cities… but, not only have we enjoyed filming in Bristol, we’ve fallen in love with the characters.… So, if we can bring them back, we will.”
'The Outlaws series 2 screening and Q&A’ was an RTS West of England event held at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol on 24 May. It was hosted by the writer Chinonyerem Odimba Odimba. Suzy Lambert produced the event with the assistance of Big Talk Productions, Four Eyes and Rich Cain of Ian Johnson Publicity.