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Stephen Merchant on The Outlaws and how The Office 'ran out of steam'

The comedy legend on what inspired his new show, what to expect from the latest episodes – and why 'two seasons and a special' doesn't apply here.

Stephen Merchant – Big RT Interview
Getty
Published: Sunday, 5th June 2022 at 9:00 am
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Something malicious is spreading through our society and threatens to tear it apart. Unlike coronavirus, this contagion is nothing new, but the way it manifests itself is evolving and its intensity is reaching worrying levels. Stay alert: infection hotspots include the Commons Chamber, opinion pages in prominent newspapers and the Twitter comments under literally any news article. This nasty affliction is called rage. And we need to do something about it.

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Of course, since the dawn of humankind there have been differences of opinion. But these have become vitriolic since the recent declaration of culture war, with many of the loudest voices dropping all effort to meaningfully communicate. It's far easier – and in some cases, rather lucrative – to make a name out of spouting agitation that neither helps anyone nor furthers the debate. Listening is out of style; the new thing is digging your heels in and screaming blue murder all day long.

But maybe it doesn't have to be. Stephen Merchant's comedy-drama The Outlaws is aspirational viewing in how it imagines a group of people with vastly differing opinions on the world who find a way to work together. What a concept! Will it entice people back to the forgotten ways of cooperation and compromise? Perhaps not, but it's enough to give this cynic some hope that we aren't too far gone.

That's quite deliberate, too. While the idea of a ragtag group doing community service originates from Merchant's youth, when his parents supervised such work, The Outlaws ultimately became a response to extreme polarisation. When he started developing the show with Elgin James in 2016, the burning topics of the day were the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump taking office. The issues may have changed now, but the anger around them hasn't become any less severe.

"It felt like people were being categorised, both in the media and online," said Merchant, in conversation with RadioTimes.com. "I thought, 'Well, just because you're anti-Brexit surely doesn't mean you must hate everyone who is pro-Brexit. That can't be right'. My dad was pro-Brexit, but I like my dad. So where's the common ground? Everyone who's come to a particular social place or a political place has got there for a reason. They're not necessarily malevolent or stupid or whatever."

From there came the idea to force together an eclectic mix of people who would never otherwise encounter each other and see if they can find some mutual understanding – or even friendship. Over time, the roster was decided: a promising student with a taste for shoplifting, a bouncer in over his head, an activist who always goes too far, a businessman stuck in the past, a negligent lawyer, a disgraced aristocrat and a suave career criminal.

The Outlaws Season 2 cast
The Outlaws Season 2 cast (L-R) Darren Boyd, Gamba Cole, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stephen Merchant, Rhianne Barreto, Christopher Walken, Clare Perkins and Jessica Gunning BBC

Behind the camera, there had also been a meeting of starkly different backgrounds. As a self-described "cosy Bristolian middle-class kid", Merchant needed some help grasping the mindset that fuels criminal activity, for which he approached former gang member and ex-convict Elgin James – now best known for co-creating Sons of Anarchy spin-off Mayans MC. But he would need even more perspectives to breathe life and authenticity into The Outlaws' large ensemble cast.

"When I first started coming to America, for the US version of The Office, I was always enthralled by the writers rooms that they have here, which obviously is not such a thing in the UK because of economics, normally," explained Merchant. "So in the case of The Office, that was just me and Ricky [Gervais], but the American version, there's 12 writers and more. One of the things that's exciting in those rooms is all these different ideas are pinging around and building and expanding on each other."

Having acquired a taste for that environment while working on his short-lived HBO sitcom Hello Ladies, Merchant decided to assemble a small writers room for The Outlaws, which he credits for the show's "elegant" plotting. After all, juggling seven principal characters at once is no small task, but having a dedicated team allowed him to explore numerous potential routes for the story over a relatively short period of time.

Stephen Merchant in The Outlaws season 2
Stephen Merchant in The Outlaws season 2 BBC

That momentum came to an abrupt halt in March 2020, when the BBC shut down filming on The Outlaws after just 12 days due to the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic. Things started moving again quickly, however, as the show was handed a second season to work on during the break. Merchant had always been open to the idea of a follow-up, but didn't expect to be working on one quite so quickly and without any viewer feedback to use as a launchpad.

"Normally what happens is you would do a first series, you'd have a vague idea [about season 2], and then you'd see which characters are appealing to the audience, and you'd start to be governed a bit more by the reaction [to] the first series into the second. But we didn't have that opportunity because we were writing it before anything had been shown; we just had to go with instinct, really," he recalled.

While much attention has been paid to Hollywood legend Christopher Walken taking a rare television role as American con artist Frank, relative newcomers Rhianne Barreto (Rani) and Gamba Cole (Ben) are "the beating heart of the show", according to Merchant. He's quick to praise casting director Amy Hubbard for initially bringing them into the fold, adding that for his part, he tries to make candidates feel at ease in the audition room.

Rhianne Barreto and Gamba Cole in The Outlaws season 2
Rhianne Barreto and Gamba Cole in The Outlaws season 2 BBC

"I know, as an actor, that it's very nerve-wracking and I want them to do well; when an actor comes in the room, I want them to knock it out of the park. So I'm trying to work with them and be supportive, and I'm aware that I'm a man from the telly so I seem a bit intimidating – but I want them to impress," he explained. "I am absolutely so pleased by those two... I love their chemistry together, I love the humanity that they bring."

Having previously crossed paths on Prime Video spy thriller Hanna, Barreto and Cole had an existing friendship that fed into their electric scenes in last year's episodes – you can expect more sparks to fly between them in season 2. And if Merchant's previous collaborations with fresh-faced talent are any indication, there could be even bigger things ahead for this duo when The Outlaws comes to an end.

Merchant added: "I'm very proud of the fact that in my career, I've been lucky enough to work with [actors] that people weren't particularly familiar with before, whether it was Martin Freeman [in The Office] or Felicity Jones [in Cemetery Junction] or Florence Pugh [in Fighting with My Family]. I just wish I had shares in their careers. That seems fair, right? Like the manager of a boy band."

Claes Bang in The Outlaws season 2
Claes Bang in The Outlaws season 2 BBC

Of course, there's no indication that the show will be winding down anytime soon. Following their surprise renewal, Merchant and his writers circled back through the season one scripts to retrofit more unresolved plot threads. The most notable addition was London crime boss The Dean, who went from being "a voice on a phone" to a full-fledged character played by Dracula star Claes Bang. He comes to the forefront in the second outing, which is bad news for our community service clique.

"It's all about turning the heat up. Someone said to me years ago that, with TV, you chase your characters up a tree and then you throw rocks at them. And it's like we've chased them up the tree in the first series and now we're throwing rocks at them – and Claes is a great character to throw the rocks," explains Merchant. "In the first series, the villains of the piece ultimately are not really villains. They're victims of him and of the sort of socioeconomic situation they're in."

Now, Merchant is using the same retroactive strategy to keep the door propped open for an as-yet-unconfirmed third season of The Outlaws. He reveals that "a few little changes" made in the editing room to the new episodes are designed to preserve certain storylines for further down the road. This might sound surprising from a writer whose two breakout hits never went beyond two seasons and a special, but he now clarifies that was never a hard-and-fast rule.

The Office
Ricky Gervais and Mackenzie Crook in The Office BBC

"In the case of the original Office, it seems like it was a question of integrity. The truth is, I think we just ran out of steam. But I think if we had just taken a year off, we probably could have kept it going," opines Merchant. "At the time, we'd sort of lived and breathed that show, just the two of us in a way, for such a long time. I think we felt a bit burnt out by it. I don't know that it was a great artistic statement on our part. Normally, what happened – with all the shows we've done – is it just felt like it reached a natural conclusion and that it might start repeating itself."

Shifting focus back to The Outlaws, he continued: "In this case, I always imagined that we'd do two series and then you could refresh it with a new set of offenders in another town. But actually, we started talking about series 3 and we found there was so much meat still on the bone and still so much to do with the characters... that I'm actually quite excited by the idea of doing a series 3. Partly because of that writers room so you can keep yourself stimulated by different voices. And also, because there's so many characters, you can just keep going."

That said, fans shouldn't get their hopes up just yet. Merchant himself acknowledges some stumbling blocks that could get in the way of a third run, including the busy schedules of its ensemble cast – not least Walken, who is now juggling Apple TV+'s Severance and a key role in Dune: Part Two. If the show were to take a bow at this stage, Merchant can still be proud that he achieved one of his key goals with the project.

"The thing that I was very pleased about was the response that the audience had to the characters in the first series... even the people that they wouldn't necessarily like or agree with politically, they were relating to and empathising with," he recalls.

There goes that flicker of hope in my brain, again.

The Outlaws returns to BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 5th June 2022. Check out more of our Comedy coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.

Something malicious is spreading through our society and threatens to tear it apart. Unlike coronavirus, this contagion is nothing new, but the way it manifests itself is evolving and its intensity is reaching worrying levels. Stay alert: infection hotspots include the Commons Chamber, opinion pages in prominent newspapers and the Twitter comments under literally any news article. This nasty affliction is called rage. And we need to do something about it.

Of course, since the dawn of humankind there have been differences of opinion. But these have become vitriolic since the recent declaration of culture war, with many of the loudest voices dropping all effort to meaningfully communicate. It's far easier – and in some cases, rather lucrative – to make a name out of spouting agitation that neither helps anyone nor furthers the debate. Listening is out of style; the new thing is digging your heels in and screaming blue murder all day long.

But maybe it doesn't have to be. Stephen Merchant's comedy-drama The Outlaws is aspirational viewing in how it imagines a group of people with vastly differing opinions on the world who find a way to work together. What a concept! Will it entice people back to the forgotten ways of cooperation and compromise? Perhaps not, but it's enough to give this cynic some hope that we aren't too far gone.

That's quite deliberate, too. While the idea of a ragtag group doing community service originates from Merchant's youth, when his parents supervised such work, The Outlaws ultimately became a response to extreme polarisation. When he started developing the show with Elgin James in 2016, the burning topics of the day were the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump taking office. The issues may have changed now, but the anger around them hasn't become any less severe.

"It felt like people were being categorised, both in the media and online," said Merchant, in conversation with RadioTimes.com. "I thought, 'Well, just because you're anti-Brexit surely doesn't mean you must hate everyone who is pro-Brexit. That can't be right'. My dad was pro-Brexit, but I like my dad. So where's the common ground? Everyone who's come to a particular social place or a political place has got there for a reason. They're not necessarily malevolent or stupid or whatever."

From there came the idea to force together an eclectic mix of people who would never otherwise encounter each other and see if they can find some mutual understanding – or even friendship. Over time, the roster was decided: a promising student with a taste for shoplifting, a bouncer in over his head, an activist who always goes too far, a businessman stuck in the past, a negligent lawyer, a disgraced aristocrat and a suave career criminal.

The Outlaws Season 2 cast
The Outlaws Season 2 cast (L-R) Darren Boyd, Gamba Cole, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stephen Merchant, Rhianne Barreto, Christopher Walken, Clare Perkins and Jessica Gunning BBC

Behind the camera, there had also been a meeting of starkly different backgrounds. As a self-described "cosy Bristolian middle-class kid", Merchant needed some help grasping the mindset that fuels criminal activity, for which he approached former gang member and ex-convict Elgin James – now best known for co-creating Sons of Anarchy spin-off Mayans MC. But he would need even more perspectives to breathe life and authenticity into The Outlaws' large ensemble cast.

"When I first started coming to America, for the US version of The Office, I was always enthralled by the writers rooms that they have here, which obviously is not such a thing in the UK because of economics, normally," explained Merchant. "So in the case of The Office, that was just me and Ricky [Gervais], but the American version, there's 12 writers and more. One of the things that's exciting in those rooms is all these different ideas are pinging around and building and expanding on each other."

Having acquired a taste for that environment while working on his short-lived HBO sitcom Hello Ladies, Merchant decided to assemble a small writers room for The Outlaws, which he credits for the show's "elegant" plotting. After all, juggling seven principal characters at once is no small task, but having a dedicated team allowed him to explore numerous potential routes for the story over a relatively short period of time.

Stephen Merchant in The Outlaws season 2
Stephen Merchant in The Outlaws season 2 BBC

That momentum came to an abrupt halt in March 2020, when the BBC shut down filming on The Outlaws after just 12 days due to the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic. Things started moving again quickly, however, as the show was handed a second season to work on during the break. Merchant had always been open to the idea of a follow-up, but didn't expect to be working on one quite so quickly and without any viewer feedback to use as a launchpad.

"Normally what happens is you would do a first series, you'd have a vague idea [about season 2], and then you'd see which characters are appealing to the audience, and you'd start to be governed a bit more by the reaction [to] the first series into the second. But we didn't have that opportunity because we were writing it before anything had been shown; we just had to go with instinct, really," he recalled.

While much attention has been paid to Hollywood legend Christopher Walken taking a rare television role as American con artist Frank, relative newcomers Rhianne Barreto (Rani) and Gamba Cole (Ben) are "the beating heart of the show", according to Merchant. He's quick to praise casting director Amy Hubbard for initially bringing them into the fold, adding that for his part, he tries to make candidates feel at ease in the audition room.

Rhianne Barreto and Gamba Cole in The Outlaws season 2
Rhianne Barreto and Gamba Cole in The Outlaws season 2 BBC

"I know, as an actor, that it's very nerve-wracking and I want them to do well; when an actor comes in the room, I want them to knock it out of the park. So I'm trying to work with them and be supportive, and I'm aware that I'm a man from the telly so I seem a bit intimidating – but I want them to impress," he explained. "I am absolutely so pleased by those two... I love their chemistry together, I love the humanity that they bring."

Having previously crossed paths on Prime Video spy thriller Hanna, Barreto and Cole had an existing friendship that fed into their electric scenes in last year's episodes – you can expect more sparks to fly between them in season 2. And if Merchant's previous collaborations with fresh-faced talent are any indication, there could be even bigger things ahead for this duo when The Outlaws comes to an end.

Merchant added: "I'm very proud of the fact that in my career, I've been lucky enough to work with [actors] that people weren't particularly familiar with before, whether it was Martin Freeman [in The Office] or Felicity Jones [in Cemetery Junction] or Florence Pugh [in Fighting with My Family]. I just wish I had shares in their careers. That seems fair, right? Like the manager of a boy band."

Claes Bang in The Outlaws season 2
Claes Bang in The Outlaws season 2 BBC

Of course, there's no indication that the show will be winding down anytime soon. Following their surprise renewal, Merchant and his writers circled back through the season one scripts to retrofit more unresolved plot threads. The most notable addition was London crime boss The Dean, who went from being "a voice on a phone" to a full-fledged character played by Dracula star Claes Bang. He comes to the forefront in the second outing, which is bad news for our community service clique.

"It's all about turning the heat up. Someone said to me years ago that, with TV, you chase your characters up a tree and then you throw rocks at them. And it's like we've chased them up the tree in the first series and now we're throwing rocks at them – and Claes is a great character to throw the rocks," explains Merchant. "In the first series, the villains of the piece ultimately are not really villains. They're victims of him and of the sort of socioeconomic situation they're in."

Now, Merchant is using the same retroactive strategy to keep the door propped open for an as-yet-unconfirmed third season of The Outlaws. He reveals that "a few little changes" made in the editing room to the new episodes are designed to preserve certain storylines for further down the road. This might sound surprising from a writer whose two breakout hits never went beyond two seasons and a special, but he now clarifies that was never a hard-and-fast rule.

The Office
Ricky Gervais and Mackenzie Crook in The Office BBC

"In the case of the original Office, it seems like it was a question of integrity. The truth is, I think we just ran out of steam. But I think if we had just taken a year off, we probably could have kept it going," opines Merchant. "At the time, we'd sort of lived and breathed that show, just the two of us in a way, for such a long time. I think we felt a bit burnt out by it. I don't know that it was a great artistic statement on our part. Normally, what happened – with all the shows we've done – is it just felt like it reached a natural conclusion and that it might start repeating itself."

Shifting focus back to The Outlaws, he continued: "In this case, I always imagined that we'd do two series and then you could refresh it with a new set of offenders in another town. But actually, we started talking about series 3 and we found there was so much meat still on the bone and still so much to do with the characters... that I'm actually quite excited by the idea of doing a series 3. Partly because of that writers room so you can keep yourself stimulated by different voices. And also, because there's so many characters, you can just keep going."

That said, fans shouldn't get their hopes up just yet. Merchant himself acknowledges some stumbling blocks that could get in the way of a third run, including the busy schedules of its ensemble cast – not least Walken, who is now juggling Apple TV+'s Severance and a key role in Dune: Part Two. If the show were to take a bow at this stage, Merchant can still be proud that he achieved one of his key goals with the project.

"The thing that I was very pleased about was the response that the audience had to the characters in the first series... even the people that they wouldn't necessarily like or agree with politically, they were relating to and empathising with," he recalls.

There goes that flicker of hope in my brain, again.

The Outlaws returns to BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 5th June 2022. Check out more of our Comedy coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

Advertisement

The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.

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