Stephen Merchant on The Outlaws and unusual first meeting with Christopher Walken

Kelly-Anne Taylor talks to Stephen Merchant ahead of the launch of The Outlaws.

Big RT Interview: Stephen Merchant (BBC)

It’s hardly surprising that Stephen Merchant got Hollywood A-Lister Christopher Walken on board for his upcoming BBC One comedy series The Outlaws. He does, after all, have The Office, Extras and Hello Ladies under his belt and that’s in addition to a fair few accolades – two Golden Globe Awards, three BAFTAs and four British Comedy Awards.

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Not that his impressive TV CV has gone to his head – as I zoom the 46-year-old comedian/writer/actor/director (is there anything he can’t do?), his modesty is paramount. We’re discussing The Outlaws which follows seven strangers, from vastly different walks of life, brought together to serve community service sentences in their hometown, Bristol. Merchant plays nerdy-divorcee Greg and Walken portrays Frank, a charming man with a tendency to make poor decisions.

“We wanted a big American star for the role of Frank. On the surface he seems like an exotic alien that’s landed in Bristol – then you realise he’s just a petty criminal. Walken was top of the list. Somehow we got the scripts to him. He doesn’t have a mobile phone or a computer. I’m not joking – we faxed it to him. We had to pull a fax from an old BBC cupboard and dust it off. I got this message he wanted to meet with me,” recounts Merchant.

“I went to Connecticut, where he lives, and sat with him. Someone told me beforehand that Chris is very, very comfortable with silence. He is in his 70s, he has nothing to prove, he’s a very meditative thoughtful guy. He’ll ask you a question and then he likes to think about the answer you’ve given – for like 10 minutes. Because I knew he was comfortable with that, I went quiet as well. I would just sit and look out the window until he had another question. We were there for four hours. At one point he made me an omelette because I was getting weak from hunger. We hit it off and he came to Bristol, so it must have worked.”

The Outlaws focuses on Rani (played by Rhianne Barreto), a student who has secured a place at Oxford University but blows off steam by shoplifting, and Christian (Gamba Cole) a young man who is forced to take part in drug gang activities. Everything changes for the seven characters when they discover a large sum of cash hidden in the community centre they are renovating. Where did Merchant get the idea from?

“My mother and father both worked for community service in Bristol when I was growing up. My mother would supervise the offenders as they repainted a shed or did up a kids play area in a park. She would occasionally talk about the people she had seen come through the ranks. I remember she told me about an old guy that she would see month to month, he would always be back for stealing cabbages from allotments or odd little crimes like that. She realised over time that he liked the social aspect. He was in his 70s and he didn’t have much else going on – so he was trying to get community service to socialise with people. I mean, I would have thought bingo was easier,” Merchant quips.

“There was an American businessman that got caught drink driving and a couple of people I went to school with. I thought it was an interesting backdrop to a show. You’re always looking for ways to bring people together that wouldn’t otherwise encounter one another.”

Whilst writing the show, Trump and Brexit dominated political discourse. Merchant felt the world was divided – everything was binary – and that’s before COVID.

“You were in your camp and everyone else was somewhere else,” he explains. “I thought it would be interesting to get different types of people together and force them to interrogate each other. Everyone is more nuanced than the labels they are given. Everybody could potentially wind up doing community service – we’re all morally compromised in one way or another. The show is saying ‘we have more in common that we perhaps realise’. But it’s also not trying to be overly highfalutin about that. I do say ‘long dong silver’ at one point. I’m not suggesting it’s Dickens.”

One of Merchant’s biggest concerns when filming was of course, and understandably, the coronavirus pandemic. Originally, shooting was postponed when the world was shut down but managed to reconvene at a later date.

“You don’t want to be the one that gives Christopher [Walken] COVID. If anyone looked like they were going to sneeze, I’d jump in from of them, like a bodyguard taking a bullet for the President. I’d take the sneeze in the face so Christopher couldn’t get it. It’s tough filming during those conditions. You really need to like nasal swabs.”

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Merchant who self-defines as ‘strait-laced’ created the show alongside Elgin James, a man who grew up in gangs and has served time in prison. Has Merchant ever had any brush ins with the law?

“I was once drunk while a student at Warwick University. We were in Coventry City Centre one night and I climbed on the back of the Lady Godiva statue. I got cautioned by a policeman who told me to climb down, which I did immediately.

“I get very jumpy. I was super scrupulous with the COVID rules. I was sort of policing the two metre rule because I am two metres. I could make sure people kept their distance by simply lying in front of them.”

Height and physicality are often used within Merchant’s work to add to the comedy factor. Is the world a funnier place when you’re 6ft7?

“It was either a journalist or an Uber driver who said to me, ‘do you think you started doing comedy because it’s a way of controlling when people are laughing at you?’. That was sort of grand! There may be some truth in that. If you’re tall, you might be self-conscious. If you can be self-mocking ahead of time, you land the punch first. John Cleese was one of my big comedy heroes, he’s very tall. He uses his height and physicality and is really funny because of it. I lent into that.”

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It’s hard not to think Merchant has typecast himself in The Outlaws – he is once again playing an endearing nerd, suffering from loneliness, who never seems to say the right thing. But – he concurs, if he hadn’t taken on the role, he would be watching from the side-lines, critiquing another’s performance – “I’d be there the whole time thinking ‘why are you doing it like that?’ This is how you play an awkward nerd!”.

It would be interesting to know how the BBC secured Merchant’s upcoming comedy series – which surely needed an impressive budget, especially hiring the likes of Walken. But, perhaps it’s a by-product of Merchant’s enduring love for the broadcaster that gave him his first break.

“I’m a big advocate of the BBC. Whether it’s Phoebe Waller Bridge or whoever gets their break on the BBC, it’s still a place at the beat of creativity and for nurturing talent. I wanted to do this show in England, and I wanted to do it in Bristol, and the BBC seemed like the place to go. I was pleased that they wanted to do it. I’m proud to be on the BBC. Long may it reign.”

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