'The Outlaws' star Stephen Merchant on the inspiration for his new series about offenders

Stephen Merchant heads the cast of The Outlaws.
Stephen Merchant (far right) heads the cast of 'The Outlaws'. (Image credit: BBC)

The Outlaws is very much a passion project for Stephen Merchant. BBC1 and Amazon Prime Video’s new six-part comedy drama follows a group of offenders carrying out Community Payback in Bristol and Merchant, who has co-written the series, was inspired by the work of his parents, who worked in the community service sector supervising offenders.

The actor, comic and co-creator of The Office, who also directs the show, stars as awkward lawyer Greg. After an embarrassing altercation with a prostitute, Greg is forced to do his community service alongside a rag-tag bunch of other felons from wily veteran crook Frank, played by Hollywood legend Christopher Walken, to troubled socialite Gabby (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson) and teenage shoplifter Rani (Hanna’s Rhianne Barreto). But when one of the group gets embroiled in gang warfare, they all find themselves in danger…

We caught up with Stephen Merchant to get the lowdown on The Outlaws...

'The Outlaws' is a such a clever idea for a show. What inspired you?

“My mum and dad told me about the people that came through the ranks and what I liked was that they’d renovate a play area or community hall and there was a sense of accomplishment. My mum felt proud and I'm sure the people doing it did. It’s an interesting area for a show because you have unlikely people forced to work together. They’re from different walks of life.”

You created the show with former US gang member-turned-filmmaker Elgin James, was it rewarding to collaborate?

“Yes, we have different perspectives but a similar sense of humour and approach to life, so it was a perfect meeting of minds. I've never been in a criminal situation but Elgin was in gangs growing up and went to prison and he’d tell me stories that were tragic but funny.”

Stephen Merchant in The Outlaws.

Stephen Merchant lands in trouble as Greg in 'The Outlaws'. (Image credit: BBC)

Tell us about your character Greg...

“He gets into bother with a lady of the night. I thought about writing myself a more heroic character but the BBC said, ‘Why don’t you play an awkward gangly nerd?’ So that's what I've done. I add light relief and let the proper actors do the heavy lifting!” 

Will we root for the 'outlaws' despite their crimes?

“They’ve all broken the rules, but nobody’s purely good or evil. You see what led them to this point. Everyone has the potential to be morally compromised. The people my mum saw made one misstep and it sent them down the wrong road. So you can have empathy for the characters even if you don't agree with where they're coming from.” 

Christopher Walken in The Outlaws.

Christopher Walken as charming veteran crook Frank in 'The Outlaws'. (Image credit: BBC)

How did you lure Christopher Walken to Bristol?!

“We wanted an American actor of that status who’d bring glamour and then you reveal that Frank's just another seedy criminal. I flew to Connecticut to meet Christopher, and we talked for hours about the show. But the first thing he said was [does Walken’s drawl], ‘Would you… like some... of this… omelette?’ I’d just eaten but I stuffed it down. That sealed the deal for him!” 

Was it fun doing the action sequences?

“I loved it! I’ve always wanted to make an action movie, but no one says, ‘Stephen Merchant’s the guy for an action movie!’ But we have fights and a foot chase, and I did stunt driving. I kept saying, ‘We'll do this from Point Break, and this from Fast & Furious 5!’”

When can I watch The Outlaws?

The series airs in the UK on BBC1 from Monday Oct. 25 at 9pm and will also be available on BBCiPlayer. It will air later in the US on Amazon Prime Video and we will let you know when the date is announced.

Caren Clark

Caren has been a journalist specializing in TV for almost two decades and is a Senior Features Writer for TV Times, TV & Satellite Week and What’s On TV magazines and she also writes for What to Watch.

Over the years, she has spent many a day in a muddy field or an on-set catering bus chatting to numerous stars on location including the likes of Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Suranne Jones, Jamie Dornan, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi as well as Hollywood actors such as Glenn Close and Kiefer Sutherland.

Caren will happily sit down and watch any kind of telly (well, maybe not sci-fi!), but she particularly loves period dramas like Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and The Crown and she’s also a big fan of juicy crime thrillers from Line of Duty to Poirot.

In her spare time, Caren enjoys going to the cinema and theatre or curling up with a good book.