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Stephen Merchant on how societal divisions in the UK influenced new comedy ‘The Outlaws’

Merchant is back on the BBC with a new comedy set in his native Bristol. He's even managed to rope in Christopher Walken

By Nick Reilly

The cast of Stephen Merchant's The Outlaws
The cast of Stephen Merchant's The Outlaws (Picture: BBC)

Stephen Merchant has opened up on how deep societal and political divides within the UK influenced the creation of his latest TV show.

The co-creator of ‘The Office’ is returning to the BBC with ‘The Outlaws,’ a new comedy-drama which follows the stories of seven characters from very different walks of life who are brought together to complete community service in Bristol.

As well as a turn from Merchant himself as awkward lawyer Greg, a prominent storyline sees prejudiced businessman John (Darren Boyd) constantly clashing with left-wing activist Christian (Gamba Cole).

Speaking to Rolling Stone UK, Merchant explained how prominent Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol last year had only added to the show’s sense of relevance and timeliness.

The city made international headlines in July 2020 when activists memorably tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and unceremoniously dumped it in the city’s docks.

“I think [we’re more divided than ever], said Merchant.

“I think there’s been some leveller in society because we’ve all gone through Covid, but the Black Lives Matter protests hadn’t even happened when we were writing the show and we still had a discussion about the Colston statue in the script.

“I think we were trying to be relevant and it seems to me that polarisations are still there. There’s a civility on the service when we’re all clapping for the NHS, but those divisions are now beginning to re-emerge.”

But, Merchant said, the show stops at casting judgement on the characters and instead invites audience to draw their own conclusions.

“I don’t think anyone’s necessarily right or wrong in the show, and I don’t want to be too judgemental,” he said.

“That’s where common ground is found, but that idea of compartmentalising it, if you’re anti-Brexit and everyone is your enemy, then that’s not helpful.”

Elsewhere, the show also includes a notable turn from Hollywood icon Christopher Walken, who appears as wily old-timer Frank – an American con who is desperate to make amends with his long-suffering daughter.

Speaking about how he secured Walken’s involvement, Merchant explained how he headed to Walken’s Connecticut home to convince him to get involved.

“He asked me what Bristol was like and I said it’s got a big suspension bridge, it’s very hilly and very colourful. It’s basically like San Francisco!,” Merchant recalled.

“He’d stop and think about that answer and watch the squirrels in his garden. You’d usually want to fill that silence but I’d been told he was comfortable with it, so it was two men sitting there watching the squirrels until he had another question. I think we got through three questions in four hours!”

The Outlaws airs on October 25 at 9pm on BBC One.