CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: These Outlaws are so confused

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: These Outlaws are so confused… I don’t know whether to laugh or cry

The Outlaws


The Long Call 


Every comedy thriller has to make up its mind in the end. The chief aim is either to make us laugh or gasp. It can’t do both equally.

The Outlaws (BBC1), a six-part series about people atoning for petty crime with community service, hasn’t decided what to be.

One minute Eleanor Tomlinson, as social media celebrity Gaby, is taking selfies while Christian and John (Gamba Cole and Darren Boyd) brawl over a spliff. The next, nervous A-level student and shoplifter Rani (Rhianne Barreto) is hiding a gun for her boyfriend and outwitting a gang of drug dealers armed with machetes.

Hard-edged TV dramas about drugs crime can come laced with lethal jokes — Breaking Bad proved that. And goofy sitcoms can feature Hollywood-style action sequences, as James Corden showed in The Wrong Mans.

There’s the basis of a really good serial in The Outlaws, writes Christopher Stevens

But those shows both knew exactly what they wanted to do. Stephen Merchant, who writes and stars in The Outlaws, flip-flops between the two. When he’s on screen, Merchant — as nerdy Greg — is definitely playing it for laughs, and crude ones at that. He’s 6in 7in and his opening line was a gag about whether the rest of him was ‘in proportion’.

We haven’t learned yet what each of the characters has done to merit their sentences. But no one will be surprised that an excerpt from a later episode, on Graham Norton’s chat show last week, revealed that Greg was literally caught with his trousers down.

There’s the basis of a really good serial here, an ensemble drama with criss-crossing storylines like The Syndicate or The Split.

But Merchant’s script suggests he feels that would be beneath him. Just as we’re getting to know the characters, he warns us not to believe in them: ‘Everyone’s a type — you’ve got your Right-wing blowhard, Left-wing militant, celebutante and shifty old timer,’ says Rani, who describes herself as a ‘studious Asian good girl’.

Vocabulary of the night: 

Dim Greg was being battered with long words in Succession (Sky Atlantic). ‘Popinjay’, ‘histrionic’, ‘intransigent’ and ‘meretricious’ were just some he couldn’t begin to translate. Has there ever been a drama that loved its verbiage so much?

After that, it was difficult to care why Christian’s friends, riding around in a Range Rover with tinted windows like rap stars, were forcing him to carry out an armed robbery. They’re just cardboard cutouts — the script already told us so.

Sensing that none of it adds up, movie star Christopher Walken plays Frank the forger with a New Jersey Mafia accent.

He has a wordy catchphrase, ‘Greetings and felicitations,’ which might work with a Cockney swagger — said by David Jason, for example. Walken sounds like Tony Soprano trying to chew a thesaurus.

There’s no mystery about where to pigeonhole The Long Call (ITV), running across four nights this week. Taken from a book by the queen of rural crime, Ann Cleeves, this drama set on the North Devon coast is in the mould of her previous long-runners, Vera and Shetland.

Ben Aldridge plays DI Matthew Venn, returning to the town where he grew up in an evangelical Christian sect.

His mother Dorothy, a fervently repressed Juliet Stevenson, banished him years ago when he came out as gay. Though Dorothy seemed constantly on the brink of rolling her eyes and speaking in tongues, it was Martin Shaw who stole the first episode — menacing, wheedling, devious and controlling as the church elder Dennis.

Venn feels so ill at ease, being around these people again, that he can’t even tell colleagues his father has just died.

But he’s distracted enough to leave the murder investigation, of a drunken chef found stabbed to death on the beach, to his sergeant, Jen (Pearl Mackie).

Or maybe the magnificent sea views are distracting him. You can rely on an Ann Cleeves drama for great landscapes.

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