One of the strangest sights on television in 2019 was Rob Lowe in a battered Volvo chasing villains through a cabbage field in Boston — the English market town, not the other one — in ITV’s ill-conceived fish-out-of-water flop Wild Bill.
Lowe, who appeared to believe he had signed up for a sort of English Fargo, played widowed and disgraced Miami police chief “Wild” Bill Hixon, who relocates to England with his 14-year-old daughter to become chief constable of the fictional East Lincolnshire Police Force.
To nobody’s surprise, Wild Bill was axed after just six underwhelming episodes and Lowe returned to Hollywood to do whatever it is he does when he’s not making peculiar career detours to the English coast.
No such fate awaits Christopher Walken in Stephen Merchant’s sparkling new comedy-thriller The Outlaws (BBC One, Monday), a co-production between the BBC and Amazon Studios.
When filming was suspended due to the pandemic earlier in the year, Merchant used the time to write a second season, which was immediately commissioned and shot back-to-back with this one once production resumed.
If Lowe stuck out like a pumpkin among the cabbages, Walken — glorious New York accent and all — looks perfectly at home among the Bristol locations (Merchant has set the series in his home city) and an otherwise all-British cast.
He plays charming conman Frank, one of seven strangers from different walks of life who are thrown together while serving out 100 hours of community service cleaning up a dilapidated building.
Frank is fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet and has to bunk up with his less-than-impressed daughter Margaret (Dolly Wells), who warns her two kids what to expect of their grandfather.
“I need you to remember that grandpa is a lying, thieving, selfish old b****** who can never be trusted,” she says, getting them to repeat the description word for word. When Frank’s young grandson asks him why he was in prison, he says: “It was a misunderstanding.”
“Grandpa misunderstood that you can’t forge signatures on cheques,” Margaret then quips.
Merchant knows how to write funny dialogue and he throws some real sparklers Walken’s way. “Are you lot working?” barks the group’s supervisor, would-be hardcase and wannabe cop Diana (Jessica Gunning).
“We’re workin’, boss!” shouts Frank, like he’s on the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke. “Harder than a prostitute with two mattresses.”
Landing Walken, who’s great as always, was a real coup. He’s been a major star for more than 40 years, yet has never given off the slightest whiff of ego or vanity. He’s very much a willing team player here.
The Outlaws is an ensemble piece that gives generous space to all its characters. Among those donning the orange high-vis vest of shame alongside Frank are Rani (Rhianne Barreto), a kleptomaniac brainbox; spoiled social media influencer Gabby (Eleanor Tomlinson), who boasts about how she’s got 1.8 million followers (“Jesus only had 12”); brash, rude businessman John (Darren Boyd), whose seemingly bulletproof self-confidence hides the fact that both he and the family business he has taken over from his father (Ian McElhinney) are crumbling fast, and sad sack Greg (Merchant), who popped out to buy Jif lemon juice on Pancake Tuesday and returned to find his wife had walked out on him.
Completing this less-than-magnificent seven are Clare Perkins as ageing militant activist Myrna and Gamba Cole as Christian, a young man left alone to raise his young sister, who he’s struggling to keep from falling in with his former gang mates on their rough council estate.
In return for them leaving her alone, Christian reluctantly agrees to stick up some drug dealers to retrieve a mobile phone his old mates want to get their hands on. However, he gets more than he bargained for when he finds a holdall stuffed with cash and makes off with it.
Unknown to him, Rani, who’s taken a shine to him, has tagged along in her father’s van, spelling trouble for both of them and, you can bet, their new workmates.
Making laughs and thrills work in tandem is a tricky feat. Merchant pulls it off in style. The Outlaws is a gem.