DEBORAH ROSS: I'm not as old as Stephen Merchant's jokes 

I’m quite old… but not as old as Stephen Merchant’s jokes

The Outlaws

BBC1, Monday

Rating:

The Long Call

ITV, Monday-Thursday

Rating:

The new series from Stephen Merchant, The Outlaws, had been billed as a drama-comedy, a ‘dramady’, so I was not anticipating its tonal swerve at the end into thriller territory, which now makes it what exactly? 

A thramady? I can’t think of any thramadies I’ve seen before, so it’s new in that respect, but otherwise it all felt quite 1974. You even wondered if Merchant had ever seen The Office, but presumably he has, as famously he co-wrote the series?

This is an ensemble piece where different characters from different backgrounds are brought together by, in this instance, having to perform community service as payback for some low-level crime. 

The new series from Stephen Merchant (above, with Clare Perkins and Eleanor Tomlinson), The Outlaws, had been billed as a drama-comedy, a ‘dramady’

The new series from Stephen Merchant (above, with Clare Perkins and Eleanor Tomlinson), The Outlaws, had been billed as a drama-comedy, a ‘dramady’

It has a terrific cast including, surprisingly, Christopher Walken, and his hair, which requires separate billing, surely.

He plays a shifty old fraudster while the other miscreants include a studious Asian girl (Rhianne Barreto), a Right-wing businessman always railing about ‘Lefties’ and ‘PC gone mad’ (Darren Boyd), a militant socialist feminist (Clare Perkins), a super-posh aristocratic influencer (Eleanor Tomlinson), a bad black boy with a heart of gold (Charles Babalola) and an awkward, tall, Bristolian type (Stephen Merchant playing Stephen Merchant).

It did all feel horribly dated. There were racial stereotypes too. Rani, the studious Asian girl, has a Goodness Gracious Me- type mother while her father (or stepfather, it’s not yet clear) is a nasty brute from Eastern Europe, and as for the black boy, he is necessarily involved in gangs. 

I kept waiting for Merchant to pull the rug from under my feet in some way, and subvert all this nonsense, but, in this first episode at least, the rug stayed put.

This did not have a naturalist, handheld air like most modern comedies have had since The Office. Instead, it has a stilted, sitcom feel where nothing is even remotely believable while Walken proved distracting. (Why, Christopher, why?) 

Also, some of the jokes were older than I am and I am quite old. ‘I have library books that have been out more than me,’ says Rani about her sad social life. One joke did make me laugh. 

It’s when someone asks Eleanor Tomlinson’s character what her last servant died of and she says, in all seriousness: ‘I think it was old age.’

Meanwhile, the drama element also felt second-hand. That tonal swerve into gritty thriller territory, for example, is everything you’ve ever seen in Top Boy, while Darren Boyd’s storyline put me in mind of Tom Wilkinson’s character in The Full Monty, who also pretended to his wife that all was going great guns at work. 

All this said, however, I did think Boyd was outstanding. Certainly, his was the only character I felt anything for at the end. But, overall, I’m going to have to conclude that thramadies aren’t really my thing.

The Long Call is an adaptation of the Ann Cleeves book, made by the same people who adapted her other books, Vera and Shetland, which have become TV stalwarts. Our hero on this outing is DI Matthew Venn, who is gay and married, which is a first for police procedurals – why has it taken so long? – but otherwise it was pretty much business as usual. 

It’s set in Devon (Ilfracombe), where DI Matthew Venn has a sidekick, DC Jen Rafferty (Pearl Mackie, above with Ben Aldridge), also a harassed single mother

It’s set in Devon (Ilfracombe), where DI Matthew Venn has a sidekick, DC Jen Rafferty (Pearl Mackie, above with Ben Aldridge), also a harassed single mother

From the opening drone shots of the sea, you knew you were in Broadchurch-ian territory and prayed it wasn’t going to be a sub-Broadchurch-ian affair, but that, I’m afraid, is what it was.

It’s set in Devon (Ilfracombe), where Venn has a sidekick, DC Jen Rafferty (Pearl Mackie), also a harassed single mother, but if there is any chemistry between the two I did not sense it. 

A dead man is found on the beach and initially they think he may have been killed at sea by a propeller, which made me wonder about their policing abilities. He’s bone dry! The letter in his pocket is bone dry! Out of the way, let me solve this!

Soon everyone in the community comes under suspicion, and they all have their dark secrets but, unlike Broadchurch, this didn’t allow its characters to live and breathe, so they always felt like ciphers, not people you could care about. 

Plus, as one person came under suspicion then another, I did end up with a bad case of Red Herring Fatigue.

Naturally, Venn has flashbacks to childhood trauma, here connected to the local evangelical sect, the Barum Brethren, where he was brought up until he was cast out as a late teen due to their homophobia. 

Members of the Brethren were played by Juliet Stevenson, Martin Shaw and Anita Dobson, who are all terrific actors, but even they couldn’t surmount the material. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Dobson over-acting like mad by episode three, as I rather did. 

That was compelling, almost.

The fact is, Venn is quite a dull character. So much so I even longed for him to have a drink problem or a wretched home life. As for why it was called The Long Call, I never did work that out. 

But given the way it dragged glacially over four nights, perhaps it should have been The Long, Long, Long Call? 

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