The Outlaws follows seven strangers forced to complete community service. Georgia Humphreys finds out more from writer and star Stephen Merchant.

Stephen Merchant considered writing himself a more "heroic" character in his new series, The Outlaws.

But the "BBC persuaded me otherwise" says the Bristolian comedian, 46.

"They said 'No-one is going to accept you as that, so why don't you play an awkward, gangly nerd?'. I said 'All right, it's in my wheelhouse, so I'll give it another shot' - and so that's what I've done again."

The six-part comedy-drama, which Merchant co-created with American writer and producer Elgin James, and also directed, follows a group of misfits renovating a derelict community centre in Bristol, as part of community service for various crimes they have committed.

The seven strangers working together are lawyer Greg (Merchant), teenager Rani (Rhianne Barreto), who is meant to be off to Oxford University, socialite Gabby (Eleanor Tomlinson), young doorman Christian (Gamba Cole), right-wing businessman John (Darren Boyd), radical activist Myrna (Clare Perkins), and conman Frank, played by none other than Hollywood star Christopher Walken.

The inspiration for The Outlaws came from Merchant's parents, who worked for Bristol Community Service.

"They used to tell me about the sort of people who came through the ranks - some of whom I went to school with, it turned out," notes the funnyman, who is also known for co-writing The Office and Extras, alongside Ricky Gervais.

"When we started thinking about the show it was during Trump, and it was Brexit, and the country felt very divided and everyone felt like they were in their bubbles.

"I just thought it was interesting - could you take all these types of people that everyone now is being labelled - 'You're left wing', 'You're right wing', or whatever it might be - and put them together and see how they interact?

"Will their sympathies grow for each other if they're working together? That was the jumping-off point."

As for the themes in the show (it explores political correctness), Merchant says: "I've never done anything to try and be provocative. I know that seems unlikely, because I've done controversial stuff, or stuff which feels edgy, but that's never really my agenda.

"I'm not trying to prod anybody in particular, I just thought it was interesting to have all these people from different walks of life, all of whom are going to have different opinions and different views, and see them rub up against each other, really - and therefore people can be corrected or challenged, or they can question their beliefs.

"But also, sometimes people who have the wrong opinions can still be funny."

He continues: "You might find a character offensive, but you could perhaps still understand where they're coming from or perhaps see what led them to that place.

"But I did it in collaboration with the writers' room and also involved the cast, in terms of asking questions.

"I'm still trying to educate myself - I can't write from the perspective of a young Asian woman or whatever, so it's important to not only have a varied writing room but also involve the cast as well and ask them, 'How would they speak' and 'How do you feel about those things?'"

As the episodes progress, dramatic events see the characters in danger, after finding themselves in the middle of a criminal turf war.

The plan was always to make The Outlaws a "low-level thriller", elaborates Merchant.

"I find it odd when they don't have any humour and they're a bit po-faced and a bit over-earnest and everything's just depressing.

"So I wanted it to be that you could still enjoy it, have some crime elements and some politics with a small p, and some social stuff.

"We tried to make sure that nothing got silly or that the villains were comic so they didn't seem threatening any more.

"I've never been in a criminal situation, but Elgin, who I created the show with, has - he was in gangs growing up and went to prison later in life.

"He would tell me these stories that were dark and tragic but also funny."

The thriller aspect of the series meant the cast got to try their hand at action sequences, which Merchant absolutely loved.

"I've always wanted to make an action movie, and no-one comes to me and thinks, 'This is the guy for an action movie'.

"I did a bit of stunt driving and I love that stuff, it's really good fun and it's something different."

A lot of local talent was used in front of and behind the camera, which Merchant is clearly proud of.

And what really comes across watching The Outlaws is how Bristol feels like a character in itself - it's such a visual city, full of graffiti and hills, and the setting adds to the story too.

"I like the idea of making somewhere specific in a show. The idea The Office was in Slough - it might seem like that's too specific, but it turns out I think the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. Because people think, 'I've never been there, but I sort of relate'."

Unfortunately, as the show was made during Covid-19, the cast could not socialise and enjoy the city together - which was especially a shame considering Merchant had Walken travel from the US for the role.

"I promised him 'Come to Bristol, it's a great city, there are great restaurants so we can take you out to dinner' - and of course we couldn't do any of it because we filmed it through lockdown," recalls Merchant.

"He's like 78, so I was just terrified the whole time - I don't want him to catch Covid on my watch. Any time anyone even looked like they were going to sneeze, I would jump in front of him like a guy taking a bullet for the president."

As for what is next for Merchant, we could well see more of The Outlaws on our screens.

"I like the idea that if it carried on, it would be different groups of offenders at different times," he muses.

"It would be like Doctor Who - the same basic idea, but different people over years and years. That seems quite fun.

"People could always be international. It turns out, having done some research, that community service is very similar all over the world. Community service in Berlin or Delhi - it would be amazing."

The Outlaws starts on BBC One tomorrow at 9pm