TV Guide: Punishments & Punchlines

The Outlaws and Landscapers are two comedy dramas that deal with crime and punishment; we look at what makes these topics so appealing to TV writers

Feature by Ellie Robertson | 14 Jul 2022
  • The Outlaws

Imposing black vans. Muddied stone walls. A booming voice, punctuated by the clanging of the jail cell bars – "You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner." Militant guards, fashioned like stormtroopers. The sign above the gate reads “HMP PRISON SLADE”. The camera falls into the mouth of the great brick beast. "We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences; you will go to prison for five years."

Porridge: The scoundrel of the 70s

It’s hardly the most obvious setting for a sitcom, but once we get into the recesses of the modern-day dungeon we’re watching Ronnie Barker strutting around the set. The collar of his correctional uniform popped open playfully, Barker's soon scheming against stern Mr McKay like a belligerent, but ultimately jolly, schoolboy.

Porridge gave the British audience silver-tongued scoundrels, battling for bite-sized victories against the cushy prison guards. The endearing fantasy kept Porridge’s popularity strong in British households from its broadcast in the 70s to its revival in 2016. For some, it was more than a fantasy – the series was popular in prisons, where inmates felt honoured by its authenticity. It elevated the status of convicted people, showing them to be intelligent, principled, and cheerful. Whether or not they were rumbled by the uptight wardens, Norman Fletcher and his gang proved time and time again that they had the quality of character deserving of the little triumphs they swung for.

It’s an impressive example of anti-authoritarianism in 70s British culture. Through empowering the subjugated by showing the funny side, writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais destigmatised the taboo subject of criminality. Unlike the unwanted gruel for which it was named, today’s TV writers seem to be lapping up the comedy legislature that Porridge ladled out. Times are changing and the malfeasance of the ruling class, highlighted in the information age and ever exacerbated in the captivity of lockdown, has made life outside the law more acceptable.

Nationwide demonstrations, global protests – this is the newly acceptable behaviour of a people being pushed too far. During the peak of the Black Lives Matters movement in 2020, four protestors hoisted a statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth, and threw it into the river Avon. All four were acquitted of criminal damage, but had in that moment created a new court of their own in which Colston was condemned to a more shameful immortality, at the bottom of Bristol Harbour.

The Outlaws: Criminal Conspiracies with Walken in the West Country

Graffiti-style murals allude to the statue’s supplanting in the opening sequence of The Outlaws. Other than Banksy-inspired illustrations, the most striking visual imagery of the BBC comedy is the neon-orange vests worn by its ensemble cast of community payback punters. Whether we’re following John (a typical middle-aged white man played by typical middle-aged white man Darren Boyd) who blames political-correctness-gone-mad for the failures of his small family business, or Clare Perkins’ Myrna, an activist trying to secure the loyalty of her hippie collective whilst haunted by the memory of one protest that went too far, the viewer gets the sense that every character has been crushed by the power imbalances of modern Bristol, and thus, modern Britain.

Gamba Cole and Rhianne Barreto emerge onto the screen as star-crossed besties, masterfully navigating each other’s natural chemistry for a pairing that acts as the emotional core of the series. Their affection for each other, and their loyalty across the chasm of class division, is what sets the stakes of the violent, drug-dealer intrigue.

With their relative social standing meaningless in captivity, the characters are brought together by a duffel bag of cash found in the community centre they’re ordered to rehabilitate. One-by-one, they aspire to use the money to heal themselves or the communities they represent, and are all equalised in their desire to become outlaws. Though perhaps not as slapstick as Porridge, this is very much a comedy – the battle with a nefarious crime lord is derailed only occasionally for Stephen Merchant, who plays hapless lawyer Greg as well as providing the show’s script with filmmaker and former convict Elgin James.

The grinning buffoon is a role that Merchant has mastered, and is sure to get laughs from the audience, but the show's sudden cuts to Oggy from The Office can feel abrupt, especially after a suave montage with Christopher Walken scheming through a poker game to launder his stolen money. Though characters overlap, the script is definitely divided into two tones – story and sitcom – which some might find unwieldy, especially considering the breaking down of barriers that makes the series’ central theme.

But as with Porridge, if you seek to elevate the status of imprisoned people, you should realistically humanise them and humans are, realistically, funny. Instead of puns, jabs, jokes and japes, humour comes from people who don’t belong in Bristol’s criminal underworld thrown into a post-modern neo-western criminal conspiracy. That juxtaposition not only generates a few laughs on its own – it's taken to its extreme in our next example of banter behind bars.

Landscapers: Married Couple Mix Movies and Murder

Landscapers, which dramatises the real-life arrest of murderers and identity thieves Christopher and Susan Edwards as they return to the UK, has David Thewlis and Olivia Colman play killers on the run, peddling award-winning levels of acting experience in portraying the sullen spouses. The contrast between the star’s performances – as bland and beige as the next Brit – and the slick styling of the show, setting a jazz tempo to the flashing lights of a police convoy, feels absurd enough to tickle some viewers. Colman’s unhinged grin, with all British respectability about to snap, perfectly complements Thewlis’ lethargic performance, as he mopes around the drab set, their dilapidated French flat already feeling like a prison cell.

The criminal proceedings of the show are broken up by flashbacks and daydreams, with tangential testimonies taking a tone of their own. The otherworldly lighting and set-design abduct the audience from the cold reality of the British criminal justice system, to the theatrical world of an individual’s own, rose-tinted memory. Some details cushion the ironic comedy (recollections of the crime, decades before, star David Thewlis looking conspicuously similar save for an unconvincing wig) but others speak more to the film’s central theme.

Olivia Colman’s character often retreats into a whirlwind of Golden Age Hollywood, the prairies of romantic Western cinema acting as an escape from the inscrutable morals of the real world, as well as driving home just how painfully ordinary she looks when John Wayne epics are projected over her face. They’re not dramatic or dynamic characters, they’re so ordinary and flaccid. Though a slightly humorous sight, Landscapers teaches that crime does not transform you into a character from a late-night thriller series. You’re still plain old you. 

With his performance, Thewlis asks the audience whether or not this couple, unquestionably guilty, “deserve sympathy”. The eponymous antiheroes of The Outlaws are as diverse as the UK itself, and teach that no matter what walk of life you’ve come from, once you’re in the system, you’ll be pushed further and further in until all you have is each other. Not only do these dilemmas deftly coexist with the humour of their respective series, but the wit actually works with the point. Just as Porridge served a heroic archetype in the unbreakable spirit of Norman Fletcher, there is an emerging verdict in modern TV: that no matter how society treats one’s anti-authoritarianism, they can’t lock up your sense of humour.

Porridge and The Outlaws are available to stream on BBC iPlayer

Landscapers is available to stream on NOW TV