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TV reviews: The Outlaws and The Nile with Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Benjie Goodhart / 20 October 2021

Stephen Merchant pens new comedy crime series The Outlaws, and Sir Ranulph Fiennes is joined by his cousin, actor Joseph Fiennes, on a 1000-mile journey along the Nile.

The Outlaws, BBC One
John (Darren Boyd), Rani (Rhianne Barreto), Frank (Christopher Walken), Myrna (Clare Perkins), Christian (Gamba Cole), Greg (Stephen Merchant) in The Outlaws, BBC One. BBC/Big Talk/Four Eyes

The Nile with Sir Ranulph Fiennes 1/3, Saturday 23rd October, 8pm, Channel 5

In some ways, I am very like Ranulph Fiennes. We were both born in the 20th century. We both have noses. We both have the letter ‘n’ in our first name. Um… that’s about it.

But in more obvious ways, we are rather different. He is the world’s greatest living explorer. He’s walked unaided to the North Pole, was the first person to cross Antarctica on foot, and climbed Everest aged 65. I’m currently in a state of not inconsiderable panic about visiting Kent next week for half term.

But we are fascinated by things we don’t understand. That is why I will gladly watch anything about Ranulph Fiennes, just as I’m sure he would find watching a documentary about me absolutely riveting. Unfortunately, the broadcasters resolutely refuse to send the camera crews to film me nipping to Sainsbury’s and walking the dog, instead choosing to focus on the rather more obvious excitement offered by Fiennes.

That said, this new three-part series on Channel 5 is more than diverting. It follows Sir Ranulph and his cousin, the actor Joseph Fiennes, as they retrace the steps of the former’s first major expedition, along the Nile 50 years ago. Despite being cousins, the two have only met twice previously, Joe reveals, “because he’s always been away exploring.”

Their thousand-mile odyssey begins in Alexandria, where crossing the road looks just about as hazardous as anything they’ll encounter all trip. It would make for a fairly disappointing three-part series if one of them got hit by a bus in the first three minutes of filming. Here, they encounter an old Land Rover, of the type Ran used on his original expedition, and after making some modifications to it, they set off. Joe is desperate to prove his mettle to his experienced cousin, so it’s a shame when the Land Rover conks out after Joe drives it for 18 miles with the handbrake on.

Next, it’s time to teach Joe how to drive in the sand. His first effort at cresting a sand dune ends up with the car getting stuck. His second almost ends in calamity when they go flying over the top of the dune rather than stopping. You could forgive Ran for putting Joe on the first plane out of Egypt. Instead, he just chuckles wryly. He says that his motto on expeditions is “taking risks is bad if you can avoid it.” I’m adopting much the same approach on my trip to Kent.

Next, it’s off to El Alamein, where Ran’s father commanded a tank regiment in one of the most important battles in World War II. He survived the battle, only to die a year later in combat, four months before his son was born. They have to drive there in convoy, as the area is still littered with landmines.

Next, in Cairo, they go and get up close and personal with some of the more dangerous venomous creatures they will encounter on their travels. First up is a scorpion the size of a horse. Then a massive white spider. As it crawls across Joe’s hand, he says: That raises my anxiety level. I don’t know why.” Maybe it’s because there is a massive venomous spider crawling across your hand? Just a thought.

Finally, they travel to a town where some ancient catacombs have been discovered. Watching them scrabble around deep underground through incredibly narrow fissures of rock, it’s easy to forget that Ran is 74, and has had a double heart bypass. But their labours are worth the effort as they encounter some sarcophagi that have lain undisturbed for over 2000 years. The chambers seem entirely untouched by the rigours of time. Much like Sir Ranulph himself.

Feel the dry desert breeze from the Sahara and contemplate 5,000 years of human history in the magical land of the pharaohs. Find out more here

The Outlaws 1/6, Monday 25th October, 9pm, BBC One

The first law of drama is that any external action in any location must, at some point, pass the most famous landmark where it is shot. A film set in London will always show Big Ben. In Liverpool, the Liver Building. In Newcastle, the Tyne Bridge. In Glasgow, Finnieston Crane. In Edinburgh, the Castle. In Manchester, Beetham Tower. In Birmingham? Um… actually, I don’t know what they use in Birmingham. Urban canals and curries don’t make for particularly dramatic tracking shots. I live in Brighton, and if you went on the basis of the dramas set here, you’d think that none of us ever strayed more than 20 yards from the pier. In fact, I’ve not been there for years, on account of my children’s dangerous addiction to the 2p tipping point machines.

So it was a matter of time before this new comedy drama, set in Bristol, drove past the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I timed it at 8 minutes and 37 seconds. Hurrah! Three points for me! Box ticked, I could settle down and enjoy the action.

And I really, really did enjoy it. Which didn’t really come as a surprise, because this new six-part comedy crime thriller is from the pen of Stephen Merchant, co-writer of The Office.

The action begins in a shopping centre. Rani (Rhianne Barreto) a quiet, shy, bookish type, is out shopping with her mother. Her mother tells her she doesn’t need a sparkly, sequinned top (which is rich, considering said mother is played by Nina Wadia, most recently seen making her heavily-sequinned early exit from Strictly). Her mother leaves Rani alone, and you just know what’s going to happen next. Sure enough, she is caught shoplifting (after the de rigeur chase scene with lots of fast music) and when it becomes apparent that this is far from a first offence, she is sentenced to community service.

Clocking in for her first day, she meets the other offenders repaying their debt to society. They are marvellous comic archetypes. John (the always wonderful Darren Boyd) is a right-wing businessman who spends his time either trying to secure a crucial business deal or offending everyone around him with his casual racism. At the other end of the scale is Myrna (Clare Perkins), a leftie militant who almost certainly burned the last of her bras in the 1980s. Christian (Gamba Cole) is a young man from a local estate, trying to distance himself from the wrong crowd, and keep his younger sister out of trouble. Greg is played by Stephen Merchant himself, and is therefore, almost inevitably, a gangling Bristolian weirdo. His opening line, though, is a winner: “Hi there, I’m Greg. I’m 6’7” tall. And no, it’s not in proportion. If it was in proportion, I’d be 8’3”.”

Completing the group is Gabby (Eleanor Tomlinson, Demelza from Poldark) a spoilt little rich celebrity with millions of Instagram followers. Oh, and the small matter of Frank, an American jailbird out on parole, who is played by Christopher Walken. Yes, that Christopher Walken, Oscar-winning star of The Deer Hunter, Annie Hall, True Romance and Pulp Fiction. In charge of the team is Diane (Jess Gunning), a megalomaniac supervisor with a clipboard and a bristling attitude.

The group are tasked with clearing an old building which is to be converted into a community centre. Things start off quietly enough – the most exciting thing about the job seems to be the discovery of a dead badger. But there are hints that something a little more dramatic may be in store for this motley crew of misfits. Christian is being monitored by some ne’er-do-wells (as they almost certainly wouldn’t refer to themselves) who are keen to drag him back into a world he is desperate to escape.

This is a gloriously funny hour of TV. It’s no small skill to marry both comedy and drama, and to ensure that one doesn’t detract from the other, but Merchant and co-writer Elgin James have pitched it perfectly. Married to a brilliant cast (including Dolly Wells and Ian McElhinney) this is enormous fun, not least because I cannot get used to seeing Christoper Walken pottering about on a Bristol housing estate.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 23rd October

The 80s - Music's Greatest Decade? With Dylan Jones 1/4, 8:55pm, BBC Two: The journalist and author believes this much-maligned decade actually produced some of the greatest and most varied and original music in modern history. Featuring interviews with Nile Rodgers, Bananarama, Bobby Gillespie, Mark Ronson, Trevor Horn and Jazzie B.

Sunday 24th October

Escape to the Chateau, 8pm, Channel 4: Series 8 of the charming French sojourn. Dick, Angel, Arthur and Dorothy share more enchanting tales from the Chateau, as they continue the renovation of their 19th-century fairytale home and grounds. Tonight, they must tackle the dreaded roof.

Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giant, 9pm, Channel 4: Ahead of the COP26 climate change summit, the comedian takes on one of the world's most powerful companies - Shell - as he investigates whether its eco-friendly advertising really paints the right picture of a corporation that still drills a huge amount of oil and gas.

Monday 25th October

The Long Call 1/4, 9pm, ITV: New detective drama, showing over four consecutive nights. DI Matthew Venn returns to his native Devon, where he is called upon to investigate a seemingly baffling murder. Events force him back into a religious community that he left many years before.

Tuesday 26th October

Autumnwatch 1/4, 8pm, BBC Two: Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan present the seasonal nature show live from Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk.

Wednesday 27th October

Universe 1/5, 9pm, BBC Two: Professor Brian Cox returns with another spectacular series exploring the cosmos, beginning with the great luminous bodies that bring light, life and warmth to the universe, the stars.

Thursday 28th October

Pompeii: Secrets of the Dead, 9pm, Channel 5: Historian Bethany Hughes pieces together the last 24 hours in the lives of the populations of Pompeii and Herculaneum ahead of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in this feature-length documentary.

Friday 29th October

Mrs Brown’s Boys Live, 9:30pm, BBC One: A live special of Brendan O’Carroll’s popular sitcom. It's Halloween in Finglas and everyone is getting into the spooky spirit of things. Agnes is ready for any trick-or-treaters, but instead receives a surprising visitor from her past.

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