Kenton Allen, CEO of London-based outfit Big Talk Productions, has plenty to be pleased about. For the next two weeks, the company he has headed for over a decade will be dominating the Monday night primetime slot on BBC One in the U.K. First, at 8:30 p.m., with “The Goes Wrong Show,” and then at 9 p.m. with “The Outlaws,” about a group of small-time convicts completing community service together and which stars Christopher Walken in his first British television role.
“That doesn’t happen every day,” Allen tells Variety. “That’s quite a big thing for us to have an hour and a half of primetime on the nation’s biggest PSB.”
Allen is ostensibly here to talk about “The Outlaws,” which is written by and stars Stephen Merchant (“Jojo Rabbit”) alongside Walken and “Poldark’s” Eleanor Tomlinson, but in a wide-ranging conversation is happy to discuss everything from the U.K. production boom (“There’s never been more opportunity and it’s never been more difficult,” he says citing wage inflation and skills shortages) to a number of U.S. adaptations of some of Big Talk’s best-known shows, including “Friday Night Dinner,” which has received a straight to series order of 10 episodes by a U.S. network, and “Mum,” which is being adapted by actor and writer Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”) with Laurie Metcalfe (“Big Bang Theory”) attached to star, Allen tells Variety exclusively.
But first, how did they convince Walken to move to Bristol for three months to film a TV series for the BBC? (And not just once, but twice, since the first and second seasons of “The Outlaws” were shot back-to-back in Bristol.)
“Stephen Merchant persuaded him,” Allen reveals. Big Talk reached out to Walken’s people in the usual way but it was when Merchant bumped into the U.S. actor at a Los Angeles awards ceremony that he wrangled an invitation to Walken’s Connecticut home where, the story goes, Walken cooked Merchant an omelette and asked what Bristol was like. Merchant clearly did a good job selling the southwestern English city because Walken agreed to take part, signing up to play the role of a draft-dodging U.S. expat.
“Obviously the real reason he did it was because he responded to the writing — Stephen’s brilliant writing and the fantastic character he created for him,” says Allen. “But [Walken] did turn a lot of heads in Bristol walking down the street going to get his Starbucks or Costa coffee.”
The series began shooting in November 2019, just before the pandemic took hold. “It’s been a bit of a mammoth production,” Allen admits. After initially being shut down during COVID’s first wave, the team proceeded to shoot both seasons back-to-back throughout the entire pandemic, with season 2 wrapping only last week.
“The Outlaws,” which is a BBC/Amazon co-production, will debut on Amazon in the U.S. in early 2022 following its current run on BBC One.
Allen is already straight into the next production, however, which begins Monday on Robert Popper’s new show, “I Hate You,” exploring the friendship between two young women and is likely to air next spring on Channel 4. It’s Popper’s first show after the immense success of “Friday Night Dinner,” which ran for six seasons, from 2011 to 2020.
Allen says — categorically — the series will not return following the death of its on-screen patriarch, Paul Ritter, who died in April from a brain tumour. “He was an enormous part of the show. The idea of making any version of ‘Friday Night Dinner’ without him is impossible and too awful to contemplate. So that is it. ‘Friday Night Dinner’ is no more.”
Nonetheless, the U.S. version, which will retain the premise of a Jewish family eating dinner together each week, is going straight to series in the U.S. with an as-yet-unnamed network. Written by Jon Beckerman (“Late Show with David Letterman”) it will be renamed “Dinner with the Parents” and, despite being set in the U.S. with an American cast and an American writing team, will be shot entirely in the U.K. — purely because it’s more cost-effective.
As well as television, Big Talk, which was responsible for cult films including Simon Pegg’s “Shaun of the Dead” and “Attack the Block” (featuring John Boyega in his breakout role), continues to dabble in film, with “two or three” movies in development that Allen says are “passion projects.”
But it is no longer the focus of the business because he is pessimistic about the future of cinema, particularly independent British films. “It’s called ‘show business,’ not ‘show charity’ and we find the film business very, very, very, very challenging,” says Allen.
Does he think there’s any hope of recovery? “No, I don’t,” he says bluntly. “I think it’s bleak. It’s very bleak. I mean, where’s the audience for them, first and foremost? When you’re trying to forecast box office performance and you look at the performance of those British mid-range films and how they have performed, it’s incredibly challenging.”
Television is proving lucrative, he says, but he is still looking for that elusive “genre busting action-comedy” that will translate to the small screen. “We’re yet to find the one-hour television equivalent of something like ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ or ‘Attack the Block,’” he says. “That remains an ambition. I guess my other dream project would be ‘Succession.’ That’s the dream. A British showrunner writing a smash hit American show.”