18th Century Highwaymen Are Having a TV Moment SuperNayr

We’re well into the 21st century, but two new shows — Apple TV+’s “The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin” and Disney+’s “Renegade Nell” — are centered on highwaymen cavorting around 18th century England.

Both series are also surprisingly family-friendly fare — a counterpoint to grim, “mature audiences only” content you might expect from projects centered on historically horrible characters who maimed, robbed, and murdered for a living. Noel Fielding (“The Mighty Boosh”), who executive produces and stars as the titular Turpin, said during the Television Critics Association Winter Tour this February that 10-year-olds could and should watch his show with their parents. Ben Taylor, director and executive producer on “Renegade Nell,” said something similar during the same tour, explaining that the creative team was going for a “hard-ish 12 rating” suitable for a Disney-branded production. (The age-inclusive audience is especially unexpected for “Renegade Nell,” a show helmed by “Derry Girls” and “Happy Valley” creator Sally Wainwright. Wainwright’s past works are brilliant, but if you’ve seen them you know they’re not necessarily TV you’d watch with the tween in your life.)

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While both shows are suitable for kids of a certain age, the tone of the two series differs — “Dick Turpin” is a Monty Python-esque comedy inspired by “The Princess Bride,” while “Renegade Nell” is a fantasy-infused action-adventure tale. The highwaymen at the center of both, however, don’t quite fit into the world they find themselves in. Nell, played by “Derry Girls” actor Louisa Harland, dresses in men’s clothes and isn’t afraid to dress down — verbally and physically — the men who try to intimidate her. And Fielding’s Dick Turpin is a vegan son of a butcher who finds himself the leader of a group of murderous outlaws.

“We’ve reimagined [Dick Turpin] as an inclusive sort of pacifist,” Fielding said at TCA about his character, a dandified, very silly version of a real-life historical figure well-known in the U.K., who Fielding acknowledged was probably a “nasty murdering criminal.” Creating a Turpin with gorgeous hair, a panache for knitting, and a love of designing outfits for his friends, however, is the core of the show’s comedy: he’s a fish out of water who — through kindness, inclusivity, and always seeing the best in everyone (including hardened criminals) — is miraculously able to breathe air.

‘Dick Turpin’

Harland’s Nell, according to the actor, isn’t based on a historical figure but a character who has lived inside Wainwright’s head for 15 years. “She’s a woman.  She’s a man.  She’s everything. She’s a shapeshifter of some sort,” she said at TCA. That gender fluidity is explicitly touched on during the series, with characters delivering lines like, “Your highwayman is a woman!” to hammer the point home.

Dick and Nell’s differences from those around them strengthen rather than hinder them. And both series use the trope of 18th-century highwaymen — individuals who work outside of society’s norms and expectations — to subversively celebrate those who are “unnatural” at a time when stories (books and otherwise) centered on underrepresented groups are facing absurd, harmful retribution.

“The Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin” does this by doubling down on silliness and optimism. Yes, Fielding’s character almost gets hanged in the first episode, but he goes to the gallows with a twinkle in his eye, secure in his gang’s loyalty (and, even more daring, their competency) to rescue him.

“Renegade Nell” runs darker than “Dick Turpin.” The show is full of comedic moments and fun action scenes, but the grimmer side of life comes to bear. Nell, for example, starts the series coming home to her father and younger sisters after her husband, who she was traveling and fighting alongside, died in battle. Tragedy soon strikes her family again, this time at the hands of those in the aristocratic upper class, and Nell gets framed and unfairly branded as the most notorious outlaw in England. 

But Nell is not without power. At crucial moments, she becomes magically imbued with superstrength and impervious to harm, able to bend iron bars while bullets bounce off her. Those abilities, bequeathed to her by the fairy Billy Blind (Nick Mohammad), only come about when what she’s doing is something that Billy deems is for a higher purpose (or when Nell is about to die). The two are still sorting it out, but it becomes clear that at least part of that purpose is class warfare, bringing down the Lords and Ladies who keep their foot on the necks of those who have next to nothing. Through Billy, Nell defends and avenges those who have no power, an 18th-century superhero.

“The Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin” also takes a jab at aristocracy. The head of the crime syndicate in England is from the upper echelons of society, and Dick’s main nemesis, the local lawman Jonathan Wilde (Hugh Bonneville), tries to keep his district in order by making sure he’s the only one who steals within its borders.

In both shows, highwaymen upend the established injustices of their time and provide us with entertaining viewing. In the case of “Dick Turpin,” executive producer Kenton Allen explained at TCA why he thought the show’s silly and optimistic premise is something we might crave right now. “In this time of life, which is quite dark and troubling, [let’s] give an audience somewhere to escape,” he said, “to where you’d sit there with your kids and have a great big adventure every episode, and laugh really hard, and see some mad things that you don’t often see in half-hour comedies these days and just have a proper escapist fun.”

“Renegade Nell,” full of magic and adventure, is also escapist, albeit not as intentionally absurd as “Dick Turpin.” Families watching both shows, however, will be entertained by these two highwaymen as they buck the expectations and challenges of their time by being true to themselves and embracing their “unnatural” aspects in all their glory. Nell and Dick don’t fit into the constricts of their time, and so they make their own space and find those who appreciate them as they are. We can only hope to find the same ourselves, no matter what our age.

“The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin” is now streaming on Apple TV+. “Renegade Nell” premieres on Disney+ on March 29, 2024.

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