âThere was this phrase that kept coming up over and over again. People have been saying âyou never know, you might win the lottery next weekâ?. You know, passing it off lightly but being really worried. Iâve just been hearing that phrase more and more.â?
This is writer Kay Mellorâs (creator of Fat Friends) reason for writing The Syndicate, a five-part drama set harshly in 2012, which follows the lives of five supermarket employees in Leeds, all strapped for cash, whose lives are transformed after they jointly win the lottery.
âWe are leaning a lot towards bonnets and period drama, but as long as there is a balance then there’s room for everythingâ?, is Mellorâs opinion on the place her new series has on BBC1, eschewing the escapism and nostalgia of British televisionâs recent influx of period drama, firmly based in uncomfortable present-day austerity.
Most of the filming flits between Leeds estates, bleak streets, and a real cut-price supermarket where all the main characters work. So real, in fact, that upon returning to the shop after filming, Joanna Page (of Gavin & Stacey fame) went to grab a packet of Frazzles without paying, forgetting that it was a functioning supermarket rather than a television set anymore.
This realism, both of the setting and hardship of peopleâs lives on a low income, is a reflection of Mellorâs background, as she was brought up in Leeds: âThere are a lot of people living like that. Thatâs not far away from my background; I was brought up on a council estateâ¦I know thatâs how it is.â?
In the first episode, the fictional Right Buy U budget supermarket is about to spiral into administration, threatening the jobs of its five staff. Each staff member is intimately introduced to us with their own personal misfortunes, and the rapport amongst such a miscellaneous assortment of individuals is captivating.
Timothy Spall gives a masterful performance as the jaded Bob, the store manager who appears to be having problems with his health; Denise (Lorraine Bruce), shy and earnest, is seen as startled by her callously non-committal husband; brothers Stuart (Matthew McNaulty) and Jamie (Matthew Lewis, or Neville Longbottom as youâve never seen him before) commit a rash, ultimately disastrous act to get hold of some money, and the mysterious Leanne (Joanna Page) avoids explaining why her daughter doesnât have a father.
Suddenly, they jointly win Â£18 million in the lottery, and their lives are transformed, but not necessarily for the better. Mellor spoke to many real-life fortune winners whilst researching the programme, and discovered that the results of such a win are far from always positive:
âThey all told me how long the euphoria lasts â usually itâs for about six days, not very long. Itâs not all a rosy story. There was âI wish I had not gone publicâ, and a lot of them wished that theyâd just paid off their mortgage and given the rest away.
The most common problems were factions within the family, not knowing how much to give â whether youâre being over-generous or stingy. With more of this series, youâll see what I do really feel about the Lottery.â?
A fascinating and sensitively researched piece, with strong acting from each of the protagonists, the quality of the first episode hints at good things to come, but not necessarily for the members of this fated syndicate.