The Syndicate Review: Onto A Winner

THE SYNDICATE: Tuesday 27th March, BBC1, 9pm

“There was this phrase that kept coming up over and over again. People have been saying “you never know, you might win the lottery next weekâ€?. You know, passing it off lightly but being really worried. I’ve just been hearing that phrase more and more.â€?

This is writer Kay Mellor’s (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.

“We are leaning a lot towards bonnets and period drama, but as long as there is a balance then there’s room for everythingâ€?, is Mellor’s opinion on the place her new series has on BBC1, eschewing the escapism and nostalgia of British television’s 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 people’s lives on a low income, is a reflection of Mellor’s background, as she was brought up in Leeds: “There are a lot of people living like that. That’s not far away from my background; I was brought up on a council estate…I know that’s 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 you’ve 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 doesn’t have a father.

Suddenly, they jointly win £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:

“They all told me how long the euphoria lasts – usually it’s for about six days, not very long. It’s not all a rosy story. There was ‘I wish I had not gone public’, and a lot of them wished that they’d 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 – whether you’re being over-generous or stingy. With more of this series, you’ll 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.