It’s two years since the last ‘lucky’ set of characters from prolific writer Kay Mellor’s lottery winning drama The Syndicate graced our screens. Succeeding the supermarket and hospital workers from the first two series we’re introduced to another disparate bunch of northerners– the workers and aristocracy at Scarborough stately home Hazelwood Manor. The Syndicate is a relatively unique beast on British drama being the same show and premise played-out by regenerated set of characters and cast each series. At a recent preview screening of last night’s opener Mellor, the writer of some of our most popular series – Fat Friends, Playing the Field, Band of Gold –called the format “a delicious premise,” explaining “spontaneous windfalls and the euphoria, greed, jealously and envy that brings are just ripe for TV drama.” Whilst it’s hard to argue with Mellor’s spiel in theory I’m left unconvinced and underwhelmed based on this opening episode.
The cast are yet another impressive coup; Elizabeth Berrington is believable and likeable as Dawn the cleaner. The superlative Anthony Andrew is on fine pompous form as troubled lord of the manor Lord Hazelwood and in a surprising piece of casting comedian Lenny Henry impresses as gardener Godfrey. And there was Melanie Hill too. I love Hill, and so do you most likely. Name a drama made north of Birmingham and her hearty, genuine performances have probably been a part of it, but her somewhat clichéd, screeching, harangued turn as cook Julie left me reaching for the volume button. As ‘downstairs’ workers at the troubled Hazelwood Manor we’re introduced to the colleagues as they begin to unravel the dire state of the debt-ridden Manor, and are left fearing for their jobs and livelihoods. Berrington’s Dawn and her family, with a so far criminally underused Kieran O’Brien as husband Andy, are the real heart and driving force of the opener, but whilst some exposition and set-up is forgiven we we’re back in to cliché territory before you could say ‘bonus ball’.
Having overslept (cliché #1 – check) Berrington and her family including beautiful wannabe model Amy, played with a real verve and relish by Daisy Head, do the inevitable dash around the house (cliché #2 – check) and then have to contend with the breakdown of their battered car (we’re broke and desperate cliché anyone? ). It’s frustrating fodder because as Andrew said at the screening Mellor writes ‘fully formed characters’, and her skill at writing the everyman in all of her shows is one that would be unfair to overlook.
We quickly realised the extent of Hazelwood Manor’s problems as Lady Hazelwood helicopters in a bunch of American’s with the vein hope they may be able to salvage the Manor from bankruptcy. And oh boy were they American. So, so American. So over-played, brash and clichéd once again that I actually did an audible laugh. However, their presence did provide one of the best scenes from episode one, with a dinner party from hell descending in to chaos with Lord Hazelwood refusing to even consider a US takeover, Amy’s troublemaking boyfriend turning up drunk and the Hazelwood’s villainous son (a deliciously dark Sam Phillips) adding fuel to the fire and brandishing a shotgun at said boyfriend. He’s having an affair with Amy you see. We mustn’t forget that predictable upstairs/downstairs relationship.
So when do they actually scoop the dosh?? The staff have been playing the lottery for years, led by Lenny Henry’s Godfrey. Godfrey is high functioning with Asperger’s and Henry impresses in the multi-layered and complex part. I often find it hard to believe a primarily comedic performer, particularly someone so well know as Henry, in such a role so it’s no mean feat. Thankfully Mellor also handled the lottery win itself with notable subtlety and warmth, like a UK Eurovision entry you know it’s coming, you don’t quite know when and you’re mainly worried about the noise it’ll make. Unlike previous series of the show, this win was underplayed. It set up the new money vs. old money theme this series is obviously going to explore.
It’s an arguable, and somewhat brave, decision to set a drama even partly in a stately home whilst we all still bow in the shadow of the soon to be departed Downton Abbey. Whilst worlds apart as shows my heart still sank upon the realisation, so let’s hope the remainder of the series proves otherwise. With the mysterious disappearance of Amy at the end of the episode the series is obviously going to have some intriguing arcs throughout, and at most it’s a watchable yarn with likeable characters, I am just praying episode two doesn’t see a good cop / bad cop duo turn up to investigate…it’ll be more than my cliché detector could deal with.
Contributed by Craig Heathcote
The Syndicate Continues Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC One.