Returning to BBC One for a third season is In the Club creator Kay Mellor’s wonderful comedy-drama, The Syndicate.
However, where previous seasons have focused on how a collective lottery win has affected the lives of a supermarket staff and colleagues in a hospital, this time round it’s a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs setup, as the staff of a crumbling stately home suddenly become richer than those who own it.
“Do you think we really could have won the lottery?” asks one of the characters.
“Stuff like this don’t happen to the likes of us,” he replies.
Echoing the sentiment of many a ticket buyer – who despite everything, still understand the odds are stacked against them – Mellor’s wonderful characterisation is evident from the opening titles and displays her usual style of accessible, working class humour throughout.
That she also directs the episode helps her in creating a visually-beautiful opener, painting a vivid picture of the everyday. It’s one that deliberately goes from a breezy open brightness (making use of the beautiful Yorkshire scenery) and tightens into a darker, more claustrophobic feel as the drama unfolds at Hazelwood Manor.
The all-new cast are just as strong as the writing. Elizabeth Berrington is heartwarmingly real as the put-upon Dawn, trying to cope with the demands of her job and her family (including her eldest teen daughter Amy, played by Daisy Head) and the pressures of a ‘late in life’ baby. The ever excellent Melanie Hill (Waterloo Road, Cilla) is a trademark Mellor creation, all sharp tongue and short temper, brought to further life by Hill’s phenomenally natural talent.
The surprise of the cast is actually comedian Lenny Henryas Hazelwood Manor’s gardener, Godfrey, who has Asperger’s syndrome and is instrumental in the group’s lottery win. Despite his comedy roots, Henry plays the high functioning Godfrey with plenty of sympathy, confusion and, at one point, a little bit of menace, ensuring that the character and situation has heart and is not just played for lazy laughs.
Leaving the actual reveal of the win until about ten minutes before the episode’s end means greater emphasis on establishing the characters. Dawn and her family are explored in great detail, with particular focus on her relationship with tearaway daughter Amy. Amy deals with her diabetes, an on/ off fling with Lord of the Manor’s son Spencer (Sam Phillips) and a drunken ex, who crashes Lady Hazelwood’s dinner party, forcing further chaos to ensue.
The Hazelwood family also provide some drama of their own above staff quarters. Alice Krige is brilliant as the tightly wound Lady Hazelwood, desperate to impress her American friends and hide the families building debts. Anthony Andrews is also strong but understated as Lord Hazelwood, masking his ill health after a recent stroke while trying to keep a hold of his family.
He also has a soft spot for his staff, in particular chef Julie (“We’re very lucky to have Julie. She’s been with us 35 years…we couldn’t possibly do without her.”) It’s implied very subtly that there is history there and, with no mention of Julie’s husband or a father to her daughter Sarah (Cara Theobold), it would not surprise us if Lord Hazelwood was romantically linked to Julie at one point and possibly Sarah’s dad.
The episode ends on a strong but dark note. Despite the joy over the syndicate win, Amy’s apparent disappearance puts a twist on the hour’s generally much lighter tone. Did Godfrey, the last person to see Amy (who has displayed unrequited feelings for her throughout) act on aggressive impulse? Did her drunken ex Eddie catch up with her on the grounds of the Manor after turning up earlier? It would be a bold move to kill off the character, though tears and laughter are once again a Kay Mellor trademark – time will tell.
With the staff now richer than their employers, this season of The Syndicate has a freshness about it and I can’t wait to see how the struggles between old money and new money affect the relationships of everyone at Hazelwood Manor.
Aired at 9pm on Tuesday 2 June 2015 on BBC One.
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