The Syndicate on BBC One – Episode One Review – if you’re in the mood for something that won’t tax the brain cells this may be for you!

by Matt D

As we are in the midst of a recession and shops are closing left, right and centre it seems very relevant that Key Mellor’s latest drama The Syndicate starts with the news that Leeds-based budget supermarket RightBuy has been bought out and the staff are to lose their jobs. However the real story here is that five staff members from the store are about to win big money on the lottery but at the start none of them are aware of it, with one in particular struggling with money issues.

That character is Stuart, played by the incredibly earnest Matthew McNulty, who has been in debt ever since his girlfriend Amy went overboard with her credit card limits and along with their young son ended up at his mother’s house. With a heavily pregnant Amy clashing with Stuart’s mother he must find the money to buy them all a flat or risk losing his family. As a long-term employee of RightBuy he feels that he deserves a raise but of course the closure of the store means that he will have to relocate, or risk being without any money at all.

So after some soul-searching he reluctantly agrees to frame a robbery with his brother and co-worker Jamie, played by Matthew ‘Neville from Harry Potter’ Lewis, posing as a robber who holds him at gunpoint while he empties the tills with the two then sharing the money. The robbery is carried however manager Bob, played by Timothy Spall, returns to retrieve is phone and a panicked Jamie whacks him on the head with a bottle of whisky landing him in intensive care. This incident ironically comes before the announcement of the lottery win and the subsequent decision over whether Stuart should be allowed to have a share of the money, because he has failed to keep up with his payments to syndicate arranger Denise.

The other characters aren’t without their own issues, with Denise herself being the token overweight, unfashionable bespectacled middle aged woman, who owns a lot of dogs and whose husband is evidently playing away with home. Then there’s Joanna Page’s Leanne a single mother, who is struggling to bring up her daughter by herself and also is fairly sketchy when it comes to information about her child’s father. The post-lottery press conference does at least give us some clues to Leanne’s past, as she is fairly sheepish about appearing in the press and she is very nervous about giving away her identity probably as she fears that her former partner may come and find her. Jamie’s motivation for his part in the armed robbery is to fund his drug habit and due to his lack of remorse for Bob’s injury he comes across as the least sympathetic of the bunch. Finally Bob himself is a man who is seemingly very ill from when we first meet him he is complaining that he is too dizzy to drive to work and later on he is seen throwing up in the toilet so I’m guessing the concussion did him the world of good.

Nobody could accuse Kay Mellor of being a subtle screenwriter and indeed her previous endeavours, Playing the Field and Fat Friends, were crowd-pleasing favourites rather than incredibly original dramas. After several unsuccessful more adult dramas, such as Between the Sheets and Strictly Confidential, The Syndicate sees her repeat her winning formula following a group of characters linked by one common bond which is in the case the lottery-win. Timothy Spall is obviously the star of the show and the handful of scenes he does feature in are some of The Syndicate’s best however these are few and far between, with a lot of this first episode relying on Matthew McNulty to take the lead. I for one thought McNulty was good in this episode, although I have to admit that I didn’t warm to him initially, but when he gave a rousing speech about his commitment to the store, I changed my mind about him. His girlfriend Amy also wasn’t the sympathetic character she was originally painted, as later scenes seeing her buying up plenty of baby goods, which made you realise how the couple got into debt in the first place. Both Joanna Page and Lorraine Bruce have little to do as Leanne and Denise respectively, however I feel that we’ll get to know more about them as the weeks go on.

The script itself isn’t exactly original with the characters at times feeling fairly one-dimensional: the ailing loveable boss, the single mother, the one struggling with debt, the druggie and the fat one and a script that at some times stretches credibility. When compared to something like Scott & Bailey the dialogue just doesn’t feel realistic and I just don’t buy the fact that the brothers would resort to robbing the shop to begin with. To its credit though I don’t think Mellor really set out to make a realistic drama instead trying to make something that appealed to a mass audience and to that extent I think she succeeded. I certainly sat down with the intention of watching this in two parts but it was so easy to watch and uncomplicated that I finished it in one sitting, so if you’re in the mood for something that won’t tax the brain cells The Syndicate may be for you. I feel that the programme will become stronger when we learn more about each individual character and overall this is a drama that while not original in the slightest will certainly attract a mass audience who want to watch something fairly light after a hard day at work which maybe make themselves dream that one day they too could win the lottery.

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