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The Syndicate review: Serious subjects glossed over with gentle soapy melodrama

In this BBC lottery drama starring Neil Morrissey, the characters lurch from crisis to crisis without pausing to let us believe in them

Ed Cumming
Tuesday 30 March 2021 22:00 BST
The Syndicate: Series 4 trailer

Kay Mellor’s lottery drama The Syndicate is back for a fourth series, five years after the third. Why the long wait? We’re left to wonder. Each series is self-contained, telling the story of a different group of winners, so it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen any before. They’ve all had a different guest star, too: Timothy Spall, Alison Steadman and Lenny Henry. This time it’s Neil Morrissey. But there’s no obvious explanation as to why the show has been reanimated now. Haven’t we had enough bad news? 

Then there’s the question of classification. The Syndicate often has the gentle tone and low-budget feel of a comedy, which can jar with its subject matter. This time around it focuses on a group of five young people who work at a Yorkshire kennels. Each character is cursed with a least one difficult problem. Keeley (Katherine Rose Morley, ostensibly the lead) has been selling her mum’s stuff to pay for her addiction to phone roulette. It hasn’t been enough to keep the bailiffs at bay. She comes downstairs on her birthday to find a payday loan goon banging at the door.

Meanwhile, her friend Jake (Kieran Urquhart), temporarily homeless, has been sleeping at the salon. She can smell the BO gathering on him. Gemma (Liberty Hobbs) lives in fear of her dad being let out of prison. Roxy (Taj Atwal) is pregnant by waster musician boyfriend Sam (Joe Sugg). Colette (Emily Head) doesn’t have any friends.

None of these problems has much to do with money. All the same, money helps, so the pals live in a perpetual cycle of scratchcards, lottery tickets, and daydreams about having more dough. Thanks to a jaunty opening sequence, we know they end up in Monaco, all smiles and selfies, so this first episode is spent showing us how.

Keeley takes the week’s ticket to check at the newsagent, where the lottery machine starts cheering and Frank (Neil Morrissey) informs her that she’s won £500. She takes the cash from him without bothering to confirm the numbers or to check that he’s not lying and they have in fact hit the jackpot. This oversight lets the plot crank into gear. Frank collects the winnings, fakes his own suicide – citing his dog dying – and hightails it. Seemingly at no point does he stop to consider whether the lottery authorities, the cops, or his fiancee Sheryl (Gaynor Faye) might be suspicious of him collecting £27m and topping himself over a pet.

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It’s not completely unlikeable. You can just about see why it’s endured for a fourth series. Morrissey makes for an entertaining everyman villain. But like the rest of the cast he isn’t given much more than a sketch to work with. Essentially, this is a programme for adults, airing at 9pm on BBC One, but it feels like a young-adult or even a children’s drama. Partly that’s down to the age of this series’ stars. It’s also because it takes serious subjects, and a vague state-of-the-nation moral, and glosses over them with gentle soapy melodrama. The characters lurch from crisis to crisis without pausing to let us believe in them.

After this first episode, we’re no nearer knowing what The Syndicate wants to be, or why we would take a punt on the remaining episodes when there are so many surer bets out there. 

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