The Syndicate returns with dogs, dodgy haircuts and lottery wins

Five years since it last aired, Kay Mellor drama, The Syndicate, is back. Georgia Humphreys meets the beloved writer, plus two of the show’s stars.

cast of The Syndicate
cast of The Syndicate

You will notice Neil Morrissey looks rather different in The Syndicate. That is because the Stafford-born actor, 58, dyed his hair to play local newsagent Frank, the kind of dude who “wants to be a bit younger”. “Quite frankly, I hate it,” he quips, as he shows off the much darker hairdo (it is September 2020, and he is video calling from the set of the BBC drama).

“Previous to starting the job, I walked down to my local pub, and nobody recognised me,” continues the star, who has appeared in Men Behaving Badly, Good Karma Hospital and Line Of Duty. “I could hear people talking about me when I was within three metres of them, going, ‘He’s coming down and apparently his hair looks really weird so be prepared’ and I went ‘Yeah, I’m actually here!’ My missus said it was quite difficult to get used to, but she’s kind of used to it now.”

The fourth series of The Syndicate – written by Kay Mellor, who previously created dramas Band Of Gold, Fat Friends and In The Club – is a six-part “cat-and-mouse” thriller, set between Yorkshire and Monaco. It follows workers at Woodvale Kennels; Keeley (Katherine Rose Morley), Jake (Kieran Urquhart), Roxy (Taj Atwal), Gemma (Liberty Hobbs) and Colette (Emily Head). When the owners of the kennels announce they are selling the business to a large corporate chain, the staff are devastated to realise they may well be out of a job. Then a possible lifeline comes along, gambling addict Keeley checks the team’s weekly lottery ticket with Frank, and the machine goes off. But, everything is not as it seems, and the big question is, will the winners get what is rightfully theirs?

Neil Morrisey

On the inspiration for this installment of The Syndicate, previous ones have been set in a supermarket, a hospital, and a crumbling stately home, Mellor, 69, shares how she had never had a dog in her life before. But then she got one, and she says it changed her life. “I know that sounds mental but, actually, I love him so much. And I realised – maybe it’s an English thing, I don’t know – but we love dogs. I love watching them on the television, I love my little dog. So, I started thinking, ‘What if they were kennel workers?

The Yorkshirewoman adds that her little dog is called Happy, and he is one of the show’s canine stars. “They have their own characters, each and every dog. We’ve got a dog called Bobby, and we’ve got a dog called Howard – a little dachshund – and then we’ve got a great big Irish Wolfhound. So, we’ve got the little and large, we’ve got all these personalities. I’ve had great fun writing it.”

The shoot was a challenging process for Mellor and her team, though, what with various safety protocols in place because of the Covid-19 pandemic; a reduced crew, regular testing, and the cast having to stay in a bubble. “You only need one person to come in with Covid and it would just kill us. So we have to think ahead all the time.”

But Mellor is incredibly grateful to how her cast – which includes her 49-year-old daughter Gaynor Faye – kept themselves safe. It’s been 15 years since Faye has starred in something Mellor has written (previous credits include Fat Friends and Playing The Field). And when she asked her to play Cheryl, she said no at first, because – according to Mellor – she was worried people would call it nepotism. “I went, ‘I don’t want to go out to somebody else if you will do it. Please will you just read it and see if you like it’, recalls Mellor – who also has another daughter, television producer Yvonne Francas, with husband Anthony “And she did, and she self-taped for me.”

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Faye, best known for playing Judy Mallett in Coronation Street in the Nineties, and Megan Macey in Emmerdale (a role she left in 2019), when asked what it is that makes Kay one of the most successful writers on telly, the Leeds-born actress muses: “I personally think it’s because she’s in touch with people. She listens. She wants to tell stories that people want to hear. She walks around the woodlands on a dog walk, and she talks to everybody. I say, ‘You’re not taking the dog for a walk, you’re taking the dog for a talk’.”

But while you might think that the Covid-19 lockdown would have given Mellor a chance to develop some new ideas, she confides how “unsettled” she has felt in her mind. “You know, it wasn’t a creative time for me at all. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve had time, and I didn’t want to write.”

At least we have The Syndicate; a clever, gripping story that will make you laugh and simultaneously tug on your heartstrings. It also makes you think about what happens to people when they come into a lot of money, something Morrissey has seen in people who become famous overnight in the entertainment industry. “It can change you significantly, not just because you’ve accumulated a large lump sum,” he follows. “You suddenly have the attention of the media and you suddenly become some kind of iconic figure when, a couple of weeks before, you weren’t signing any autographs. It can make a big psychological difference in your demeanour.”

Asked what he would do if he won the lottery, down-to-earth Morrissey’s ideas are simple. “I would make sure my loved ones were all fine, and there was no more debt left in my family, and probably just go and sit somewhere and read a lot more books,” he says. “I haven’t got any major ambitions – I don’t want to go and buy a castle in Tuscany or anything like that. I’m quite happy with what we’ve got already. I would probably try and help people around me. Maybe produce a movie or two…”

The Syndicate starts on BBCs One on Tuesday, March 30.

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