A forthright, quirky, London-based sitcom, filmed by a crew of just seven and funded by the writer’s own savings, has been bought by Netflix and is to be screened from the beginning of November, streamed alongside international shows made for 10 times the budget.
The show, Hapless, stars Tim Downie, an actor already known for roles in the television drama Outlander and the BBC Two comedy Upstart Crow, and follows the investigations and misadventures of a reporter on a small Jewish newspaper.
The six-part show, written, directed and financed by Gary Sinyor, also stars the BBC Radio 4 comedian Josh Howie and comic actor Lucy Montgomery. It became a word-of-mouth success when it was shown briefly on Amazon Prime under the name The Jewish Enquirer. Now, with the backing of Netflix, that old axiom about the most specifically rooted stories finding a universal audience is to be tested once again.
“It is the most extraordinary leap for the show, not just in terms of our finances, but also in terms of public perception,” said Sinyor, 59, who is now writing series two and preparing more outrageous plot lines for series three. “I felt very low for a time after making these six episodes, which we had all believed in so much. I kept looking at my bank account and wondering what I could do. Luckily my wife, Leesa, has a good job, and that has kept us going.”
With an uncompromising script that was described by wary television executives as rather like a British version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sinyor’s show was originally turned down by several British broadcast networks. It may, in fact, have been held back by these early comparisons with Larry David’s hit American show, according to Sinyor: “I think a British take on that sense of humour is very different. Our anti-hero, Paul Green, is far from either famous or rich, unlike Larry David.”
The cast of Hapless have been delighted by the news, said Sinyor. “Tim, who plays Paul and is also an executive producer, went through the roof with happiness.”
Sinyor changed the name of the show to Hapless on the advice of Viacom CBS executive Ben Frow, who also wanted to screen the first series.
The writer has witnessed the sudden success of an unlikely project before. Back in the early 1990s, Sinyor and a group of actors and fellow film-makers worked for free, fuelled mainly by hope, on a small-scale British comedy feature about a young Jewish man who discovers he is really the son of a Yorkshire livestock breeder. Leon the Pig Farmer, starring Mark Frankel, Brian Glover and Janet Suzman, and co-written and co-directed by Sinyor, went on to make headlines. It eventually earned a place as an admired oddity among critics and cinema audiences, sparking renewed interest in British films.
“This is like Leon all over again. None of us had any money back then. We all did it for no money and eventually had enough success to justify it all. All my career has been like that. I have begged the film industry to take me in and make me an insider, but the outside seems to be where I end up. Maybe that is the best place for me.”