There’s a dog in the new series of The Syndicate that’s small, white and fluffy. Caninewise, that’s not my cup of tea at all. Yet I was struck by its tremendous acting. This dog is a genuine talent, packing a huge range of emotions into its tiny face, while displaying considerable comic timing. As I watched the drama, written by Kay Mellor, I wondered how you would train an animal to be so skilful. Well, it turns out it’s Happy, Mellor’s own pet dog.
Happy, a shih tzu, is one of the reasons why Mellor rethought season four of the BBC show. As its name suggests, The Syndicate is about people who win the lottery, with a different group followed in each series. The first was set in a Leeds supermarket, the second in a Bradford hospital, the third in an ailing stately home near Scarborough. And now, thanks in part to Happy, the latest series returns to Leeds, to follow a bunch of kennel-workers.
“I wanted the stakes to be high,” says the 69-year-old writer, speaking via Zoom. “Young people who love animals can really be exploited. These kids do it because they love the dogs. Then they’re paid cash in hand – they don’t know how much they’re getting. How can you manage life if you don’t know that?” What unspools is a wonderful piece of ensemble acting from a mostly unknown young cast, whose actual lives mirror the plot. Part caper, part social realism, part romance, and boasting a lot of wide-eyed wonder, The Syndicate is subtly, exquisitely written TV.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find such talent in the family. Mellor’s daughters – Yvonne Francas and Gaynor Faye – are also big noises in TV, a producer and actor respectively. Mellor had both girls in her teens. In fact, she was just 16 when Yvonne was born (one year younger than her husband Anthony). “It was good and bad,” says the writer, who also directs and acts. “I was young when they were young. But I didn’t know anything. I look at Yvonne sometimes and think it’s a miracle she’s normal.”
This fourth season, which also stars Gaynor and Neil Morrissey as a couple, arrives six years after the third. Why such a long break? “I had one more story,” says Mellor. “I think I mentioned it to Piers.” That’s Piers Wenger, controller of BBC drama. “It was flattering to think he’d remembered – he asked for another Syndicate just as I was about to pitch it. Really, it makes no difference that there’s been a six-year hiatus because each series is self-contained. And the lottery continues – it’s a story of our time.”
This Syndicate was filmed during the pandemic, meaning a lot of fretting and weekly Covid tests for everyone. “I did think, ‘Should we just embrace it? Have everyone in masks?’ Then I thought, ‘I don’t want to watch that. I’m just sick of it. I want somewhere to go to where it’s not there.”’
A gambler’s paradise scene, originally written for Las Vegas, had to be re-fashioned for Monaco. “I think it worked better,” says Mellor. “The character’s out of water. And our syndicate are out of water. Whereas in Las Vegas, if they were wandering around Caesar’s Palace, they’d just look ordinary.” Mellor has a keen eye for the subtlety of class interactions, the constant pressure of the breadline. “I didn’t want to bang people on the head and say, ‘Look at young people gambling, look at homelessness.’ But at the same time, I’ve been given the responsibility of six hours of television. There are things I want to say.”
When Mellor started writing for TV in the 1980s, she had come from fringe theatre, where she’d done everything: acting, storylining, writing, admin. “I was never daunted by anything,” she says of the new world of TV, although she was taken aback by its budgets. “I’d be talking about a character and say, ‘Maybe he’s got a funeral car.’ Then about three days afterwards, I’d say, ‘Maybe it’s an ice cream van.’ And they’d already bought the funeral car! There was just so much money. I learnt very quickly not to come with ideas like that when there are people with money listening.”
She spent some time on Coronation Street, which was a famous proving ground in the 1980s. Sally Wainwright, writer of Happy Valley, was there just after. Its writing room had the reputation of being uncommonly diverse, but Mellor doesn’t quite remember it like that. “I wasn’t the first woman,” she says. That was Adele Rose, who wrote 457 scripts for the show, over 37 years. “But she never turned up – and I don’t blame her. It was a very male-dominated environment, powerful, wealthy men. The only other woman in the room would be a secretary.
“They would go out and get absolutely slaughtered at lunchtime. And bless her, when Adele did come in, I could see that she was frightened to talk. She would hold up a piece of paper and she’d be shaking. Because they would talk over her and shout her down.” Mellor mentions the kind of thing scripts miss when there are only men in the room. “I would forever be saying, ‘But she would have her kids to see to.’ I could see the blank looks.”
From Corrie, she went to Dramarama, which was an adventure-in-a-single-episode ITV series, with supernatural or science fiction themes. It’s extremely memorable if you’re of that vintage. Mellor retained from her theatre days a portfolio attitude of being able to turn her hand to anything, and always had an acting side-hustle. That side of her CV, like her writing and directing, is very rooted in normal things that could happen to real people (well, give or take Jane Eyre, with Samantha Morton as the eponymous heroine and Mellor, who also did the adaptation, playing Mrs Butterworth). It’s a theme she comes back to a lot: that her characters, whether she’s writing them or playing them, “do live in the real world, in my head. That I know people who are living like that. And if you put yourself in an ivory tower, or you don’t mix with people, you can lose sight of people. It’s important to keep your feet on the ground.”
Which brings us to Band of Gold, Mellor’s Bradford-set drama series about sex workers that, radically for the 1990s, focused on them as people rather than victims-in-waiting. There is something very lasting, and universal, about Mellor’s writing: when A Passionate Woman, the play she wrote in the early 90s based on her mother’s experience of having an affair during her unhappy marriage, transferred to the screen two decades later, it hadn’t aged a day.
In 2000, ITV launched Fat Friends, Mellor’s drama series about members of a slimming club in Leeds. It wasn’t just the writing that was sharp: so was her eye for new talent. Two of the unknowns she cast, Ruth Jones and James Corden, went on to become not just significant comic talents but an alchemical double act, co-creating Gavin and Stacey. Mellor raised eyebrows with Fat Friends for taking pains to cast “the real McCoy” – that is, larger actors, rather than just any old performer in a fat suit.
Mellor talks a lot about her love of Leeds, where she has always lived, but I get the feeling it’s a kind of code (not saying Leeds isn’t nice) for the fact that she’s not the kind of person who achieves success and then only wants to mix with people having that kind of success. There’s a strong sense that her creativity is powered by her roots. So when the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to any of us comes along – a pandemic of such scale that if you saw it in a script you’d probably reject it as too much – it didn’t do a lot for Mellor creatively.
“I found it quite difficult in lockdown to be creative,” she says. “My head was full of anxiety and worry. I didn’t create anything for a good chunk of time – and that’s not like me. I love my job. I literally didn’t go near my laptop.” She’s not really interested in the extraordinary – or at least only if she can find it within the ordinary.