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5 March 2013

The Syndicate: Interviews with Cast (Alison Steadman, Siobhan Finneran, Mark Addy, Jimi Mistry, Natalie Gavin) & Creative

Introducing an entirely new group of lottery winners, The Syndicate returns to BBC One this March for its highly anticipated second series. Read more

Jump to interview:
Alison Steadman, Mark Addy, Natalie Gavin,
Siobhan Finneran, Jimi Mistry, Kay Mellor OBE (Writer & Producer).


Interview with Alison Steadman (Rose)


What was it about this drama that attracted you to the role?

Well I love Kay’s writing. I think she writes very real people and she’s got real heart and I just loved the dilemma of each character. It’s such a great subject to investigate; people who are on the poverty line who are just about keeping their heads above water, winning all this money. It’s fascinating to see how every individual copes with it. We were of course asking each other when we were filming what we would do. Everyone fantasises about what they would do if they won the lottery don’t they...?!

Tell us about Rose and her story…

She’s a very hard-working, honest woman. She’s a widow and has five kids to still take care of; none of them have yet fled the nest. There’s a lot lying underneath this brave woman: loneliness and stress, with the children, work and her health. Amongst all that, she’s got a daughter that wants to go to university and no idea how she can afford to send her and a son who is absolutely useless and going nowhere. Rose is constantly trying to lick him in to shape. There’s a lot of love in the family, but like a lot of big families when one person dies and one individual is left to provide, particularly when they’re poor, it’s very, very hard. The actual reality of her life is extremely hard and I’m sure will hit home to a lot of people.

The suggestion that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ seems to run through the first series – is this the case for Rose and the characters in the new series and what sort of challenges does Rose’s instant wealth bring?

Of course it has its dark sides to it, but it’s a lovely feeling when Rose is able to sort her kids out. She doesn’t just give them a couple of million each and tell them to go off and enjoy it, she sets them all up responsibly with work and a future. They’re not just going to sit swigging champagne; they’re actually going to be working for a living. She’s using the money wisely and it’s great that we have a character that does that. She’s going to be very good at handling the money, someone like Rose.

Did you have a chance to speak to any real life lottery winners in your research?

No I didn’t and I didn’t want to, to be honest. I wanted to play what Kay had written, which was a woman in total shock and I didn’t see any benefit in talking to previous winners as I wanted it to be my take on a woman in Rose’s position. I know that Kay spoke to real life winners in her research but it was my job to play this woman in all honesty and to try and portray what it feels like to have that experience.

Has your involvement with the project made it more likely to encourage or discourage you from playing the lottery? How would you spend your millions if you won?

I played the lottery when it first started for about the first ten weeks. I won about £20 to start with and then of course, the lucky touch ran out and I was busy and didn’t bother with it. It’s so complicated now, there are all different kinds of draws, that it’s kind of flown away from me so I’ve stopped doing it! If I did win, then I would certainly buy myself a place in the countryside, preferably by the sea or a river as I love the country and bird watching. I love living in London and it’s my home but I definitely would love to have a nice big place that my family could all come and stay or use as a weekend retreat. I’d also pick certain charities and definitely give to Green Peace who I’ve supported for 30 years. Without them, the people who care about the planet wouldn’t have a voice. I also support lots of animal charities and Friends of the Earth, Marie Curie etc and I would do my best for charity.

How does the win personally affect Rose? How does her transformation from hospital nurse to multi-millionaire take shape?

I suppose she has some nicer clothes, but we don’t see her in Gucci shoes and bags and all that stuff; I don’t think she’s ever going to go there. She’ll love the idea of having money to buy new things but she’s not the type to totally change and she’ll always be Rose. She will very much keep her feet on the ground. When Alan buys a yacht, she is so shocked! That would be the last thing on Rose’s list to buy...

Do you think that ultimately, Rose’s change in fortune is for the better?

Without a doubt it has to be. She is a sensible woman so handles money well and invests the money in the future for all her children. It’s a wonderful feeling for her, like being able to fly - suddenly to be able to sort her kids out; it’s just a great thing, without going over the top. They will all have to work, but she really puts her wealth to good use to give them a good start.

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Interview with Mark Addy (Alan)


The suggestion that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ seems to run through the first series – is this the case for Alan and the characters in the new series and what sort of challenges does Alan’s instant wealth bring?

Yes, that’s true and it definitely can’t buy you love. Alan’s somebody who has made a series of bad decisions in his life and the fact that he suddenly has money doesn’t stop him from making those decisions. That’s just him, that’s his character and that’s what he does, unfortunately, which brings many challenges!

Alan doesn’t handle his wealth very wisely. What is the reason for his reckless extravagance?

He doesn’t handle it at all wisely. He buys a yacht! It’s a spur-of-the-moment, misplaced romantic gesture which he didn’t really think through. He doesn’t really think anything through! He is quite lonely; he doesn’t really have anyone in his life. He starts to develop a relationship with Rose but there are lots of mixed messages and he gets the wrong end of the stick. He goes looking elsewhere for love, gets a bit lost and ends up buying a yacht!

Do you think that Alan would have fallen off the wagon if he hadn’t won the money?

Yes probably - he’d missed a couple of AA meetings before the win. He’s using the lottery as an excuse to drink and is kidding himself that he can handle a couple of glasses of champagne. Followed by half a bottle of vodka...

Do you play the lottery?

I don’t, as I don’t think the odds are that great! It’s hard to know. It’s nice to have material things but they’re very superficial aren’t they? It would be good to do something worthwhile, buy a theatre and keep that going maybe.

Have you worked with Kay or any of the other cast before?

I had a part in Band Of Gold, years and years ago for Kay and we’ve sort of known each other through mutual friends over the years. She called me when she was writing this and said, “You keep popping into my head with this character.” I was already doing Trollied, but they worked the schedules so that I could do both. I’ve also worked with Jimi before and been in the same show as Siobhan, but not in the same scenes. We’d said 'hello' in the make-up chair but that was about it. Although, I do know her fella from Heartbeat, so it’s great to work with her finally as I’m a big fan.

Most of the characters enjoy a physical transformation as a result of their big win, Alan perhaps most of all. What did the makeover entail?

When we first meet Alan, his style is sort of Eighties retro. Having decided that he’s going to try and get a younger girl, he really goes for it and gets waxed and shaved and dyed! He gets a whole new wardrobe: red trousers, that sort of thing. He makes a bit of a fool of himself... it was fun!

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Interview with Natalie Gavin (Becky)


What was it about this drama that attracted you to the role?

Following Becky’s story was thrilling, and I found it difficult to put the script down. Becky is a dream character - she goes through so many different emotions, she experiences the happiest moments of her life and the lowest. I knew it would be a challenge but one I really wanted to achieve.

The suggestion that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ seems to run through the first series – is this the case for Becky and the characters in the new series and what sort of challenges does Becky’s instant wealth bring?

The phrase ‘money can’t buy happiness’ is certainly not the case at the beginning. Money can help when you’re a single mother, living at home with two hard-working parents all trying to make ends meet. The money situation brings many lows, but also helps Becky discover what she wants in life.

Did you have a chance to speak to any real life lottery winners in your research?

I personally think there was not much more I could have researched in regards to Kay’s writing of the syndicate one and two, and I also believe as an actor it is important to play any situation out as real as possible. Being unaware of what it feels like to win £14 million was crucial when playing Becky, so in this case knowing as little as possible added to the reality. I would strongly believe one is actually fully prepared to win the lottery, even though people are in for the gamble, so I kept that in mind whilst playing Becky.

Has your involvement with the project made it more likely to encourage or discourage you from playing the lottery? How would you spend your millions if you won?

Discouraged, I would not want to encounter the same challenges that Becky does, in all honesty. I think we all say relatively the same thing when we are asked this question. But I definitely would make sure that my family and close friends were more than comfortable financially. I would donate a generous amount to Marie Curie Cancer Care charity that I regularly help fundraise for the Baildon group in Bradford. I would also help Prism Project, a charity of which I am a patron that helps unsettled young adults in and out of education to achieve in their lives, in the Bradford area.

Becky almost jeopardises the whole syndicate’s win with her indiscretions. What does that say about her?

That tells you that Becky is not the most trustworthy person with a winning lottery ticket! She is young and strays away from responsibility. I think this is because she still lives at home; Becky still heavy relies on her mother to look after the important things in her life.

Becky is the youngest winner of the Syndicate and makes some questionable choices - do you think she was too young to handle such a lot of money?

At any age it would be a shock to the system to win £14 million, and there will be many individuals that would spend their new-found wealth carelessly like Becky, but I believe it teaches her a lot of life lessons, which eventually make Becky see things around her in a whole different light.

Do you think that ultimately, Becky's change in fortune is for the better?

I think it was definitely for the better, I believe it made her stronger, and more worldly-wise.

Have you worked with any of the other cast (or Kay Mellor) before?

I appeared in an episode of The Chase that Kay wrote for the BBC in 2006 and I have also worked with Jimi Mistry who plays Tom, on the film The Arbor in 2010.

It must have been quite a buzz to hear that Spielberg was interested in developing the Syndicate into a feature film whilst you were filming?

I couldn’t quite believe it at first, but totally understand why he would want to work with Kay and her concept. It is priceless and seamless, and you cannot get any bigger than Spielberg! All I can say is that I hope he manages to see Syndicate two and enjoys it as much as I enjoyed working on it.

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Interview with Siobhan Finneran (Mandy)


What was it about this drama that attracted you to the role?

What happens next! The way Mandy’s story is told it hopefully will keep the audience wanting to find out what she will do and then ask why has she done that?

Mandy has a fascinating story and of all the characters, it seems that her life could be transformed most because of the lottery win. Tell us a little about her life and situation...

Mandy is a nurse and has been for 25 years she has been with her husband, Steve. Since being a teenager they have a daughter and granddaughter. She loves her job and is a very good nurse; she loves her family and is a good mum/nanna, but she is the victim of physical and mental abuse from her husband, Steve. The lottery win is a chance for her to take control of her life if she is brave enough to do so.

Much of the darkness of the drama is caught up with Mandy’s storylines. There must have been some challenging scenes involved with telling her story?

The challenge with any scene for me is to make it as believable as possible, if your audience don't believe/are questioning something they are not involved and therefore will not go on the journey with the characters. In a scene which shows physical violence it becomes a sort of choreographed dance where the actors are trying to remember their lines/what the stunt person has said and trying very hard not to hurt each other but make it look as if they are!

The suggestion that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ seems to run through the first series – is this the case for Mandy and the characters in the new series and what sort of challenges does Mandy’s instant wealth bring?

Mandy’s win is her chance at freedom from her life as a victim of domestic abuse. Her challenges come as a result of what happens over the couple of days after the win. What could’ve been a very simple 'walk away situation' turns into a complete living nightmare.

Did you have a chance to speak to any real life lottery winners in your research?

No, but my grandma won money on the football pools years ago, but only enough to treat her grandchildren, so I have been around a winner - just not a lottery winner.

Has your involvement with the project made it more likely to encourage or discourage you from playing the lottery? How would you spend your millions if you won?

I have played the Lottery literally three times since it began, so no interest at all. If I did do it and won millions I would take my family off to see the world and buy shoes en route.

How does the win personally affect Mandy? How does her transformation from hospital nurse to multi-millionaire take shape and was this enjoyable to explore as an actor?

We don't get to see Mandy’s transformation from nurse to millionaire in the way we see the other characters with their new houses, flashy cars, designer clothes, even new knees! But we hopefully feel she’ll be able to enjoy these things if she can escape her present situation.

Have you worked with any of the other cast (or Kay Mellor) before?

I worked with Steve Waddington about 20 years ago, so it was great to work with him again, and Mark Addy and I have been on the same job but never actually worked together, so this was a real treat.

It must have been quite a buzz to hear that Spielberg was interested in developing the Syndicate into a feature film whilst you were filming

I didn't know anything about Mr Spielberg - how exciting for them – Kay and Rollem must be delighted.

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Interview with Jimi Mistry (Tom)


What was it about this drama that attracted you to the role?

When I read the scripts I was instantly excited about the possibility of being involved. I hadn't seen the first series but remember the buzz around it when it came out and had heard great things about it. I was keen to work with Kay as well, as I had been a fan of her work so jumped at the chance. Overall though it was all about the writing and the chance to play this wonderful character Tom and work with such a great cast.

How does Tom compare to other characters you have played?

I think Tom has probably been my favourite character to play for a while. He has such a strong emotional journey which is very real and universal, a great lead part. In some ways I can relate to him as a person, he's a very affable guy and likes to wear his heart on his sleeve (to his detriment from time to time, however). He's very much his own person but cares deeply about those around him, a likeable guy. A joy to play.

The suggestion that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ seems to run through the first series – is this the case for Tom and the characters in the new series and what sort of challenges does Tom’s instant wealth bring?

I think in Tom's case he doesn't let the money dictate or change him. If anything, winning the money gives him and Natalie the chance to possibly have a baby, which is so important to them. The win gives Tom hope, he doesn't waste it and initially wants to continue his life as is and even live in the same little house and carry on going to his local and share his good fortune with those closest to him. He soon realises though that even though he doesn't want to change, it’s not the same for his friends. They become very jealous and turn on him. This poses Tom with his biggest challenge. His friends are like his family, and he has to come to terms with the fact that things won't be the same and he may well have to change his life after all. Tom ends up with the big house and the expensive car like most winners but what makes him the happiest is the possibility of the future that lies in front of him.

Did you have a chance to speak to any real life lottery winners in your research?

Unfortunately not but we did have a rehearsal week with Kay before shooting and she had interviewed many winners for her research for the series. This gave us an invaluable insight into how such a win changes your life.

Has your involvement with the project made it more likely to encourage or discourage you from playing the lottery? How would you spend your millions if you won?

Funnily enough I started buying the odd lucky dip throughout shooting, I thought it’s important to believe in your character and was kind of hoping some of Tom's luck might rub off on me. I did win £20 on a scratch card, which is the most I've ever won, so I reckon it worked. My dream if I won the lottery would be to obviously sort my family out first and then secondly buy a big house in the middle of nowhere to roll around in. An Aston Martin wouldn't go amiss either!

Tom seems like a worthy candidate to win the lottery – what’s his story?

Tom is a nurse like the other syndicate members; he leads a content if not remarkable life and likes motorbikes. He lives with his partner Natalie and they have been trying to have a baby for a while without any success, which is causing them concern as it has been a number of years. They have tried IVF through the NHS but have used up their quota. Tom hopes that by winning the lottery they could continue their IVF treatment privately. He treats his friends like his family, as he comes from a slightly dysfunctional background. His mother has mental health problems and his father ran off when he was a child, so he has had to be independent as well as caring for his mum. He is racked with being unable to comprehend why his father walked out on them. He is very much an affable guy and is very likeable. People are genuinely fond of Tom and would like the best for him and Natalie.

How does the win personally affect Tom? How does his transformation from hospital nurse to multi-millionaire take shape and was this enjoyable to explore as an actor?

His transformation is gradual although he does buy himself a rather flash Bentley pretty much straight away, I think most people who win like to immediately treat themselves to something that has previously only been a dream. The clothes get more expensive and in Tom's case he likes he tailored suits and he ends up buying the most amazing house! I think all through this however Tom certainly doesn't 'flash' his cash about and spend it on frivolous things; he has a good head on his shoulders and he does remain in his same job at the hospital, which speaks volumes. As an actor I had a great time, driving a Bentley and wearing expensive suits - who wouldn't?

Do you think that ultimately, Tom’s change in fortune is for the better?

I think so yes. What really makes him happy is the fact that he and Natalie may be able to start a family, and winning the lottery also makes life a lot easier. The money is not the reason why he is happy but plays a part in it overall.

Have you worked with any of the other cast (or Kay Mellor)?

I worked with Natalie Gavin on the film The Arbor and with Mark Addy on It’s A Wonderful Afterlife. I'm glad to be working with such a great cast and of course Kay.

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Interview with Kay Mellor OBE (Writer & Producer)


The first series of the Syndicate was brilliantly received. As well as appeal of the story and characters, do you think that the current economic climate sparked the audience's imagination and contributed to its success?

I think The Syndicate is timely and reflects what’s going on today in the worst recession we’ve known. As more people are being made redundant and cuts continue to wound, ordinary people are struggling and more and more of them are doing the lottery, seeing it as a chance of lifting them out of poverty and debt. It's fascinating for me to explore how winning the lottery is an instant life changing experience. The Syndicate portrays the lower end of the British work force - the people that actually do the work – and it’s those people that I’m interested in. It’s fascinating for me to explore how winning the lottery could change their lives.

In series one, Bob’s miracle cure showed how powerful money can be, though instant wealth seemed to, at best, complicate the lives of the other characters. Can we expect the same message that ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ across the new series?

I don’t think I’m actually conscious that my work is saying something important or giving a message. But I am who I am and I come from a working class background. I live five minutes from where I was born and am still in touch with the people I was brought up with. I’m constantly fascinated by ordinary people. I could people-watch all day and night. People’s lives and how they live them is in itself a drama. I see my job as shaping, heightening and ultimately asking questions that hopefully the audience will think about. The story is everything and there is no story if everybody is happy and it wouldn’t be real anyway. Drama is about conflict. Mixed with humour and pathos it becomes compelling.

The end of the first series left an opportunity to carry on where you left off. Were you tempted to continue the stories for the characters from the first series or were you always keen to develop a new ‘batch’ of winners?

The answer to that is both. I wished that I had a sixth episode on the first series and I regretted asking for only five episodes. At least half an hour of the material ended up on the editing room floor to fit the slot I had been given. I loved Bob, Denise, Leanne, Jamie and Stuart and mourned for them when I had finished writing. But also I knew that I had new stories to tell and needed new characters, and l love Rose, Alan, Mandy, Becky and Tom even more now.

Did you already have the story for the second series up your sleeve before finishing the first and how do you approach writing such a big project?

No, I didn’t have it up my sleeve but when the BBC asked me if I would do a second series I knew that I wanted to look at people that had a vocation in life. When I found out how much nurses actually earn I was staggered and knew that it was going to be a syndicate of hospital workers. Writing The Syndicate is more difficult than writing a more linear series because of its time structure. It’s challenging as each episode has its own specific time structure but it has to coordinate with the other episodes – it’s very tricky. I work with my script editor to map out the whole series before I can start with the first episode. I often get myself tangled in knots that need to be unravelled! But I think its satisfying for the audience. They can decipher which piece of the story jigsaw fits where.

What do you feel is the most interesting part of the journey for your characters as they go through such a life changing experience?

I think adjusting to becoming an overnight multi-millionaire is a fascinating study of basic human behaviour. It’s instantly life-changing, unlike, say, being successful in business, where you become accustomed to having a lot of money - or being born into a wealthy family. This is an instant from rags to riches story and how you handle yourself during and post that transition says a lot about your character.

Other than the research that you’ve done with real life lottery winners, have you had any feedback from anyone who related to the stories of your characters from their own experiences?

The first series received such an amazing amount of feedback, particularly from Bob’s story, which I think resonated with so many people. There seems to be an inordinate amount of people suffering with cancer in one shape or another and they related to the journey Bob and his family found themselves on.

You have another impressive cast bringing your characters to life. Did you have your own ideas about who you could see in various roles before the casting process began?

I’m thrilled with the cast that I have for The Syndicate. I have a very good casting director in David Shaw who knows and understands my characters and makes brilliant suggestions. But sometimes I have a clear picture of who I want to play the part and if I’ve got a name and their telephone number in my phone, I’ll just ring them. I’ve worked with Alison before and know she brings such gravitas and warmth to the ensemble. Mark Addy I’ve watched for years since he played a small part in Band Of Gold, The Full Monty to the US and back again. I’ve approached him on a couple of projects before but this time he wasn’t working. Siobhan I’ve also watched from Rita, Sue and Bob Too to Downton Abbey, and admired her work and longed to work with her. Jimi and Natalie both auditioned for me and completely blew me away. The parts were theirs before they’d left the room!

You’ve mentioned before the importance of drama being made in the north of England. Are the local community excited to see that you’ve chosen to return to film the drama in Leeds and the surrounding areas?

I’d film everything in Leeds if I possibly could - however, it’s not realistic that syndicate winners all come from Leeds. I also have a great love of Bradford since Band Of Gold days; it’s a wonderful, cinematic city with a rich cosmopolitan mix so it was a no-brainer to set the second series there. I love the north of England. It’s where I was born and bred and where I choose to live so that kind of says it all. The people here inspire me.

Finally, rumour has it that Steven Spielberg is interested in making a film based on The Syndicate. What can you tell us about this, what stage are you at and will you be using existing stories or creating new material?

Yes, I got the Steven Spielberg call that we all dream of. I was on the phone for an hour and 20 minutes to him. He told me that he and his wife had watched The Syndicate twice and absolutely loved it and that he wanted to re-make it for a US audience. He invited me over to America but I was in early preparation for this series of The Syndicate UK. They’ve taken episode one of the first series and added two more characters and that forms the basis of the US pilot. It’s not absolutely in the bag yet, it’s a long-winded process with many hoops to jump through, but I’m enjoying learning and working with the US team.

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