Actors sometimes go on as if television dramas are served to us with a side order of beluga caviar by calfskin-slippered footmen. I wonder whether they watch telly at all; like most TV execs I ever talk to, actors are similarly “too busy” to spend time doing what you’d think would be an essential part of their work, even if only to check the competition.
In a recent Radio Times interview, Eddie Marsan, star of Sunday’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, bemoaned the lack of working-class life in dramas because, he seemed to suggest, everything’s written by posh-types.
“Art is the job of the privileged. You can’t write a screenplay if you’ve been doing a zero-hours contract. Which means that the people who write drama… come from a small circle of society. So you’re going to get clichéd writing. You’re not going to have something set on a council estate that explores all elements of human existence.”
Ahem, Eddie, but have you ever seen anything by Jimmy McGovern (The Street)? Paul Abbott (Shameless, No Offence)? Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley)? Have you ever watched Coronation Street or EastEnders?
And what about Kay Mellor, that great chronicler of northern, working-class life? The Syndicate (BBC1), which starts a third series on Tuesday, is a great big working-class pantomime.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Mellor since the terrific Band of Gold, her wrenching portrayal of a clutch of Bradford prostitutes, and the first series of The Syndicate, which I loved. We’ll gloss over series two, which somehow didn’t quite work.
Mellor is great at giving us dramas that bowl along (In the Club, The Chase, Fat Friends, Playing the Field). Yes, they are noisy and frequently frenetic – sometimes too frenetic. Characters talk over each other too much and my heart sank when the first episode opened with that almighty cliché, the chaotic family dashing around before leaving the house for work and school.
But you can’t fail to get caught in the breeze of a Kay Mellor drama; in The Syndicate we accompany a tiny band of below-stairs staff, all members of a lottery syndicate, at an ailing Yorkshire country house.
No one has any money (even the toffs upstairs are impecunious), but in that great big soppy northern way, that doesn’t matter because they have their families and each other. (It’s at this point I realise that I’ve gone soft in my old age, but what the heck, I’m an almost pitiable romantic.)
Mellor shares with Sally Wainwright a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue; her characters talk as you’d expect them to talk, not as a scriptwriter thinks they should talk. There’s a life-affirming undertow, too, even if the comedy bits can get in the way and veer on farce.
There’s the odd worn-out characterisation – the toffs are drawn without subtlety, the lady of the house is a tight-arsed arriviste who’s horrid to the staff, while the patriarch and estate head is a nice old fella who’s kind to his people. And the less said about some cartoon Americans who arrive for some grouse-shooting in the first episode, the better.
I think there’s a real and valued place for dramas like The Syndicate; there are no Big Messages, and watching episodes can be like eating vegetarian food – you’ll feel full initially but an hour later you’ll crave a beef-burger.
Yet as part of a balanced diet, they are nourishing. So go on, Eddie Marsan, find a fork and dig in.
The Syndicate airs on BBC1 on Tuesday nights from 9pm