The Syndicate series 3: are the cast’s real-life stories more rags or riches?

The servants win the lottery in the new series of Kay Mellor's hit BBC1 drama - but how do the actors' backgrounds compare with those of their characters?

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The third series of hit BBC drama The Syndicate is set within the confines of a modern day Downton Abbey. But as the Lord and Lady of the manor struggle to make ends meet, and the staff downstairs scoop the lottery jackpot, their two worlds are reversed. Radio Times examined the backgrounds of the key players in the drama to see how well some of their real-life stories matched their on-screen roles…

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Anthony Andrews – plays Lord Hazelwood

He may have made a career out of playing aristocrats – most notably Lord Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited – but Andrews was not to the manor born. He has spoken of his “stony broke” upbringing in north London, after his father, a musical arranger and conductor, died when he was five. “There were not two ha’pennies to rub together,” he told Michael Parkinson on Desert Island Discs in 1987. “Mother performed miracles. I remember being hungry, there being nothing to eat.”

A lifeline came in the form of the Royal Masonic School, an independent school that took on the sons of deceased freemasons. From there, he forged a career on the stage, where he met his wife, Georgina, a wealthy heiress from the Simpsons of Piccadilly department store family. Today he’s a fully fledged member of the establishment and a close friend of Princess Anne, who is godmother to his youngest daughter, Amy-Samantha. He’s described his greatest extravagance as “freshly laundered shirts”.


Alice Krige – plays Lady Hazelwood

She plays the upper-class English lady of the house with ease, but Krige (pronounced Kri-ggah) is in fact South African. Born into a solid upper-middle-class family – her mother was a university professor and her father a doctor – Krige has spoken about her “very happy family” upbringing in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. “I just remember it as being supremely safe and very warm,” she said. “It was a golden childhood. We had a wonderful family house, with an enormous garden.”

Her older brothers followed their father into medicine, and Krige had plans to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a clinical psychologist, but switched to drama after taking a class at Rhodes University. In 1975, she left for London to pursue an acting career, and met her husband, writer/director Paul Schoolman, on the set of Chariots of Fire. She now owns a compact but characterful £1.5 million mews house in north London.


Elizabeth Berrington – plays Dawn, the cleaner

The daughter of an oil worker and a hairdresser, Berrington grew up on Merseyside in what she says was a “very ordinary, working-class” family. She studied drama at the Webber Douglas Academy in London and got her big break in 1993 when she wrote to Mike Leigh and landed a role in his film Naked. She has since become a staple of British TV, in series such as Waterloo Road and Stella.

She recalls that she had to rely on her parents’ financial help when starting out in the acting profession, and had to “take any job going”. She said: “I spent a whole summer dressed as a large, fat man outside London’s Trocadero Centre enticing customers in. I’ve sold ice-cream and worked in bars and restaurants to make ends meet. I never thought of giving it all up, but you reach a point where something starts to die inside.”


Melanie Hill – plays Julie, the cook

The granddaughter of a miner, Hill’s real-life back story isn’t too dissimilar to that of her character. She describes her north-east childhood as a “working-class Geordie”, consisting of studying at Monkwearmouth Comprehensive School and working at a sports shop for £4 a day. “We were brought up in a different way to the way my kids are being brought up, but it was in many ways better, because the community was closer.”

A passionate supporter of Sunderland football club, she could have gone to university but opted instead to head to Rada, after acting in a school play. At Rada she met Sean Bean, whom she married in 1990, and during their seven-year marriage they had two children. Today Hill lives with Jimmy Daly, the writer and producer of one of Bean’s early movies, When Saturday Comes.


Lenny Henry – plays Godfrey, the gardener

Born in the West Midlands in 1958, after his parents had migrated from Jamaica, Henry has spoken of his “very poor” childhood as one of seven children, living “in a house with a hairline crack down the middle and a sewer that burst every summer. We’d be waist deep in our own crap.” Now a leading voice in the campaign for ethnic minority representation in the creative industries, Henry has been reluctant to delve into his family history, telling one interviewer he’s avoided going on Who Do You Think You Are? because “I’ll go, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, four generations – slaves. What else are we going to find out? Nothing else!’”

Before his parents moved to the UK, his mother Winifred had been a subsistence farmer and his father, Winston, a stonemason. “You sort of realise that they were living on part of a plantation and that only a couple of generations back we’d have been slaves. That’s tough to know.”


Meet the rest of the cast…

Sam Phillips – plays Lord Hazelwood’s stepson Spencer

Phillips is the son of Nic Phillips, who has directed episodes of TV series including Brookside, Grange Hill, Casualty and EastEnders.


Daisy Head – plays Amy, the part-time help

Aspiring model Amy, the daughter of cleaner Dawn (below), is played by Daisy Head, who comes from a renowned acting family. Her father, Anthony, was one half of the Gold Blend couple, and her sister Emily starred in The Inbetweeners.


Richard Rankin – plays Sean, the odd-job man

A native of Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire, Rankin couldn’t use his real surname – Harris – when he became an actor. As he says, the name was “taken by another Richard Harris”.


Cara Theobald – plays Sarah the housekeeper

Educated at her local comprehensive, Theobold is the daughter of a dance teacher. Her parents have also taught a form of transcendental meditation from their home in Wakefield.


Kay Mellor – The Writer

Having written for Coronation Street and Brookside, and created TV shows such as Playing the Field, Fat Friends and In the Club, Mellor is known for her authentic portrayals of working-class Britons. She grew up on a Leeds council estate, the daughter of a single mother, and has a wealth of experience upon which to draw. She has recalled a “humble” childhood in which “money was always scant” and, having become pregnant at 16, she “struggled for a long period of my life”. She married the child’s father, Anthony, then an apprentice car mechanic, and 48 years later they’re still together.

She’s stayed true to her northern roots, albeit with the trappings of wealth that her success has brought. Her production company, Rollem, was £1.5m in the black in its latest accounts, and since 2004 she has lived in a large house in the leafy suburbs of Leeds, and holidays in Lake Como, in the Italian Alps.

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The Syndicate is on BBC1 on Tuesdays at 9:00pm