Kay Mellor on the inspiration behind Fat Friends, body image and getting advice from Andrew Lloyd Webber

It was while driving through the centre of Leeds more than two decades ago that Kay Mellor saw something which led to her writing one of her biggest TV hits.

“It was where the Town and Country Club used to be and there was a queue of people outside waiting to get in. It was winter and there was this curvy young woman wearing a lilac Lycra dress,” she recalls. “It was freezing cold and there she was with this strappy dress and hair cascading down her back, and I remember thinking she looked like someone from a Beryl Cook painting. And she was so happy with herself chatting away with people and holding court.

“Everybody was looking at her and even though I couldn’t hear what she was saying, I could tell she was spreading sunshine and making people laugh. And I remember thinking ‘God, she’s so happy with who she is’ and I wanted to take that image and share it with everybody and so I did.”

This was one of the inspirations behind Mellor’s ITV drama Fat Friends. “I was compelled to write the series because everybody I spoke to was either on a diet, going to go on a diet or not happy with how they looked, be it too thin or too fat. And I thought ‘why can’t you be happy with how you are?’”

Kay Mellor admits it was a daunting challenge to write a musical. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

It’s more than 20 years since Fat Friends first aired on TV and four years since Fat Friends The Musical, with music by Nick Lloyd Webber, made a triumphant debut in Leeds, and it returns to the Grand Theatre in February with a new cast that includes Lee Mead, Sherrie Hewson and Les Dennis.

The musical came about after the series had finished. “I’d done four series of it for TV and they wanted me to keep writing it for television but I felt like I’d done it and I felt it had come to a natural end,” says Mellor.

However, the show’s producer asked if she was interested in writing a musical about a boy band. “I thought about it because I liked the idea of writing a musical and because I’d sat in auditoriums watching some fabulous musicals like Hairspray, Blood Brothers and West Side Story and stuff like that. And I realised how much you can reach an audience and how powerful music can be. Ultimately, I didn’t want to write that story but I was interested in writing another story, so I thought about writing about something to do with weight, who we are and body image.

“At the same time Little Mix [the pop group] had been born and I remember Jesy Nelson getting so much flak for daring not to conform and be as thin as the others and I remember thinking ‘what must that be like for her?’ And we all know now what that must have been like because the poor girl has suffered terribly. But that also inspired me to start writing it, about what it must be like when you’re just not deemed to be perfect. So I felt I had something important to say but I didn’t want to say it in a table-thumping way, I wanted to say it in an entertaining way.”

Fat Friends The Musical cast members in the new production. (Michael Wharley).

Mellor is a Bafta Award-winning scriptwriter whose TV credits include Band of Gold, In the Club and The Syndicate, but writing a stage musical was another challenge altogether.

“I didn’t understand musical language for a start. When someone asked ‘where’s the bridge?’ or ‘where’s the middle eight?’ I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about,” she says. “I wasn’t brought up in a musical family or anything like that, and then meeting Nick Lloyd Webber and all these impresarios taught me a heck of a lot. I began to understand how a song is constructed. It was a whole learning curve for me.”

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However, to begin with she doubted whether she could pull it off. “People started saying to me ‘what are you doing, Kay?’ That’s when I started to think ‘what am I doing? You know about television, you know about theatre, but you don’t know about musicals.’ At one point, I got a bit frightened and thought I’d bitten off more than I can chew.”

But then she received praise from someone who knows a good musical when he sees one. “Andrew Lloyd Webber came in secretly and watched it and got me to one side and said ‘well, clearly you’ve got a musical here’ and he told me what I needed to do. So things like that gave me more confidence. I didn’t understand musical grammar and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing because I wrote innocently what I thought was a musical. And when I look at it now I got there by default.”

Even so, she admits she was a little apprehensive on the opening night. “We opened in Leeds, my home town, and people here will tell you like it is so I was a bit worried but that first night blew me away, to be honest. The response was so wonderful. I could almost touch the warmth from the audience to the actors. But until then it was a complete unknown.”

Mellor says she has written some new songs for the latest production. “I’ve honed it a bit and that’s the beauty of theatre which you can’t do in telly. With television, you write the script and you put it on and it’s gone. With theatre, it’s live and you can change it, you can edit scenes or add a new song or dance routine.”

The message at the heart of the story is about being happy in your own skin which, given the continuing focus on issues surrounding body image, makes it arguably even more relevant today. “If you look at someone like Adele and people commenting on her weight. Why are people obsessed with her weight? She’s got an amazing voice, she’s got fantastically entertaining and heartfelt songs. What difference does it make whether she’s lost weight or put weight on? Who cares?”

It’s something Mellor is passionate about. “These are sad times that we’re living in and they seem to be getting worse, not better. I’d like to write a song about that. I’m working on it at the moment. Whether or not it’s ready for the tour, I don’t know.”

The devastating impact of the pandemic on the entertainment industry has been well documented and I spoke to Mellor before the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Prior to this, audiences had once again been enjoying the unique, life-affirming experience of watching live performances.

For Mellor, and countless others, it is one of life’s joys. “Theatres are desperate to put on a show and to have that relationship with their audience and to start to get audiences back in. We need shows that make us feel good, we need some celebratory shows.”

Fat Friends The Musical runs at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, from January 31 to February 5, and Leeds Grand Theatre, from February 22 to March 5. www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk and www.leedsheritagetheatres.com