Life on the streets is still as dangerous as ever

DRIVING through Bradford one night nearly 20 years ago, Kay Mellor and her husband took a short-cut up Lumb Lane, the city's red light area. As they slowed down at a junction, a sex worker approached the car and bent her face down to the driver's window. That face still haunts Kay today.

"We saw her for only a moment then drove on", says the screen and stage writer, who's from Leeds. "What shocked me was that she was all of about 15, and her face still had that early teen chubbiness. She was somebody's daughter, somebody's sister probably... and there she was on the street, putting herself in all sorts of danger."

Mellor went back later to find the girl and offer her some kind of help, only to be told her name was Tracey and she'd moved to Birmingham because of "pimp problems". She went searching for the girl in Birmingham, and was told she'd moved to Sheffield. Inquiries in Sheffield were fruitless. "She could now be in the abyss," says Kay. "Who knows what might have happened to her, because some of these girls and women just disappear".

This brief encounter with the unknown Tracey was what prompted Kay Mellor to write about sex workers and their lives in three series of the TV drama Band of Gold, which attracted huge audiences for ITV between 1995 and 1997.

Mellor carried out extensive research among sex workers in Bradford, among them the woman who was the basis for the feisty "Carol", played by Cathy Tyson in the television drama.

Kay spoke to many prostitutes about their lives and their reasons for turning to the streets for money. Back then a lot of the women she met were doing it to pay bills, deal with debt and feed their children, although drugs were also a factor for some. In the first episode of the series the character Gina – a housewife who was turning tricks to pay debts – was killed by a loan shark. The episodes played out in Band of Gold were very much based on the stories "Carol" and others in Bradford had told.

"They generally gave me their time for nothing, apart from the odd one I managed to take for a curry or persuade to take some cash, but what most of them said was '...just tell it like it is, Kay. Show that we are just people'. That gave me a huge sense of responsibility, but when the series was screened, I was extremely relieved to find out that they liked it and said it was realistic."

There were those among the community of Bradford who were not so enamoured of Mellor's portrayal of the city's sex worker problem. "I was told by some that I was lucky I'd 'got away without a fatwa'."

At the press launch for the series, she had two of the prostitutes who'd helped with her research sitting beside her. They were beautifully groomed and impeccably behaved, and not one of the journalists there suspected who they were until one of them, "Carol", chose to put herself forward for questioning. Early reviews were mixed, Mellor took a fair amount of flak for allegedly "glorifying" prostitution, and she remembers one letter from a female viewer who said she'd needed to "scrub myself in the bath" after merely reading a review of the programme. Mellor was bemused to find herself, on the strength of the series, suddenly regarded as an expert on prostitution, but resisted commenting on the indiscretions of actors and others in the news.

For a time Band of Gold stirred up a great deal of talk about what was to be done about prostitution, spawning conferences and other talking shops. Recognition and discussion of the problems of pimps preying on young girls near school gates and grooming of young women in general, and an agenda of greater vigilance seemed to be some of the other positive benefits of the series.

Back then, although business carried on as usual, the exploits of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe had not been forgotten and sex workers were quick to point out to Mellor how, in their view, the killer had not been taken completely seriously until he'd killed a woman who was not a prostitute.

"It's as though being a sex worker dehumanises you; you're not worth as much as someone else because you work on the street. But the women who made Band of Gold so true to life by helping me with the research were women first, and sex workers second."

Recently Kay Mellor went back to Bradford to find out what, if anything, had changed for the city's sex workers. She has made a documentary film about her findings for the BBC's regional series Inside Out, and in summary there's little here to cheer the soul. Sarah, who's 32, tells the writer that she wants to get out of prostitution ("I'll do cleaning, anything..") but her criminal record means she finds it impossible to get a job. Chillingly, she tells of an terrifying episode in which she was picked up and taken to a flat by four men who kept her locked up for sex before releasing her four days later.

"It's the oldest profession in the world and also one of the most dangerous," says Mellor. "As with the killings perpetrated by the Yorkshire Ripper, with each of the horrific murders of three Bradford prostitutes by Stephen Griffiths the self-styled Crossbow Cannibal, the working girls of Bradford only stayed at home for one night before they returned to the street the following evening."

She found that the prevalence of mobile phones, circulation of lists of "dodgy punters" and the advice for sex workers more freely available these days help to reduce some of the risks, but other aspects of working on the street are as dangerous as ever.

"Although I didn't see any very young girls when I went back this time, there are by all accounts a lot more women who are dependent on drugs now, and they are controlled by their pimp, who takes the money and supplies them with heroin.

"Young women who start working on the street are just as vulnerable as they were, because they are not yet part of the scene and don't know who the dodgy punters are. Stephen Griffiths was well known in Bradford for being a weirdo, but someone else who behaves oddly like him might deliberately prey on a woman who is new on the street."

Some sex workers told Mellor they felt trapped, seeing no way out of the cycle of dependence that keeps them tied to the men who supply the drugs they need to do the job. The issue of creating licensed brothels to take prostitution off the streets has been talked about for a couple of decades but not acted upon, and Mellor thinks it's now time for serious measures, before another Ripper or Crossbow Cannibal emerges from the shadows.

"This is not just about Bradford. Prostitution is rife in all big towns and cities, but when you suggest a radical plan that would at least make the business safer, some people in authority say 'you're right, it makes perfect sense' then go back to burying their head in the sand. They'd like it to just go away by itself, and they'd certainly like to be able to forget it. I'd like to see Bradford taking a lead and putting some money into doing something about it." Mellor doesn't feel she is unduly stigmatising Bradford by returning after all these years and publicising the situation of sex workers once again. "Everyone knows there's a problem up and down the land, not just in Bradford. But in a relatively poor place like this it is more rife."

One ray of light in Mellor's film is shed by "Carol". She did, some years ago, manage to escape from prostitution. Now, as she watches old episodes of the TV drama, she says: "I can't believe that was the life I used to live."

"Carol" has been lucky. Many others have not been so fortunate, and they can't afford to remind themselves too often of the risks, either from an ordinary punter's casual violence, a man who's on a murderous mission, or the pimp who keeps them under his thumb by means of narcotics.

"I found the experience of going back very depressing because so little had changed. I'm in no way saying this is a good way to earn money, but the women on the street are in as much danger as ever of meeting a serial killer as an occupational hazard," says Mellor.

Inside Out: BBC1, Monday, February 7 at 7.30pm.