How Girlfriends screenwriter Kay Mellor made a drama out of being ordinary

In a new BBC radio documentary, Being Kay Mellor, Nick Ahad traces the incredible journey of the Leeds lass who became a one woman British Television powerhouse.

Kay Mellor in Leeds Kirkgate Market. Picture by Jacob Tomlinson.
Kay Mellor in Leeds Kirkgate Market. Picture by Jacob Tomlinson.

“I met her for a lunch to talk about Fat Friends the musical and I was dead nervous because she’s, well she’s just an icon of British TV. Then when you meet her she’s just so normal and lovely,” says Jodie Prenger.

The West End and TV star sums up the appeal of not just Kay Mellor the person, but the appeal of Kay Mellor the writer. Mellor is the creator of more than a dozen British television series, her work has been adapted for American audiences, she’s written movies, plays for theatre and this year she has added a musical to that already impressive CV.

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She is a writer, director and producer and does all three with huge success. It just so happens that she has an extraordinary talent of being able to turn that ordinariness into something that touches anyone and everyone who watches her work.

Zope Wanamaker as Gail Stanley, Phyllis Logan as Linda Hutchinson and Miranda Richardson as Sue Thackery in Kay Mellor's brand new ITV drama Girlfriends. Picture by iTV/Rollem (Girlfriends) Ltd.

“As a little girl my head would have just reached that pane of glass,” says Mellor, stood outside her childhood home. “I watched my dad leaving, wearing a trilby and carrying his suitcase. The break up of my mum and dad was quite violent. I found my mum on the floor, me and my brother Robert were in our dressing gowns and we ran across the road to the house opposite. There were two women who lived there and I knocked at the door and they came across and saw to my mum.

“There was blood coming out of her face. That’s what I remember, her being on the floor, I remember crashing and banging and we came downstairs and found her with blood on her face. The television was smashed and mum was on the floor.”

Mellor shared this story when she was one of Kirsty Young’s castaways on Desert Island Discs and her willingness to plunge straight in and bare her soul is a mark of both her writing and her as a woman. While she will chat happily over fish and chips at the kitchen table or while wandering around Leeds market, she is also one of the the most powerful people in British television.

This year alone Mellor has a series currently on BBC One, a musical embarking on aa huge tour and an ITV drama series going out in the New Year. That’s incredibly rare, if not unprecedented, which makes you wonder if underneath the likable exterior exists another, more formidable character.

Zope Wanamaker as Gail Stanley, Phyllis Logan as Linda Hutchinson and Miranda Richardson as Sue Thackery in Kay Mellor's brand new ITV drama Girlfriends. Picture by iTV/Rollem (Girlfriends) Ltd.

“I can be quite formidable, yes,” she admits. “If you mess around with my work or if I feel you aren’t taking me seriously, I can be very strong. I have an opinion.”

Pressed to examine her role in the landscape of British TV, she adds: “Maybe I did pave the way for a new kind of television. Russell T Davies, bless him, says he couldn’t have written Queer as Folk if I hadn’t written Band of Gold. It would be lovely to think that I did change things, but it’s only when other people tell you that that it makes you think.”

She also shared a story about being on set in one of her early series, clearly a key moment in her development.

“Lesley Sharp was in Playing the Field and she asked me about the character she was playing - there was a big dollop of me in it. She asked if I would stand where she could see me while they were filming a scene and the director said, ‘Will you move out of the eyeline of the actor’.

“To my eternal shame, I didn’t say anything, but I remember thinking nobody will ever say that to me again, nobody will ever talk to me like that. I compromise in my life, but I don’t compromise in my work.”

It’s a side to Mellor which is a clearly vital ingredient in her success. Yes, her ordinariness and approachability are all absolutely key, but the only way you run a production company as successful as Mellor’s Leeds based Rollem is if you have an inner steel.

Mellor was born Kay Daniel in Leeds in 1951. The future doyenne of British television had humble beginnings, growing up in her family’s council home in Leeds just north of Headingley.

“We’d play games across the street here, stringing a skipping rope across the road,” she says, pointing out the various houses where aunties - actual and those attributed the title courtesy of working class roots - lived.

She also tells me about early meetings with her then young boyfriend Anthony, the man she has now been married to for 50 years. As we talk, it becomes clear that conflict - the necessary ingredient at the heart of all drama - was a part of her life from the start. Her father was Catholic, her mother Jewish.

“Someone once said to me, ‘You killed Jesus’ and I remember thinking ‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about’,” she tells me at one point.

It’s tempting to play pop psychologist and try spot the moment where Mellor the writer she would become was born, but as I hear her story it seems clear that it was no one thing, but a cumulative effect that created the future creative powerhouse.

There was the horrific story of finding her mother, bleeding from the face and watching her father leave in his trilby. There are the stories of becoming latterly aware that her mother must have gone without in order that she and her siblings didn’t starve and the stories of playing happily in the streets of North Leeds. They all went into the creative melting pot that made Mellor.

After becoming a teenage mother and dedicating herself to raising her children, Mellor was in her twenties when she went to college, attending Bretton Hall and then setting up a theatre company to tour work as an actress and a writer.

The story of how she became a writer for TV is a wonderful one, a little too long to relate here, but involving a wide-eyed naivety on Mellor’s part and a boldness that came from ignorance of the proper way to conduct herself in the world of television.

She began as a script editor, eventually graduating to becoming a scriptwriter, having a whale of a time writing alongside Paul Abbott on Children’s Ward.

Then came the fateful moment she spotted a teenage girl on the streets of Bradford, working as a prostitute. Mellor was haunted by the encounter, and tried to track her down. The story of the women working in the city’s Red Light district became Band of Gold and launched Mellor into the stratosphere. It’s a trajectory that not only shows no sign of slowing down, but if anything, of gaining momentum.

When I began recording Being Kay Mellor, the idea was to mark an exceptional year in the writer’s already extraordinary career as she wrote and directed Fat Friends the Musical and created TV series for both BBC and ITV. It became a far wider reaching story because, exceptional as 2017 has been for Mellor, it is just another chapter in an incredible life story.

Fat Friends the Musical is touring from January 2018. Mellor’s TV series Loves, Lies and Records is available on BBC iPlayer and Girlfriends begins on ITV1, January 3, 9pm. Being Kay Mellor, a documentary presented by Nick Ahad will be broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds, New Year’s Day at 6pm.