The night Steven Spielberg called... and Kay Mellor won the prize of a lifetime

As TV drama The Syndicate goes trans-Atlantic, its Leeds creator, Kay Mellor, refuses to swap her home in Weetwood for Hollywood. Rod McPhee reports.

Kay Mellor

Kay Mellor was sitting at home in her slippers when the world’s most famous director gave her a call.

“My husband and I were supposed to be meeting friends for dinner,” she recalls. “And Anthony’s looking at me tapping his watch, while I’m trying to silently mouth to him, ‘It’s Steven Spielberg!’

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“Anyway, in the end I was on the phone to him for about an hour, and he was such a lovely man, really modest too. I had this image of him in LA surrounded by his minions and there I am on my own in Leeds. I said to him, ‘I’m just sitting here in my dining room wearing my slippers’ and he said, ‘Take a picture and send it to me.’ So, of course, I did.”

Like millions of Britons who last year lapped up the first series of The Syndicate, Spielberg was enamoured with Mellor’s chronicle of the mixed fortunes of a group of lottery winners.

Fast forward a few months and, as the second UK series starts on Tuesday, she’s on the other side of the Atlantic filming a $5.4m pilot for The Syndicate USA. She and Spielberg are now co-producers on the project – and she can’t quite believe her luck.

“I told him, ‘It’s amazing that you’re on the phone to me’. To which he said, ‘Why wouldn’t I be on the phone to you? You’re an amazing writer’. In fact, he said, ‘We can learn from you’, and I was thinking, ‘What?! You must be joking – you can learn from me?!’ I said, ‘I was rather hoping I would learn from you actually’.”

You can appreciate Mellor’s humility. Although she boasts a 30-year career in writing – which has seen her create a string of acclaimed dramas ranging from one of her first big hits, Band of Gold, to Fat Friends and the aforementioned The Syndicate which aired a year ago on BBC One – she has never coveted the lifestyle of a top writer.

If you’ve made a name for yourself in TV, and made big bucks in the process, you tend to gravitate to London, California or some other international capital of culture. Mellor, however, has stayed in her home city and still lives in Weetwood, just a few miles from the Ireland Wood council estate where she was raised by her single mother.

It was this level-headed outlook which Speilberg picked up on. Mellor says: “He told me ‘I can tell you’re a very grounded person because you write about reality in a truthful way’.”

Be it ingratiation or a heartfelt observation, Spielberg had a point. Her dramas have never avoided the less fragrant spheres of life. From Band of Gold’s insight into the violent world of Bradford’s red-light district to Strictly Confidential’s exploration of the murky subculture of sex in Leeds, the work has often reflected the writer: direct, unmistakably northern and unapologetically working class.

And the second series of The Syndicate – which focuses on a new group of lottery winners, this time in Bradford – takes the autobiographical element to a whole new level.

“I try to reflect my own life in everything I write really,” she says. “But it’s reflected in this series of The Syndicate more than anything else I’ve written yet. Domestic violence is something that’s reflected, and there was a domestic violence issue with my parents. My mum and dad split up when I was about three years old and my mum brought us up, myself and my brother, on her own.

“My father was a man with a lot of issues and problems, probably from the war. I don’t know. Certainly stuff he’d never dealt with. You see, my father had also been abandoned as young boy by his mum and dad and he was brought up in an orphanage, a kind of convent and I think some of the nuns were quite cruel to him. It was cycle of abuse really and consequently it made him an angry man.

“So, I didn’t see him from being about three-years-old to the age of 21 when I met him again. But images I’d seen as a young girl got in the way of forging a relationship with him. It was a great shame really because he died when he was 60 and I was still estranged from him. Anyway, it’s all there in this new series.”

The adversity didn’t end when she entered adulthood either. At the age of 16 she fell pregnant to her then boyfriend Anthony Mellor (now her husband of 45 years) and this was at a time when he was an apprentice mechanic earning a meagre wage and she had yet to dream of the lucrative career she’d later enjoy. Instead they scraped by, sleeping in a single bed at her mother-in-law’s house.

Fortunately the lucrative career wasn’t far away. In the 1980s she landed plum jobs writing scripts for Coronation Street as well as the new (now defunct) soap Families which served as a springboard for her breakthrough creations in the late 1990s.

What gave her the edge over many of her contemporaries was her reluctance to pursue the well-trodden path towards making dramas (other than traditional soaps) which were middle-class, distant and often unrealistic.

“When I was little and I used to watch TV I couldn’t identify with anybody,” she says. “There was no one on TV like me. Now I see Jimmy McGovern’s work, for example, and I think, ‘Brilliant, that’s who we are’. The head of drama at the BBC once said to me, ‘What’s wonderful about you Kay is that you write about ordinary people in extraordinary situations – and these people are people that watch television’.

“I think there’s enough TV dramas about middle class police detectives living in lovely villages where murder happens. There’s room for all that, of course, but there has to be room also for ordinary working class people to have a voice. They have to be able to look at the TV and think ‘I know that person – that could be me’.

“And some TV reviewer could write something snotty about my dramas – but so what? For every reviewer that writes something snotty, someone in the street will come up to you and say ‘I loved last night’s episode’. That means you’re reaching people and you know they like what you’re doing.

“Besides, I don’t often read what critics write because if I did I wouldn’t write anything myself.”

And this proud connection with the mainstream is part of the reason, Mellor, who was awarded an OBE in 2009, suspects, that The Syndicate has been such a success. She says: “I’ve hit the zeitgeist, similar to how I did with Band of Gold. There are more and more people doing the lottery as a chance of escaping from poverty .

“It’s a dream, and as the spending cuts bite harder there are more people doing the lottery and dreaming of getting out of their situation. But The Syndicate also looks at what does happen when you become an overnight multi-millionaire – its not that simple. I wonder what I’d be like – would I change? If I won £72m who would I give it to? Who might I get revenge on? I just think I’ve tapped into something with the financial downturn – in fact this double-dip recession may not have been good for many people, but it has really worked for me.”

And it goes on working. As does 60-year-old Mellor who, despite reaching a time of life when many people consider retirement, is watching her career surge into the stratosphere. She maintains it’s because of, not in spite of, her advancing years.

“As a writer, the older you are the more life experience you have. You understand people more,” she says “So, your writing becomes richer and you become more confident.

“Yesterday I was in the writers room (of The Syndicate USA) and years ago I might have been nervous to talk in front of a room full of younger people, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I just think, ‘I can just give you my opinion’ but I also know I have a thousand or more hours of TV writing behind me too.”

And age is another deciding factor as Mellor contemplates whether to leave her Leeds home, and friends and family, in favour of Spielberg’s offer of moving to Hollywood, with the chance of working with the movie maker some more.

“Age has taught me what’s important in life and what’s important for me. So when they asked me whether I wanted to move out there I said ‘no’ in the blink of an eye. The fact is, I don’t want to leave Leeds.”

Kay Mellor’s life and times

BORN: May 11, 1952, Leeds.

LIVES: Weetwood, Leeds.

FAMILY: Husband, Anthony Mellor. Daughters, Gaynor Faye and Yvonne Francas. Two grandsons and two granddaughters.

EDUCATION: Iveson House Primary School, West Park High School, Park Lane College and Bretton Hall, near Wakefield.

WORK: Coronation Street, Brookside, Families, Band of Gold, Fat Friends, Between the Sheets, Strictly Confidential, The Chase, The Syndicate, A Passionate Woman, Jane Eyre, Fanny and Elvis.