Kay Mellor: We will always need Yorkshire voices like the Fat Friends and The Syndicate writer's - Jayne Dowle

She created, directed and acted in television dramas and stage plays which showed ordinary people that their lives, and their words, mattered.

Kay Mellor.
Kay Mellor.

And now our very own Kay Mellor, born in Leeds, has died, at the untimely age of 71. Her birthday turned just three days before she passed away, her life ending before it should, her words now even more precious.

West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin – herself a former Coronation Street actress (one of Mrs Mellor’s first jobs in television was scriptwriting for the Salford-set soap) – described her as “the voice of the North” who “put working class characters at the centre of her brilliant, compassionate, moving and funny stories”.

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You get the feeling that Mrs Mellor had so much more to say. And we’ve never needed voices like hers more, to help us negotiate such difficult times, and to remind us, above all, of the power of human connection.

She wasn’t just another ‘telly person’, but a genuine one-off, a proper creative who not only refused to compromise – many of her dramas showed for the first time women in situations (prostitution, Band of Gold, 1995) previously considered beyond the pale for TV ‘entertainment’ and men in roles which challenged our expectations of masculinity (James Corden, an embarrassed dieter in Fat Friends, 2000) – but also remained resolutely commercial, drawing millions of viewers and theatregoers to her work.

A musical theatre version of Fat Friends was about to go on tour until it was cancelled earlier this year due to pressures caused by the pandemic.

“She changed my life when she cast me in Fat Friends on ITV,” Corden said through Instagram.

“She saw something in me that no one had before that point. She gave so many people their first chances.”

It takes a special person to do that. There has been a massive outpouring of grief and condolence from showbusiness and the arts world. While by all accounts Kay Mellor was an inspirational and kind mentor and colleague, she was also highly respected by her peers and the wider establishment, collecting a Bafta Dennis Potter Award for Outstanding Writing for Television in 1997 and an OBE in 2007.

Her death then should make us take stock. It is true to say that we won’t see her like again.

Married at 16, and with two daughters – the television producer Yvonne Francas and the actress Gaynor Faye – by the time she was 19, Mrs Mellor took a leap of faith and embarked upon a drama degree at Bretton Hall College in Wakefield, which also counts among its alumni the playwright John Godber, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith of the League of Gentleman and the late actor and screenwriter, Colin Welland.

Her husband, Anthony, she told Kirsty Young in a memorable Radio 4 Desert Island Discs interview in 2017 – it’s on BBC iPlayer and a wonderful listen – worked as a bus conductor to “keep food on the table… whilst I studied Sophocles”.

There’s been so much nonsense written about “working class Northern women” recently, what with so many of them – Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, leading a crowded field – dominating the political agenda. But like Ms Rayner, who was also a teenage mother, Mrs Mellor was the real deal.

Her early life, and the fact that she continued to live and work in Leeds, is what gave her proper authenticity; she knew the people she brought to life on the screen, her super-observant ear picked up every nuance of their speech, her upbringing entwined with narrative after narrative.

She told Kirsty Young that when her violent dad hit her mother and knocked her to the living room floor two women who lived across the street came rushing to help the three-year-old Kay and her older brother. Her dad left, she recalled, in a trilby hat and carrying a suitcase.

We need writers and dramatists who can bring pivotal scenes to life like this, and continue to do so. And this is what makes the loss of Mrs Mellor so doubly sad. It is good that Channel Four now has an operation in Leeds and the BBC and commercial television is investing in our region. However, places like Bretton Hall College, when degrees cost nothing but talent and hard work, and creativity and the arts were accorded freedom and respect, are no more. Bretton Hall closed in 2007.

The Kay Mellors of today – and there must be hundreds of young Northern working class women out there with their own voice and passion to share it– are either talked out of higher education or funnelled into an uninspiring degree subject that will always ‘give them something to fall back on’.

As we consider the passing of this formidable woman, we should also consider that we need people like her to continue to identify, direct, make and write the stories of our lives.

When the collective grief of those who knew her has settled a little, perhaps a fitting tribute would be a screenwriting scholarship in her honour, to support those with the talent, but not the opportunity or means, to follow her star.

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