I’m walking up the Headrow in Leeds, heading towards the city’s Grand Theatre for an interview, when a car pulls up at a pedestrian crossing and the person in the passenger seat beckons me to jump in the back of the car.
I do. It’s an unusual way to begin an interview but Kay Mellor, the woman in the passenger seat, is well versed in the unusual.
It’s unusual, for example, to dominate the world of TV in the way she has over a span of four decades. It’s not usual to score hit after hit with your work in such a consistent way and it’s not really usual to do what she’s heading to Leeds Grand Theatre to do when she comes across my path.
I get in the back of the car and before the lights change the first questions, as they often are with Mellor, are from her in my direction, despite me being the interviewer in this relationship.
She’s constantly brimming with the curiosity of a writer and is always more interested in gathering information than divulging it.
How new Leeds Playhouse is start of next chapter for theatre in Yorkshire - James Brining
We arrive at the stage door and head into the Grand where the latest Mellor production is happening.
Two years ago the Loiner turned her television hit, Fat Friends, into a stage musical which opened at this grand old theatre. It was a massive production, a huge ask to translate the success of the TV show on to the stage but Mellor added yet another triumph to a career already brimming with them. The musical is rumoured to be returning next year, following a successful national run in 2018.
Now Mellor is back and turning another of her hit television shows into a stage show, this time the mid-1990s drama that was a cultural phenomenon, Band of Gold.
In the rehearsal room we meet Emma Osman, a fellow Leeds lass who is tasked with bringing the iconic role of Carol to life (played in the original television series by Cathy Tyson).
Upstairs, in a canteen area of the Grand, Mellor and Osman talk about the production.
That Mellor told me to jump in the back of the car, and that she shares this interview slot with young cast member Osman, barely out of drama school, tells you everything you need to know about this no-nonsense, generous, Yorkshirewoman.
Why is she bringing Band of Gold to the stage?
She’s had a remarkable, if not unprecedented, few years. She had TV series on the BBC (Love, Lies and Records) and ITV (Girlfriends), plus the Fat Friends musical.
Eclipse Theatre appoints new senior staff ahead of move from Sheffield to Leeds
That would be enough achievement for a decade, let alone a three-year-period. Yet here she is, back in the rehearsal room.
“It’s emerging in front of me, I love it. It’s such a different discipline, theatre, compared to television, it’s all hands on deck,” says Mellor, also a director and producer of her own television work – again, highly unusual.
“It energises you, watching it happen. A great friend of mine once said ‘Kay, you write all the stuff and then give it away, you don’t relish the fruits of your work’. I said, ‘Of course I do’, then he pointed out that I was always moaning when I watched one of my shows that they had missed a shot, or filmed it in the wrong place, forever moaning, and he said, ‘You should do it’.”
She did it. And how.
British brands Temperley London and Mulberry announce new store openings at Victoria Leeds
It’s difficult to overstate just how impressive Mellor is.
That she has turned out consistently important work to popular and critical acclaim in television and theatre since the late 1980s means that she is perhaps a little taken for granted. She shouldn’t be. She’s a phenomenon.
“You are aware when you go in to audition for her that she’s Kay Mellor,” says Osman, a graduate of the East 15 drama class of 2015, who grew up in Moortown, Leeds.
“But she’s so warm and down to earth that you forget that quite quickly.”
Still, to be taking on the role of Carol, so embodied by Cathy Tyson in the TV series, is a big ask of Osman.
“My mum and dad and uncles were all big fans of the series when it was out and I watched it when I got the part. I also went down to Lumb Lane, just to experience what it was like down there.”
Lumb Lane was synonymous with sex workers before, but Mellor crystallised that. Band of Gold felt like such a cultural event it has passed into the public lexicon but there will be those who don’t know the story.
Inspired by a scene she saw in Lumb Lane while driving to a party, Mellor was struck by a young sex worker on the street.
Obsessing over the girl and her life, Mellor couldn’t keep the thoughts of her at bay and after trying (and failing) to find her, wrote the story of the lives of a group of sex workers in Bradford. It became a career-defining hit.
Now, as she returns to it, she says: “I love it. I don’t do it for money or fame or anything like that. I just love what I’m doing, to watch something grow in front of your eyes. It’s the best feeling. It’s like painting a picture. You’re an artist and you’re painting.
“Also, this is not solitary. It’s so solitary, being a writer. It’s you and your thoughts and the machine. This is much more a community thing and I encourage the actors and everybody to speak up. We are making something together.”
So what can we expect?
“It’s funny, a thriller, dark, with an underlying message. I hope the audience get the message three days after they’ve left the theatre because while I’m not hitting them over the head with it there is something there to say.”
It definitely won’t be a usual night at the theatre.
Band of Gold, Leeds Grand Theatre, November 28-December 14. 08448482700 or via leedsgrandtheatre.com