Screenwriter Kay Mellor has died suddenly aged 71. She wrote a succession of acclaimed shows, such as Fat Friends, which launched the careers of James Corden and Ruth Jones
Kay Mellor was unafraid to take any secret from her own life, no matter how private, and transform it into compelling drama.
With her wild and ruthless imagination, the screenwriter behind The Syndicate and Band Of Gold — who has died suddenly aged 71 — used her teenage pregnancy, rocky marriage, money worries and struggles with her weight as inspiration for her sensational TV series.
Her breakthrough came from the most scandalous story of all: her mother’s shocking admission of a desperate love affair before Kay was born.
It was all fuel for a succession of highly acclaimed shows, such as Fat Friends, which launched the careers of James Corden and Ruth Jones.
Kay’s speciality was the ensemble drama, where we meet a collection of characters with criss-crossing lives, plunged into a high-tension dilemma before hidden problems are forced to the surface.
Though she was not afraid to turn down Hollywood offers in order to retain control of her work, her scripts became so successful that she enjoyed a millionaire lifestyle, flying around the world and rubbing shoulders with international stars — sometimes to the bewilderment of her husband Anthony, who was an apprentice motor mechanic when she married him aged 16.
Her back catalogue reads like a list of some of the best of British television over the past 25 years.
Fat Friends followed cemented Mellor’s reputation as an unequalled writer of dramas with multiple plotlines
The actress and later screenwriter was not afraid to turn down Hollywood offers in order to retain control of her work
Families, the soap opera set in Australia and Cheshire, which ran for 320 episodes from 1990 to 1993, gave Jude Law his break with a recurring screen role, and helped launch the writing career of Doctor Who’s Russell T Davies.
The Mail described it as ‘a blend of suburban Crossroads and glamorous Baywatch’.
Her shows were certain to star women as strong characters, including Siobhan Finneran and Alison Steadman in The Syndicate, Ashley Jensen and Rebecca Front in Love, Lies And Records, and Cathy Tyson and Geraldine James in Band Of Gold.
An actress herself, Kay starred too in the family drama Just Us in the early 1990s and appeared as Mrs Cooper in her own adaptation of Jane Eyre in 1997.
It was an improbable career for a girl born Kay Daniel in 1951, who grew up in poverty with her single mother in Leeds.
‘Home was a rambling Victorian house that was sub-divided into a warren of mean, two-room flats, with a row of shared lavatories outside,’ she remembered. ‘Dad had been injured in the war.
He returned from it a changed man: irascible, uncommunicative and consumed by his own demons.
‘I can’t even remember Mum sitting down to eat a meal with us. She was always on the go. She had never been to a hairdresser, much less had a manicure or a facial.’
Kay’s teachers certainly didn’t imagine success for her as a writer, and scolded her for her imagination.
She never forgot her humiliation at submitting an English composition entitled ‘My ideal garden’ which envisioned shafts of light and lifts between levels.
‘It was marked: “Very silly. 4/10.” I’ve never forgotten it,’ she said.
Her imaginary world evolved as a protection against the maelstrom of her parents’ marriage.
Her father George was Catholic, her mother Dinah was Jewish and their relationship was vicious and miserable. It wasn’t unusual for Dinah to have two black eyes.
‘I was only four,’ Kay remembered, ‘but I know it was a violent break-up. I came into the front room and found her lying on the floor.
‘I looked out of the window and saw my father walking past the hedge carrying a suitcase. He didn’t even say goodbye.’
Kay left school at 16 and went to secretarial college, but her studies were cut short after she met Anthony in 1967.
She believed him when he rashly told her he couldn’t have children. After they slept together twice, she was pregnant.
Anthony was thrilled and they were married within months. He took a job as a bus conductor to help pay for the baby’s clothes.
Kay’s friend Linda Neary, who later became her personal assistant, remembered the transformation.
At 15, they were hanging out together at a coffee shop called the Blue Gardenia in Leeds: ‘Kay was a mod with cropped hair, a suede coat and big boots.’
Kay, pictured on the right in her 20s with her two daughters, went to university after a recommendation from her tutor. Much of her writing was based around family life
Only a year later, ‘she seemed so grown up, a mature mother and housewife, whereas I was still at school’.
After the wedding, Kay and her bridegroom shared his single bed at his mother Sybil’s house, an arrangement that almost ended the marriage before it was properly begun. ‘After we’d been married ten days,’ she said, ‘I decided I wanted to go back home.
‘I missed my mother and brother, and Sybil was possessive. She told me to make sure my make-up was on, and that I had his tea on the table as he came through the door. She also said that all men have affairs.’
They stayed together and, when a second daughter arrived, Kay went to college to earn childcare qualifications so she could set up a playgroup with Linda for their children.
That ignited a passion for study and she enrolled on a drama course, not sure whether she wanted to write or act.
That brought more ructions at home: ‘I would want to talk constantly about Hardy and Shakespeare. Anthony felt totally inadequate. He was afraid I would leave him. There were a lot of rows.’
The marriage was saved when Anthony returned to studying himself, to do a sociology degree, and Kay became the breadwinner.
Kay Mellor pictured with her daughter Gaynor and husband. In 1988 she wrote A Place of Safety, an ITV play based on the Cleveland child abuse investigation. She believed an invisible majority of women wanted to tell their stories
She began with soaps — Albion Market, Coronation Street and Brookside — but was ambitious for much more. In 1988 she wrote A Place of Safety, an ITV play based on the Cleveland child abuse investigation.
She quickly realised it was easy to spot soap episodes that were scripted by an all-male team of writers: married women were never seen to have any hobbies or interests beyond looking after children.
An eager audience existed for dramas that showed women in charge of their own lives, challenging convention and daring to stand up for themselves.
They were, she believed, the invisible majority and she wanted to tell their stories.
The most dramatic of those stories was much closer to home than she had ever guessed.
One afternoon, as she was helping her mother with the washing up at Dinah’s council house in Yorkshire, the truth spilled out.
Dinah’s greatest regret, she revealed, was that she hadn’t left Kay’s father to be with the real love of her life — a Polish workman who lived in the flat downstairs, when she and George were first married.
His name was Craze and they met when she knocked on his door to ask to borrow a bucket of coal.
Dinah later told the Mail: ‘I fell in love on the spot. He was tall and very muscular, and he’d obviously just got home from work — he was wearing his trousers and boots and a white shirt. He had dark hair and wonderful, come-to-bed dark eyes. He was such a handsome man, I couldn’t get the words out.’
Mellor is pictured with daughters Yvonne Mellor and Gaynor Mellor attending the Yorkshire TV awards 17th annual dinner
Craze was married too but, within days, he and Dinah had embarked on a whirlwind affair that lasted six months.
It was never consummated because there was nowhere safe to go to bed together, but they spent every free moment in the park or the corner of a pub, talking and kissing.
They called a halt when Craze told her his wife was pregnant. Months later, he was stabbed to death in a fight. ‘I was devastated,’ Dinah admitted.
That tragic, romantic story became the germ of Kay’s first West End play, A Passionate Woman.
On Press night, Kay took to the stage after the performance to answer questions. A reporter asked whether the story was inspired by someone she knew.
Kay replied: ‘It is, but I’m not at liberty to say who.’
Ten rows back in the stalls, her mother Dinah leapt up and announced it was based on her life. She enjoyed the attention this brought, Kay saying: ‘She seemed invigorated by a new sense of freedom.’
Dinah died in 2007, aged 83, from cancer.
In this family of determined, forthright women, Kay’s daughters also made their own marks. Frances became a television producer and Gaynor an actress, best known as Judy Mallett in Coronation Street.
Christopher Stevens: ‘Kay Mellor was such an unstoppable force. She didn’t just write for the telly, she rewrote the rules of television’
Gaynor left home to work in the theatre when she was just 17. ‘It felt so young,’ Kay said, ‘but I had to say to myself, “Kay, you were married with a child at that age”.’
The success of A Passionate Woman brought fame and wealth. Sean Connery wanted to buy the rights but Kay refused, fearing she would lose her tight grip on her own work.
‘I could have become extremely rich,’ she said. ‘But if it had gone to Hollywood, it could have been changed dramatically — it could have ended up set in Detroit and starring Cher. I didn’t want it set anywhere but in the North of England.’
Instead, she wrote Band Of Gold, one of the most acclaimed dramas of the 1990s (and available to watch on ITV Hub). It followed a collective of prostitutes in Bradford, fighting back against the men who exploit them and setting up in competition with the local gangsters. Their firm, with a typical piece of Kay Mellor bravado, was called Scrubbit.
Fat Friends followed, cementing her reputation as an unequalled writer of dramas with multiple plotlines. She was a pioneering storyteller who possessed a rare gift for expressing women’s hidden emotions in whip-smart dialogue.
Eventually, A Passionate Woman was produced for ITV in 2010, starring Theo James in his first television role and Billie Piper, with Sue Johnston and Alun Armstrong.
Even without Connery’s money, the Mellors became well-off. ‘It’s caused problems,’ Kay admitted. ‘In our working-class background, men earned the real money while women had part-time jobs for a bit of pin money.
‘I’ve learnt never to use the phrase “my money”. I always say “our money”. I used to say, “let’s go to the Caribbean” and Anthony would reply, “I want to stay in my mother’s caravan”.’
Kay Mellor is pictured at the TV Festival opening ceremony. An actress herself, Kay starred too in the family drama Just Us in the early 1990s and appeared as Mrs Cooper in her own adaptation of Jane Eyre in 1997
Even these squabbles helped to inspire great television drama. Kay became fascinated with a news story about a woman in Corby who pulled out of her office’s Lottery pool because she couldn’t afford to stump up £2 every week. Six months later, her colleagues scooped £38 million.
After half a lifetime when she and Anthony could barely afford their bills, Kay could empathise with the unlucky woman.
But she also wondered whether a Lottery win was really something to be wished for — or if it was misfortune dressed in expensive clothes, sent to sever friendships and spoil careers.
Perhaps missing out on the win was the real stroke of luck, she mused. That thought led to four series of The Syndicate.
The most recent, partly set in Monte Carlo last year, starred her own daughter, Gaynor Faye, as a shopkeeper whose boyfriend absconds with the jackpot.
More than 20 years ago, Gaynor warned a reporter that she could be fiercely defensive about her mother: ‘She has to put up with unjustified criticism because she is a woman, she’s Northern and she had kids at 16.’
Those are the very reasons why Kay Mellor was such an unstoppable force. She didn’t just write for the telly, she rewrote the rules of television.