Interview: Kay Mellor
She had a child at 16. And it shows in pregnancy drama
The stars of In the Club
Kay Mellor has made her name writing TV shows which build tough themes into popular drama, from Band of Gold to Fat Friends and The Syndicate. However, one of the subjects closest to her heart is only just now being dramatised. In the Club - which started on BBC1 on Tuesday night - follows the experiences of a group of heavily pregnant women and their partners in the run-up to the births. One of the storylines concerns a 15-year-old schoolgirl who falls accidentally pregnant. It is no secret that Rosie, played by Hannah Midgley, is modelled on Mellor herself, who gave birth to her first daughter, Yvonne, when just 16. "Rosie isn't me but the spirit of her is me," she explains.
A likeable, down-to-earth Yorkshirewoman who still lives in her native Leeds, Mellor says she originally came up with the idea to dramatise the journeys of pregnant women over a decade ago and kicked herself when she saw Call the Midwife. Luckily, corporation executives encouraged her to pursue her idea.
When Mellor found out about her own pregnancy, she was fearful of telling her mum."I didn't know anybody who had had a baby aged 16 and I had no one to talk to. Everyone else was on the pill but I fell pregnant the second time I had sex with my boyfriend. I should have known better but I wasn't street savvy. Writing about it has been really cathartic."
Mellor adds that in 1967, attitudes were different and knowledge, at least on her part, was sorely lacking. However, her story had a happy ending. She developed a committed relationship with her teenage boyfriend, Anthony. They married and are still together. Three years after giving birth to her first daughter, Mellor had a second, who grew up to be the successful actress Gaynor Faye.
"It turned out really well for us," she says of parenthood. "We both worked hard at it. Anthony probably worked harder than me in some respects. I went to college and he had to look after things at home. It's been a huge journey and he's been with me all the way."
Mellor chose to dramatise several other stories for In the Club. An older couple who realise they are going to have a child years after giving up hope of conceiving; a lesbian couple who are having a baby thanks to a male friend who donates sperm; and a couple in dire financial straits after the husband is made redundant.
"There were so many stories I wanted to tell," she says. "I know a woman who got pregnant at 46 after having adopted two children. That was a remarkable and moving story and one I wanted to use. The older woman becoming pregnant is a story of our time. The same could be said about the story of two gay women having a family. I have lots of gay friends who co-parent. So I wrote about a couple and the guy who's a donor - that's a different family structure, which is also a phenomenon of our time. It's fascinating that it seems to works really well."
Then there is the heart-rending situation where the husband of a woman pregnant with twins feels unable to tell his wife that he was made redundant months previously. "People are desperate - absolutely frightened by the prospect of being made redundant and not knowing where the next penny is coming from. There are lots of men, particularly in the north, who want to be the provider in their situation, who want to care for their partner and the children. It's stereotypical but in areas like Yorkshire, men still feel this very strongly."
Mellor herself hails from a working class Yorkshire family. She was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father who divorced when she was very young and she was raised on a tough estate. Because of her family's circumstances, she felt an outsider in the Jewish community. "My mum married out and we didn't live in the right part of Leeds. I knew very little about being Jewish. I remember someone saying to me as a youngster that I had killed Jesus and me thinking, 'what? I killed Jesus?'"
But although being Jewish was not a big part of her life as a girl, her mother then married a Jewish man and moved to Moortown "which is a more Jewish area. I learned lots about Jewishness and found it fascinating but I wasn't brought up in that way."
Neither was she brought up to expect a successful career. "If you had said to me, 'do you want to be a writer'? you might have well been asking, 'do you want to be the Queen of England or an astronaut'? It was just totally unreachable for a working class girl like me.
"I was a born performer and I would tell stories and act them out. I later went to college to train to be an actress."
Eventually Mellor found acting work on television shows but came to realise that scriptwriting might be more her forte. "When I first saw a TV script, the first thing I thought was, 'is this it? I can do this very easily.' So I wrote a script on spec for Albion Market and I began writing from then on. It was a natural slide for me."
These days she has the added advantage of feedback from her actress daughter, who has become one of TV drama's most familiar faces. "It works out really well. I watch her in Emmerdale and I give her feedback and she reads all my scripts and tells me what she thinks. So we are always there for each other."
She adds: "A while back, Gaynor made the decision that she didn't want to be in my work anymore. She got a lot of flak, even though she had done eight jobs before she had been in any of my shows. But people saw it as nepotism and she was sensitive to that. Now she can step back and look at my work more objectively and has a better perspective, which is great for me."
The relationship Mellor enjoys with her children means that the trauma and heartache of her own teenage pregnancy was worth it. But parenting has been a long and difficult journey. "It's definitely the most life-changing thing that can happen to most people. When you have a child people say that's 18 years of your life ruled out. Well I say make that 40."
In the Club is on BBC1 on Tuesdays at 9pm