Life & Culture

Kay Mellor: The working-class Jewish writer who changed British TV forever

The Northern writer's portrayal of Yorkshire life revolutionised drama on the small screen


W hen Steven Spielberg watched Kay Mellor’s BBC television drama The Syndicate he got in touch with her straight afterwards. The programme had an “amazing sense of place and geography”, he said, and he wanted to know where it had been shot.

In her home city of Leeds, replied a proud Mellor. “We are Yorkshire-based, we shoot in Yorkshire, we edit in Yorkshire — we glorify Yorkshire.”

Most US dramas involve a team of writers. Spielberg’s next question to Mellor — who was not only in her home town when he called, but in her dining room and in her dressing gown — was:

“How many on your writing team?

“One, me, I do it all,” she replied.

Spielberg was very impressed. So impressed he asked Mellor to adapt The Syndicate as Lucky 7 for American television.

We are now approaching the yarzheit of the one-woman powerhouse who trailblazed her way through the television and theatre industries. Mellor, who I was honoured to call my friend, passed away on May 15, 2022.

Kay had a particular talent for tackling the themes of love, motherhood, friendship and body image, and an ear for dialogue that made her characters fizz between comedy and drama.

They came alive like in the gritty and ground-breaking Band of Gold, her breakout television success about a group of Bradford sex workers, and in her 1998 drama Playing the Field about a south Yorkshire women’s football team.

A couple of years later, she took a wry look at the diet industry in the hugely successful Fat Friends, which ran for four series and went on to become a hit stage musical with scores by the late Nicholas Lloyd Webber. And in 2006 she wrote about date rape in the stand-alone drama Gifted.

But Mellor’s legacy extends beyond the body of work for which she has received richly deserved Baftas, Royal Television Society Awards and an OBE. She was also a generous woman who was passionate about encouraging and cultivating talent. Fittingly, a new scheme in her name supporting women screenwriters is being inaugerated this year, with applications due by May 24.

Screenwriter Sally Wainwright, the creator of Happy Valley, Last Tango In Halifax and Gentleman Jack, knows this first hand.

“There would be no Sally Wainwright without Kay Mellor,” she tells me. “In fact, even now, if I am stuck on something when writing I think, what would Kay do?

“If I rang her for advice, she’d always suggest something I hadn’t thought of. She thought so laterally, outside of the box.”

Wainwright first met Mellor when she was a student at York University. Mellor was running the Yorkshire Theatre Company and had taken her play Climbing Out to the campus.

“After the show, she said that if anyone wanted to chat about what we do, to meet up in the bar later. She was great, so chatty and involving. Just the kind of person you want to meet when you are 21 and want to be a playwright.”

Five years later, after she’d done a writers’ workshop at Granada, Wainwright was asked to work on Families, a daytime soap that Mellor had created in 1990. “She took me under her wing,” says Wainwright.

“She taught me to be bold, telling me that if you don’t speak up about how you want a script to be seen, you’ve only got yourself to blame if you are not happy with how it turns out.

"She gave me the green light not to be cowed because I was a woman from the North. She gave me a road map for being a woman in telly.”

Russell T Davies, who relaunched Doctor Who in 2005 and who won numerous plaudits for his 2021 series It’s A Sin, also feels very grateful to the late Mellor.

They first met in 1991 when he had been hired as the script editor on Granada series Children’s Ward. “I was led into a room to meet Kay Mellor and Paul Abbott, the show’s creators. I was very young, and she was immediately warm and inclusive, just gorgeous.”

He admired Mellor’s ability to identify with ordinary people.

“On the final series of The Syndicate, she was writing about kids on zero-hour contracts. No one else is writing that stuff, or could have got it on primetime TV,” he says.

“She was never grand. There was there a marvellous moment when we were talking about some show she had boiling away and I asked her if it was in development and she said, ‘I don’t develop things, I make them.’”

Mellor’s lack of grandeur was thanks to formative years in working-class Jewish Leeds, roots that she was proud of her entire life and which she honoured by speaking at Jewish events whenever she could.

Once, we addressed a Jewish Women’s Aid event together, and although she didn’t practise Judaism she would come to my house for Friday night dinners.

She was born in Leeds in 1951, the daughter of Dinah and George Daniel, who sold vacuum cleaners. It wasn’t a happy marriage and Dinah was soon a single parent who supported Mellor and her brother Robert by working as a seamstress.

“We didn’t have any money but Mum refused state benefits and did everything for us from making carpet for our rooms and wallpapering to cooking and sewing. And she always found time to read us stories,” Mellor once told me.

In fact, you could say her own life was the stuff of TV dramas.

As she put it: “I became pregnant when I was 16 and thought it was the end of my life. I had one O-level and came from a council estate.

"Anthony [the father of the child who would become her husband] and I were the little lad and lass with not a penny to our names. I had no idea what was ahead of me, that I would go to drama college as a mature student and then write for a living.”

Were she still with us, she and Anthony would have celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary this year.

Mellor also gave numerous actors their first break. Jude Law began his career in Families and a teenage Stephen Graham was in Children’s Ward.

Samantha Morton went on to star in Hollywood films after being in Band of Gold in 1995.

And Ruth Jones got her mainstream TV break in Fat Friends where she met James Corden who was also in the show and who Mellor had tracked down after she’d seen him in a Tango ad. Jones and Corden would go on to create the massively popular, award-winning comedy drama Gavin and Stacey.

“If I hadn’t had been in the show and James hadn’t, we would likely have never met,” Jones tells me.

“On the first series of Fat Friends, we spent hours after work in the bar in the Crown Plaza in Leeds. Kay played a huge role in bringing Gavin and Stacey to life,” Jones tells me.

“My first script was pretty bad — I know this because I’ve still have a copy! I asked Kay if she’d read it . She was so kind, finding the positives in something that really wasn’t good. It was her who really encouraged me to write.”

So much so that by series three of Fat Friends, Jones was commissioned to write an episode. “I loved it all, the learning, the crafting of different drafts, being in conference, production meetings. It was like doing a script-writing degree.

"Kay always talked to you as if you were on the same level as her. It was never: I’m the big, experienced writer, you’re just learning. She was excited to see people develop. She liked paying it forward.”

In 2019, she paid it forward via the Kay Mellor Fellowship at Leeds Playhouse. The inaugural winner, Kat Rose Martin, says it changed her life: “I got an agent the next week. Before then, I hadn’t even worked in TV and hadn’t had many plays on. Throughout the fellowship she’d mention my name to people in the business and doors would open. I will be forever grateful to her.”

Since then, Martin has had lots of TV and theatre work including adapting the Israeli TV company Keshet’s hit show The Stylist for a UK audience.

Both Wainwright and Jones also say that Mellor’s insistence on locating her work in Yorkshire gave them the confidence to do the same.

And the Mayor of West Yorkshire, former actor Tracy Brabin, who worked with Mellor on the TV drama Strictly Confidential, in 2006, says Mellor’s economic impact on the region has, as a result, been huge.

“From the hotels where they stayed, the restaurants where they ate, the taxis they used and the people they mentored who then set up their own businesses, the money brought in by Kay’s independent, female-led production company Rollem Productions, which she set up in 2000, was phenomenal. I hope I can pick up the baton,” says Brabin.

Mellor was also instrumental in the campaign behind Channel 4’s relocation to Leeds in 2021, she notes. “Her commitment to any project elevated it,” she adds.

She also believes Mellor’s humble Jewish background was key to her success. “Because she understood the vernacular, and was compassionate, she made ordinary people extraordinary.

She had a romantic streak, which was lovely, but she wasn’t schmaltzy, she was grounded in working-class challenges. She knew what it was like not to have money when the car broke down or the washing machine needed replacing. She may have become a wealthy woman, but she never forgot her roots, never lost herself.

“We’ll never really know how many people she inspired to have a career in the arts. But because she was so visible people would see her and see the possibilities for themselves.

"She acted, she directed, she produced, she script edited and she mentored. She was nothing short of a Renaissance woman, someone who showed that a creative life needn’t be linear.”

Her beloved children and grandchildren have taken her example to heart. Her first daughter Yvonne Francas is a television producer currently working on All Creatures Great and Small.

Her second, Gaynor Faye, is an actor and writer, and both women have taken on the mantel at Rollem.

And their children Grace, Elliot, Lily and Oliver are all forging careers in the arts.
Later this month, A Passionate Woman, Mellor’s drama about a woman whose doting mother finds it hard to accept that her son is leaving the fold to get married, is restaged at Leeds Playhouse.

A story of family, love and Leeds that is based on a story her mother Dinah told her about her own life, it’s difficult to think of a more fitting celebration of my friend Kay.

‘A Passionate Woman’ is at Leeds Playhouse from May 20. To apply for the Kay Mellor screenwriters lab

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