bring so much to the screen. It is a joy to cast them
Kay Mellor, 70, is the writer of several hit TV series, including: Fat Friends, about a group of people trying to lose weight; Band of Gold, set amongst sex-workers in Bradford; A Passionate Woman, inspired by her mother's experience of having had a passionate affair with a man while she was unhappily married to Mellor's father; and In The Club, which follows six couples through their pregnancy. Recently BBC1 aired Girlfriends, which starred three women over 50 as the main characters. A stage musical adaptation of Fat Friends, with music by Nicholas Lloyd Webber, made its world premiere at the Grand Theatre in Leeds in 2017.
Kay was born in Leeds in 1951. She married Anthony in 1967, and they have been together ever since. The couple have two daughters: television producer Yvonne Francas and actress Gaynor Faye. Critics have acclaimed Kay’s work as “real and glorious and fun’. Kay’s most recent TV drama is The Syndicate, which focuses on different groups of people who win the Lottery. Series 4 of the Syndicate started on BBC1 at the end of March. Kay took time out of her busy editing schedule to talk to Judith Sullivan.
This time will pass,
we have lived through wars,
The older generation
are more sanguine
If Jimmy McGovern is the bard of Liverpool, then surely Leeds boasts a writer-in-residence in Kay Mellor. Born in the Ireland Wood estate in Weetwood and still living in Leeds, Mellor has made a career out of depicting working-class Yorkshire men and women on film. Mellor has been chronicling the good people of Leodis for more than 40 years. As her 70th birthday passes she shows no signs of slowing down.
Mellor’s loyalty is to the Northern working class she first gave voice to via work on Coronation Street in the 1980s. She tells their stories without hiding the warts. And yet she never ceases to entertain with her plain-spoken, droll, believable characters. Like the John Legend song she selected on Desert Island Discs in 2017, she has a continued interest in Ordinary People. Her other selections included Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. Her chosen book was, of course, by a Yorkshire author: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
Next up for Kay is the fourth instalment in her The Syndicate series, which covers the fortunes and
misfortunes of a local group of lottery winners. Season Four, currently showing on Tuesday nights takes on some thriller qualities, as well as a much-needed Riviera escape for the lockdown-weary. The six episodes see the action play out in Monaco, playground of the revoltingly rich, and in Leeds, home of the lovingly and newly sort-of rich. Shot in part during last year’s lockdown, The Syndicate was largely edited in Mellor’s Leeds home, she told us.
Famously a playground for the obscenely wealthy, Monaco was not so glamorous for the Syndicate cast and crew shooting there last year. There was no cavorting with royalty, crowned or otherwise. The tiny principality had imposed a strict lockdown. Every bit of filming required specific licenses and tons of paperwork, Mellor said. Just seven days into the filming process, Monaco clamped down an 8pm curfew that put paid to most of the night-time scenes. Instead of sipping kirs-royal on the beachfront, Mellor found herself scrambling to rewrite scenes so the action could be set during the day.
The experience has not put her off a return visit to the Riviera. “I would love to experience Monaco again in all its glitz and glamour but without all of the additional stresses. Monaco itself is a gorgeous place. It was impossible to see Monaco in all its glory during the time we were there but we’ve tried to present it in all its glory.”
Like much of Mellor’s work, The Syndicate presents working-class characters (in the soon-to-be aired episodes, the main players work at a dog kennels). The cast is typically august and includes Neil Morrissey. Also participating are Taj Atwal of Line of Duty and Katherine Rose Morley of Last Tango in Halifax.
The syndicate members in this series are at odds with their corporate overlords over the prospective sale of Woodvale Kennels. This plot plays into one of their members’ winning lottery ticket and from then on, viewers will need to tune into BBC1. Mellor directed three of the six episodes with the other half directed by Emmerdale veteran Dominic Leclerc.
Over the years, Mellor has tapped into a particularly Yorkshire strand of grit mixed with grizzly kindness. Her characters are stoic, not po-faced, unfearful of calling a mug of tea a mug of tea. Leeds is her home still, she insisted, “because all of my friends and family are here.” One of her favourite local spots is Golden Acre Park.
Among her charitable projects is patronage of the Giving Voice choir, which trains adults with neurological conditions. Founded in 2014 by speech therapist Wendy Neill, Giving Voice rehearses on Wednesday evenings and kept up the pace through on Zoom. “Singing is very good for people with neurological conditions,” Neill said, noting that Giving Voice has actually added new members over the past year. The group has performed at such events as Light Night and Pride and cheerily warbles Christmas carols for groups meeting at year end.
Neill is a blunt-spoken Yorkshire lass, like those Mellor knows and writes about. Kay told me, “Sometimes we can be direct, and largely we are vocal. When we ask ‘how are you?’, we mean it.” She has lived here pretty much throughout and taken note of the changes to the social and economic landscape. Of the Ireland Wood area, she said, “things are much the same - shops are at the top and bottom of the street, and it’s a friendly working- class neighbourhood. I recently visited [my former] school and it’s so rich in its diversity.”
She has also taken note of the massive changes that have occurred notably in the city’s shopping district. “I’ve watched Leeds grow into a wonderful city centre. The Victoria Quarter, Victoria Gate and Trinity all add their unique style. Once upon a time it was Littlewoods and Schofields and now it's John Lewis and Harvey Nichols with Louis Vuitton and The Ivy.
While much of her fiction depicts ordinary men and women, there have been distinctly posh rewards, including an OBE in 2017.
She knows how to do kitchen-sink, as well as broad comedy. Mellor has covered such tricky subjects as bulimarexia, obesity and prostitution. Her most interesting characters have been direct communicators. They are also layered and unstereotyped. For example, the revelation that Cathy Tyson’s prostitute in Band of Gold suffers from crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder was a genuine unexpected development.
Though she often taps into comedy, Mellor doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant and distressing. Aired in the 1990s, Band of Gold plays out in the distant shadow of Peter Sutcliffe’s reign of terror in the 1970s and 1980s, though his name is not mentioned. The first series begins with an all too credible murder of a woman working as a sex worker. But it it does not feel sensationalized as we are introduced to the character, her family and her problems before the offscreen killing takes place.
A fabulous writer for women, Mellor has a distinctive ear for how we speak to one another, Yorkshire accent or no. She is well known for bringing together starry casts to create distinctly non-starry units, such as the dieters in Fat Friends. Those units experience infighting and jealousies but there is heart without inevitable Hollywood flourishes (stretched coincidences, predictable arcs). Mellor’s largely female groupings don’t feel forced, they grow organically from work situations (Love, Lies and Records set in Leeds Town Hall) or shared interest (Fat Friends). Refreshingly, her stories often feature longer in the tooth players such as Alison Steadman in Fat Friends or Zoe Wannamaker in Girlfriends. In our recent phone interview, Mellor said she enjoyed writing for more mature actors. “The [older] actors bring so much to the screen. It is a joy to cast somebody of that age.”
Not that she ignores the young. She was a producer of Overshadowed, the chilling tale of a teenager grappling with an eating disorder. Told in an unusual manner (which I can’t reveal for spoiler reasons), this BBC3 series, based on a play Eva O’Connor paints an unvarnished and rarely seen picture of a teenage girl suffering with bulimia and anorexia. Mellor had seen the play in Dublin and nurtured O’Connor with a view to bringing the story to a wider audience.
Mellor’s friends and family have helped her develop plots. A Passionate Woman (aired in 2010) was largely based on her own mother Dinah. Mellor is fascinated by the many roles women play. “Women struggle with a lot of things,” such as being mothers and daughters, she noted.
Mellor’s transition from daughterhood-only to motherhood came especially young. At 16, Kay Daniel married Anthony Mellor, an older man at 17. She “didn’t realize at the time” that she was expecting daughter Yvonne. Still together, Anthony and Kay have two daughters and four grandchildren. Daughter Gaynor Faye has appeared in some of her mum’s serials, as well as in Emmerdale. The grandkids helped Mellor survive lockdown, she told me, and they did regular Zooms. She has also stayed sane by walking her shiatsu, she noted. Her Amazon and Sky picks this past year have been of the cheery uplifting bent, she said.
Mellor is clear-eyed about the long-term effects of Coronavirus and the social cost of the pandemic. “This time will pass, we have lived through wars, through polio. It is easier for the older generation – we are probably more sanguine.” She is not about to hang up any of her hats quite yet. “I am semi-retired, I’m halfway there.”
Somehow, I don’t believe she is ready to shut down her laptop for good in the short term.
The Syndicate started on Tuesday 30th March at 9pm on BBC One and the series runs for 6 weeks.
For more information about the Giving Voice choir email Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org