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The actors Samantha Morton and Cathy Tyson have paid tribute to the late Kay Mellor, calling her a “fighter, a warrior woman and an insanely talented” writer and director.
Mellor, who died on Sunday aged 71, wrote numerous TV shows over a 30-year career including Band of Gold in 1995. The series revolved around a group of sex workers who lived and worked in Bradford’s red-light district, and starred a teenage Morton alongside Geraldine James, Cathy Tyson and Barbara Dickson.
Band of Gold was a sensation when it premiered on ITV and won plaudits for the human way it told the sex workers’ stories. Its success, Morton said, was a testament to Mellor’s unique vision and her courage to tell overlooked stories.
“You really didn’t get writing like that for women on television at the time,” Morton told the Guardian. “It was a whole series that was written by a woman and starring women, with female directors and producers as well. It was a working-class drama based on real people that Kay had spoken to, heavily influenced by life on ‘the lane’, and that was utterly groundbreaking. Over 20 million people a week watched it.”
The show, Morton added, brought to light the poverty that communities are once again going through today, “particularly northern places where there is abject poverty. It also touched on subjects such as child exploitation and child abuse”.
Morton was an unknown 17-year-old when she was cast to play Tracy, a teenage runaway abused by her father and who becomes hooked on drugs supplied by her pimp. For someone whose own childhood was blighted by sexual abuse in children’s homes, it was a life-changing opportunity that opened new doors.
“I found Kay to be so inspirational,” Morton said. “She was a fighter, a warrior woman and insanely talented. For me, as a young teenager and then young woman in the industry, I was just surrounded by white, middle-aged men who told me how it was meant to be. I had a few issues growing up in regards to male directors and Kay was always unbelievably supportive of me. She would have my back and protect me whilst we were shooting. She would also really listen to us and how we felt.”
The role, Morton said, cemented her as an actor. “There’s been nobody like Kay and I doubt there will be again. There was truth in her writing. I was very lucky that I fit the bill, I’m not sure they would cast somebody so young today. I had to do quite graphic sex scenes, and Kay was so supportive if I didn’t want to do things.”
The actor went on to feature in a string of productions, including opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Minority Report and has been nominated for two Academy Awards. But she recalled a time when her working-class background held her back in the industry.
“I was lucky enough to play Jane Eyre when Kay wrote an adaptation of it and I was so honoured,” she said. “I was very working-class and normally the actresses that play that role are certainly not from a children’s home in Nottingham. Up until that point I’d auditioned for costume dramas and they always said ‘she just isn’t the right class’. But Kay believed in me. She changed my life.”
To this day, Morton said, she had tried and failed to pitch shows to TV companies that explored working-class life and communities. “People want shows like Downton Abbey and The Crown. Band of Gold wasn’t a comedy, it’s not funny. It was hard drama. Each week, you would be going on this journey about the lives of sex workers in Bradford. My character was in a relationship with a woman. It’s absolutely astonishing when you think of it.”
Tyson, who played the character of Carol, a mother who turns to sex work to support herself and her young daughter, told the Guardian what made Band of Gold so unique was that “it was the first series to document both the working lives and personal lives” of sex workers.
“Band of Gold humanised sex workers,” she said. “It stripped away the layers of taboo. It also gave female leading roles to half a dozen women. And many great guest roles to women. I’ve a lot to be supremely grateful to Queen Kay Mellor. I truly hope that the series benefited the women it was about. They were very generous with their time and I will never forget my time on three series.”
Mellor, who received an OBE for her work in 2009, began a career in TV writing in the 1980s. She spent some time on Coronation Street, being one of the earliest female writers on the show. The first two of three series of Band of Gold were turned into novels, both of which Mellor co-wrote with the author John Burke.
Her other notable works include Fat Friends, a Bafta-nominated drama about members of a slimming club in Leeds, Girlfriends, which followed the lives of three middle-aged female friends, and The Syndicate, about lottery winners.
Morton said she was lost for words over the loss of Mellor. “Kay’s body of work and commitment to making incredible work about working-class people was incredible. We say working-class people; I say normal people,” she added.