Kay Mellor obituary

Trailblazing screenwriter hailed for her many popular TV series including The Syndicate, Band of Gold and Fat Friends

Kay Mellor, who has died aged 71, was one of British TV’s leading dramatists, with series that reflected the lives and thinking of groups of women, from Band of Gold and Fat Friends to The Syndicate and In the Club.

Her own upbringing on a Leeds council estate informed her work, along with an ability to bring authentic dialogue, humour and humanity to the screen with richly drawn characters. Recalling that her father physically abused her mother, Mellor told the Guardian in 2017: “My earliest memory is of finding her on the floor in the living room and of my father leaving. He beat up my mum. She threw him out.”

At the age of 16, she met Anthony Mellor and became pregnant, marrying him in 1967. “It won’t last,” the vicar told her on the wedding day – but it did. As their two daughters, Yvonne and Gaynor, grew older, Kay took O- and A-levels, then trained in drama as a mature student, before founding a touring theatre company and entering television.

Her big break as a writer came with Band of Gold (1995-96), about a group of sex workers on the streets of Bradford. While doing voluntary work at the National Children’s Home care line office in Leeds, taking calls from distressed and sexually abused children, she was picked up one day by her husband to be driven to a party in Bradford. They took a wrong turning. “By mistake, we drove up Lumb Lane, which was a notorious red-light area,” Mellor told me while filming the drama’s sequel, Gold, in 1997. “I could see a young girl and immediately thought, ‘She’s a prostitute.’ The girl stepped forward and bobbed down to look into the car to see if there was a potential punter.

Band of Gold, 1995, with from left: Barbara Dickson, Geraldine James, Ruth Gemmell and Cathy Tyson.
Band of Gold, 1995, with from left: Barbara Dickson, Geraldine James, Ruth Gemmell and Cathy Tyson. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

“She could only have been 13 or 14 and had blond hair, a denim jacket, a crop top, a leather miniskirt and white high-heeled shoes. Her legs were bare – they were completely blue and mottled with the cold. I just remember being completely shocked because I had daughters of her age. I felt as if someone had just punched me in the stomach and winded me.”

When Mellor put pen to paper for her gritty story, Samantha Morton was cast as the teenage sex worker, alongside Geraldine James and Cathy Tyson as her more experienced friends. It put Mellor firmly on the television writers’ map.

With a lighter touch, but plenty of trials and tribulations, Mellor scored another screen hit with four series of Fat Friends (2000-05), about members of a Leeds slimming group, with James Corden and Ruth Jones in the cast. A stage musical version written by Mellor with the composer Nicholas Lloyd Webber first toured in 2017.

Ensemble casts were also integral to The Syndicate (2012-21), an inventive idea featuring a different group of six lottery winners – and the consequences, positive and negative – in each of four series, and In the Club (2014-16), following half a dozen women who meet at antenatal classes through pregnancy and beyond. Both series provided a rollercoaster of joy and tragedy.

Fat Friends, 2002, with from left: Lynda Baron, Lisa Riley and James Corden.
Fat Friends, 2002, with from left: Lynda Baron, Lisa Riley and James Corden. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

In a rare foray away from the series format, Mellor’s stage play A Passionate Woman, inspired by a secret harboured by her own mother for 30 years, was turned into a two-part TV drama in 2010. It had begun 18 years earlier at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, before a successful London West End run starring Stephanie Cole and directed by Ned Sherrin (Comedy theatre, 1994-95). On screen, Billie Piper and Sue Johnston portrayed the mother, at different stages of her life, who in the 1950s has an affair with a married neighbour who is then killed in a fairground brawl.

Like much of Mellor’s work, it was based in Leeds, where she was born. Her father, George Daniel, sold vacuum cleaners. In the 2017 Guardian interview, she described her mother, Dinah (nee Vates) as a “tailoress” who, following her father’s departure, “did everything – making carpet for our rooms, wallpapering, cooking, sewing, and had time to read us stories and be affectionate”. When Kay was nine, her mother married again, to Abe Harris, an upholsterer.

Kay attended West Park school, Leeds, and later took an A-level in drama at the city’s Park Lane College, where her reading for the role of Viola in Twelfth Night led a tutor to encourage her to become an actor. While studying at Bretton Hall drama college, near Wakefield, Mellor wrote her first play, Paul, which was nominated as best new play in the national students’ drama festival. On graduation in 1983, she founded the Yorkshire theatre company with two friends, driving around Britain in a transit van.

Following a couple of episodes playing Dr Baker in the Granada TV medical series The Practice in 1985, she landed the role of PC Marjorie Kershaw in its soap Albion Market (1985-86). After writing a script on spec for the serial, she became one of its storyliners. This led to her joining Coronation Street’s storyline team (1986-87), before writing a 1988 episode that featured Ivy Tilsley and Don Brennan’s announcement of their engagement.

Mellor had success on her own with Place of Safety (1988), a play for Yorkshire TV about the effects of child-abuse accusations on a family, which was nominated for the Prix Italia. Then, with Paul Abbott – another Coronation Street storyliner – she created Children’s Ward (1989-2000, later retitled The Ward), which was groundbreaking with its stories of cancer, drugs, alcoholism, HIV/Aids, rape and child abuse aimed at young viewers. There was a return to soap with a stint writing for Brookside in 1989, before Mellor created Families (1990-93), an Anglo-Australian serial made by Granada Television and filmed in Cheshire and Sydney. She wrote Just Us (1992-94), a children’s series in which she also appeared, and the women’s football drama Playing the Field (1998-2002), featuring the fictional Castlefield Blues and running to five series. Her own 1997 adaptation of Jane Eyre was a rare excursion into period drama.

Mellor was one of TV’s most prolific writers, with her other series including Between the Sheets (2003), Love, Lies + Records (2017) and Girlfriends (2018). She also scripted the feature-length drama Girls’ Night (1998) and wrote and directed the 1999 film Fanny and Elvis.

She received Bafta’s Dennis Potter award in 1997 and a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain award in 2015, both for outstanding writing for TV. In 2009, she was appointed OBE.

Mellor’s two daughters worked on some of her television series, Yvonne Francas as a producer and Gaynor – who as Gaynor Faye had roles in Coronation Street and Emmerdale – as writer or script editor. They survive her, along with her husband.

• Kay Mellor, writer, director and actor, born 11 May 1951; died 15 May 2022