‘She changed the way TV was written’: Zoe Williams on Kay Mellor

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<span>Photograph: Mike Lawn/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Mike Lawn/REX/Shutterstock

Versatile, pioneering and an outstanding talent scout, the writer brought the same urgency and flair for social critique to every project. No wonder Spielberg was a fan

When you name what you think is the ultimate Kay Mellor show, really all you’re naming is your own vintage. To the scriptwriter and director, who died suddenly on Sunday aged 71, there was no “ultimate”.

Mellor brought the same urgency, vividness and deceptively light social critique to every project. You could never guess the tone from her subject matter. For instance, her childrens’ TV drama Children’s Ward – co-created with Paul Abbott in 1989 and set in a hospital in Bolton – sounds like a classic tearjerker, a triumph-over-adversity tale with intermittent dignity-in-the-face-of-tragedy. It was anything but: caustic and edgy, constantly causing friction with Granada executives for including such adult themes (sex offenders, HIV) in a young adult drama.

The dog kennel season of BBC lottery drama The Syndicate, which would be the last thing she wrote (and starred her own shih tzu, Happy) should have been a breeze, full of fluff and fur and kids rolling in unexpected dosh. In fact, it was a searching examination of life on zero hours. She never overworked an idea, but didn’t flinch from its implications, either; she never used 10 words where five would suffice. As a result, she covered a huge amount of the human condition, and changed the way TV was written – its scope, depth and ambition.

Born in Leeds, Mellor had her first daughter, the producer Yvonne Francas, at 17, and her second, the actor Gaynor Faye, three years later. Her formal education barely even began until her daughters were school age, when Mellor was able to finish her O- and A-levels.

It was anything but a teenage-pregnancy disaster story: the marriage she entered into at 17, to Anthony Mellor, lasted; the journey from drama school to fringe theatre, as a writer, actor and director, to writing soaps and dramas, was fast and apparently seamless. But her accelerated responsibilities left her with little patience for writer’s rooms full of powerful, wealthy, completely feckless men trying to conjure the lives of working-class women from a bag of cliches.

She got her first TV break writing for Coronation Street from the mid-80s. She used to say you could tell an all-male writing team if any female character with kids was casually doing any activity other than seeing to the kids.

&#x002018;She had a huge influence it would be hard to express with a prize&#x002019; &#x002026; Kay Mellor wearing her OBE at Buckingham Palace following the investiture ceremony.
‘She had a huge influence it would be hard to express with a prize’ … Kay Mellor wearing her OBE at Buckingham Palace following the investiture ceremony. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

After Corrie, as a staff writer at Granada, she wrote for Dramarama, the episodic kids’ show that spawned Children’s Ward, from an episode too good to leave as a single. By the early 90s, she was given a free hand to create a daytime soap, Families, which largely left its stamp by the careers it launched. It was Jude Law’s first recurring TV role; Russell T Davies wrote for it (having worked on Children’s Ward). That pattern was repeated in Fat Friends, which aired in 2000, and followed a weight-loss group with a wit and humanity that made stars of Ruth Jones and James Corden. She had spotted Corden in a Tango ad and loved his energy – which, if you watch the ad, is some spot.

Band of Gold, which Mellor created in 1995, and wrote with Mark Davies-Markham and Catherine Johnson for the next five years, was an ensemble piece about female friendships, dressed up as a gritty crime drama about sex workers, and drew out some beautiful performances, particularly from Geraldine James and a then-unknown Samantha Morton.

Mellor occasionally acted throughout her writing career, for example in her adaptation of Jane Eyre in 1997, and in the dramedy Stan the Man in 2002. Those early days setting up a theatre company and doing everything, from directing to acting to slightly haphazard (by her account) budgeting, stayed with her in a marked lack of grandness or preciousness, as well as in her themes and interests. She wrote A Passionate Woman as a play about her mother’s unhappy marriage and doomed affair, which became a BBC mini-series, and – like so much of her work – was partly a love letter to Leeds. Steven Spielberg once congratulated her on a season of The Syndicate, its sense of community and place, and she replied: “I think that even when I write dark stuff it’s got a hidden warmth to it and maybe that is the Yorkshireness. That northern side of people.”

Mellor was much recognised – a fellow of the Royal Television Society with an OBE and Writers Guild awards, but she had a huge influence that would be hard to express in the form of a prize. She never moved from Leeds, and she never forgot, she said last year, “what it’s like to not have enough money to get to the end of the week. I’ve experienced that first hand, so it’s easy for me to write that.” Without that perspective, drama can feel rather thin. Needless to say, that’s not a problem from which Mellor ever suffered.

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