Obituaries: Kay Mellor, writer behind TV hits Fat Friends and The Syndicate

Kay Mellor OBE, television writer. Born: May 11 1951 in Leeds. Died: May 15 2022, aged 71

Kay Mellor was brought up by a single-parent mum on a council estate in Leeds and left school with no qualifications and seemingly little in the way of prospects.

She had two children by the time she was 20, but when they reached school age she resumed her own education, earning O-Levels, A-Levels and a degree in drama before writing some of the most distinctive television series of the 1990s and 2000s.

Her drama was rooted firmly in the urban Yorkshire environment she knew so well, drama with more than a dash of humour.

Kay Mellor was awarded an OBE at Buckingham Palace in 2010 (Picture: Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

She pushed the boundaries with her protagonists – prostitutes in Band of Gold, her breakthrough series in 1995; women footballers in Playing the Field, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s when women’s football was still very much a niche subject; and weight-watchers in Fat Friends, which helped launch James Corden towards superstardom.

Mellor started off as a jobbing actress in the 1980s. She was hired for the soap opera Albion Market to play a policewoman, wrote a script on spec and wound up as one of the writers. That led in turn to a regular gig as one of the writers on Coronation Street.

The idea for Band of Gold, a series about prostitutes, came about largely by chance and met with a lot of opposition from television executives. She and her husband were driving to a party in Bradford when they took a wrong turning, stopped momentarily, and a girl in her early teens stepped forward to look in the car to check out if it was a potential punter.

“She could only have been 13 or 14 and had blonde hair, a denim jacket, a crop top, a leather mini-skirt 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,” she said.

Mellor argued that if you could have television series about doctors and policemen, soldiers and firemen, why not a series about prostitutes, looking at their personal stories and the community they constituted? She got initial backing from the BBC to develop the idea, but they got cold feet when it came to commissioning a series.

The idea was picked up by Granada, with Cathy Tyson, Barbara Dickson, Geraldine James and a young Samantha Morton cast as the four principals. It proved a ratings winner and set Mellor on her way.

Mellor was born Kay Daniel in Leeds in 1951. Her father sold vacuum cleaners. One of her earliest memories was of her mother lying on the floor after her father beat her up.

Another was of her mother giving him his marching orders, and Kay watching her father walk out of their lives, off down the road with his trilby and his suitcase.

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Her mother supported the family by working as a seamstress. Eventually the family got a television and Mellor recalled watching the western series Bonanza and wondering why the women were all relegated to supporting roles, why their stories were never told.

When she was 16 she met Anthony Mellor, a mechanic who was a year older than her. They married after she became pregnant. “I thought my life had ended, that I would never do anything again except push a pram,” she said. The vicar even predicted that she would be doing it on her own before long, just like her mother had done – he told her on her wedding day that the marriage would not last.

But Mellor defied expectations, both the vicar’s and her own. She and Anthony were still together when she died more than half a century later. And her own personal journey took her through school qualifications, a degree in drama at Bretton Hall, acting and then writing, on Albion Market, Coronation Street and Brookside. She wrote a one-off play for Yorkshire Television called Place of Safety, about the impact of child abuse allegations on a family.

But it was Band of Gold that really marked Mellor out as an exciting and fresh new voice in British television. It ran for three series and was followed by other hits, including Playing the Field, which was inspired by the Doncaster Belles football team and ran to five series, and Fat Friends, which ran for four. Mellor was insistent on getting genuinely “large” actors and first saw James Corden in a Tango advert. Corden and co-star Ruth Jones went on to create and star in Gavin and Stacey. Corden then went on to become an international phenomenon, while Fat Friends was subsequently developed into a musical and a touring version visited the Edinburgh Playhouse in 2018, with a cast that included Elaine C Smith.

A Passionate Woman was an especially personal project. It began as a stage play in the 1990s in Leeds and London’s West End before being adapted for television as a two-parter in 2010, with Billie Piper and Sue Johnston. It was inspired by Mellor’s discovery that her mother had had an affair decades earlier.

One of Mellor’s most recent shows was The Syndicate, which looked at the effect of big lottery payouts on different groups of winners. There were four series between 2012 and last year.

She is survived by her husband and by two daughters, who both work in the industry. Yvonne Francas is a producer and Gaynor Faye is an actress and writer.

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