17 May 2022
We pay tribute to the Band of Gold and Fat Friends scriptwriter with an interview from the WM archives
For celebrated Yorkshire writer Kay Mellor, listening is a big deal. Coupled with a knack for tackling themes like love, motherhood, friendship and body image, is an ear for dialogue that makes her characters fizz between comedy and drama.
They came alive in the dark and gritty Band of Gold (1995-1997) – her breakout hit weaving social history and murder plots among a group of Bradford prostitutes.
She repeated the trick in Playing the Field (1998-2002), focusing on a South Yorkshire women’s football team and their problems both on and off the pitch, and then in Fat Friends (2000-2005), perhaps Kay’s best known work of all. Four series of the show trace the ups and downs of a slimming group and made stars out of Ruth Jones and James Corden.
How much groundwork does Kay do with her characters?
‘A lot. Once you are in it, the last thing you want is to be going out of it again to do the planning,’ she says.
Characters and plots are mapped out on around ten storyboards situated in Kay’s office, which she then replicates on her laptop.
She finds it helpful to bring other people into the room to listen and offer feedback. An idea in her head is one thing; saying it out loud is a better test and it’s a technique learned on her days from writing serial dramas like Children’s Ward, Brookside and Coronation Street.
‘If you have worked on a soap like Brookside then that’s a fantastic training ground. I was lucky to be able to work with people like Jimmy McGovern and Frank Cottrell Boyce and Chris Curry. Those times were so creative, to have so many creative people in a room can be really electric. You would literally fight for your episode because you wanted to get it right,’ she says, adding that aspiring television writers should watch as much drama as possible, studying what does and doesn’t work.
‘Once I know the arc of the story and start writing, it takes me about four to five weeks – a calendar month really – to get it down on the page. Then I put it in a drawer for a while and do other things and come back to it.’
A trusted group is asked to read and provide feedback on any first draft, including Kay’s youngest daughter, the actor Gaynor Faye, who has appeared in several of her series.
Then she will rewrite until she is happy, these days producing her scripts for either the BBC or ITV through her company Rollem Productions and increasingly directing some of the episodes herself.
Although a writer’s life is punctuated by long bouts of self-inflicted loneliness, it’s not something that bothers Kay. ‘I love peace and quiet and to be in my own head.’
She fires up her laptop around mid-morning and begins to write. ‘Sometimes I walk through the woodland before I start work. My husband Anthony might say to me as we’re walking, “You have gone really quiet.” and it’s because I am sifting.
‘Talking to people stimulates my brain. I break at about 2pm, get a bit of lunch and deal with anything that comes in during the day and go back to writing at about 3pm until six or seven or 8pm. Then I stop and try my best to calm my brain down. But that can be really hard. Roald Dahl said that nobody can write for more than two hours at a time; I have to protect myself.’
She tells the story of a recent night where she couldn’t sleep, her head was in a whirl with the fictional dramas she’d created. ‘In the end I had to get up, grab a pen and write down all the things that were on my mind, and it filled three pages.’
Getting so absorbed by her work is nothing new though: some twenty years ago Kay was writing her TV adaptation of Jane Eyre on a train journey from London to Leeds. Two-and-a-half hours later an announcement that the train had arrived in Newcastle brought her crashing back to reality.
The memory makes her laugh. ‘I love writing on the train,’ she says, adding that she’s not a coffee shop writer, it’s the idea of momentum, a journey, that inspires her.
How does she research?
Kay does all of her own research – ‘Only I really know the questions to ask’ – and has just fielded a call from a lift manufacturer. The problem is a technical one, a ‘what if?’ – but the man can’t give her the answer she wants.
The research is taken very seriously, both the formal kind and the less formal, like the simple act of watching people behave and listening to them talk.
‘I listen a lot. People don’t listen enough,’ she stresses. ‘Like the man from the lift company, he wasn’t actually listening to me. I kept saying it’s fiction. And he kept saying, “Well, where is this lift?” So I told him, “It’s in a studio, it doesn’t exist.” In the end I said “Do you know what? I’ll ring someone else.”’
What has Kay learnt about her own writing?
‘You get better as a writer knowing what you are good at. I look back at my work – Band of Gold for example. People might have been watching it again and saying it’s brilliant, and I will think, “I’m not so sure about that,” but there is an innocence to it certainly.
‘I’m older so I have a different perspective on life. I think a lot about what I’m writing whereas when you are brand new you just want to write and are so grateful to have your work on but now I am more able to think about it. There’s now self-censoring and I wish I could get rid of that.
‘You see, I enjoy it. When I can’t write I feel bereft. I can’t understand it when people say “oh, I’ve got this thing to write”... you should love writing.’