Writer and actress Kay Mellor discusses “Yorkshireness”
PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:00 20 August 2016
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Kay Mellor OBE has been an influential mainstay in British television drama for three decades – writing, directing and acting in stories that evoke her love for Yorkshire.
There are few TV writers who create a sense of place in the way Kay Mellor does. She was born and raised in Leeds and remains creatively – and physically – rooted in the city.
With a career that began on Coronation Street in the 1980s, through 2013’s Leeds supermarket-set The Syndicate and up to her latest In the Club, another Leeds-set drama which follows the lives of six expectant couples attending a ‘parent craft’ class, Mellor’s characterisations are always spot-on.
‘It’s very difficult because Leeds is my home so when I create characters, this is where I see them in my mind’s eye,’ says the 65-year-old. ‘People come up to me and say ‘oh I love your show’ and ‘I love that I recognise that place’. I think they identify with me and they are really proud that I do write about Leeds and I feel that I want to write about Leeds.
‘I don’t like to namedrop, but Steven Spielberg had watched The Syndicate and he said: “The thing is Kay, it’s got a real sense of community and place”. I thought about that for quite a bit afterwards and I think it is because I do write from a place; where I visualise it happening. And then I shoot it in that place, so it’s in its rightful home.’
Evidently Spielberg, like the rest of us, picked up on the warmth Mellor is so good at portraying. ‘Well, I think it must have been that,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know what to say to him to be honest. I just said that I visualise it there, but maybe it is warmth… 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 goes on to reinforce the point. ‘A long time ago when I was shooting Fanny and Elvis in Hebden Bridge, I remember we had a southern crew that was chosen by the film company and one of them came over and said: “There’s a little old lady in the house who has offered to make tea for us all” so I said: “Well, do you want a cup of tea?” and he said, “Well there’s 50 of us!’”and I said: “If you want a cup of tea she’ll make you a cup of tea – she’ll make everyone a cup of tea.” He was astounded.
‘At least six of the crew bought properties up here in Hebden Bridge and around there after the shoot because they didn’t want to go back. They didn’t want to go south again so they upped sticks and moved. It’s just beautiful there.’
It’s a testament to the rich inspirational well that is Yorkshire that Mellor’s creations seem to come so easily – or at least from the viewer’s perspective, given that they’re so authentic.
‘You only have to listen to Yorkshire people speak and you’re inspired to write, literally within a minute’s conversation,’ Mellor laughs. ‘I think “oh, there’s a great story there!” And we are storytellers by our very nature. We start a conversation and by the end of it you’ve had a story told.
‘We wear our hearts on our sleeves and we say what we think, whether that’s in a gruff way or not – we’re very outspoken. ‘The people are just wonderful up here, just friendly. You go to London, you’re on the Tube and nobody talks to you. Racing from one place to another, they bump into you and don’t even apologise. They are not like that in Yorkshire. They recognise people’s achievements in Yorkshire; we have women of achievement. We’re very fast to applaud people if they’ve done well and I don’t find that in London.’
Obviously Mellor is driven by this keen judgement and sense of character, and her ability to transfer those observations to the screen has made her one of the most successful and respected writers around. Having created her own daytime soap opera, Families, in 1990, Mellor’s big breakthrough was the Bradford-set Band of Gold, following the plight of women working in the city’s red light district. After three series, she moved from ITV to the BBC for Playing the Field, continuing the feminist theme in a fictional all-female football team in South Yorkshire.
But as well as her writing, directing and acting talents (Mellor has starred in a number of productions) she has, since the age of 16, been an inspiring mother – her two daughters both following her footsteps into showbusiness. Gaynor Faye has acted in her mother’s creations regularly, from Playing the Field through Fat Friends (which also launched the career of James Corden), Between the Sheets and co-writing the Yorkshire veterinary practice-set drama The Chase.
Mellor says it was this early jump into motherhood that set her career in motion – and became the inspiration for In the Club.
‘Being a mother so young meant I was so young when they were at school and I had time on my hands to go and study,’ she says. ‘Then I discovered drama; Shakespeare and Greek and Italian theatre.
‘What seemed like an absolute catastrophe, getting married at 16 while being five months’ pregnant and all that, turned out to be something really positive as it happens.’
Positive indeed, and as Mellor says, she couldn’t be happier than when she’s at home. ‘I love it,’ she said. ‘Where I live is absolutely idyllic. I live in a woodland, which is beautiful. The scenery changes every day; the rhododendrons come out, the bluebells – all the flowers and foliage. The trees change colour into autumn.’
New Leeds drama on the way
Kay is set to continue her love affair with Leeds as it was recently announced that the BBC has commissioned the production of Love Lies and Records. The six part drama series written by Kay, is set in Leeds and centres around the life of Registrar Kate Dickinson as she tries to juggle her personal life with the daily dramas of births, marriages and deaths.
Speaking to the BBC, Kay said: “I’m delighted to be doing a new series for the BBC. This has been cooking in my brain for quite a while and it feels like the right time to put it on the screen. The idea came to me when I was registering my mother’s death at Leeds Town Hall, closely followed by a friend’s wedding in the very same place. I remembered registering the birth of both of my daughters there too, and I realised that the Register Office and registrars really are at the very heart of life. It’s a place of laughter, tears and great drama.