Celebrated TV screenwriter, director and actor Kay Mellor had a special gift for capturing the emotional nitty gritty of everyday life.
And she certainly lived through enough tough experiences of her own to color her applying work.
The super talented woman responsible for some of the greatest TV dramas to grace our screens, became pregnant at 16 and fought hard to raise a young family while still following her dreams.
Kay, who died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 71, is best known as the creator and writer of award-winning series like Band of Gold, Fat Friends, Girlfriends and The Syndicate.
Her big, warm and sometimes shocking storylines delved into families and relationships, especially the strong bonds between women. Tackling her subjects in an honest and entertaining way, she flagged up the challenging realities of everyday life, while retaining a strong sense of humour.
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Born Kay Daniel, her parents split up when she was just two years old and she and her brother were raised by their “affectionate and loving” mother, Dinah on a Leeds housing estate.
Kay’s mum and dad’s marriage was an unhappy one, and although she was just a toddler, she remembered its breakdown clearly. She told the Big Issue: “It was a very violent breakup. Those images don’t go away, ever, ever, ever, ever. You will remember them all your life. When my dad came back into my life when I was 21, I found it very difficult to make a relationship with him.”
Frequently teased at school for having no dad, she had to learn to stand up for herself, and soon discovered her talent for entertaining others, making up little stories and sketches on the spot.
Kay’s hard-working mother was a huge inspiration, making her daughter believe she could achieve anything she wanted, but that didn’t include either school drama or having a baby at the age of 16.
When Kay became pregnant while still studying at secretarial college, her mother was horrified to begin with, but fully supported her daughter’s decision to keep the child and marry her 17-year-old boyfriend Anthony Mellor in 1968.
In an interview last year with the Big Issue she recalled how catastrophic the whole thing felt at the time.
“We’d been going out for about 18 months. We had no money. He was very optimism, ecstatic that I was pregnant and having a child. But I remember feeling, this is terrible, this is the end of my life,” Kay said.
But she kept her promise to Dinah that she would go back to her studies when she was able. When her two now incredibly successful daughters – actress and TV producer Yvonne Francas, 54, and actress Gaynor Faye, 51 – went to primary school, Kay passed her O and A levels and won a place at university.
Meanwhile Anthony was working hard to pay the bills and, as Kay confessed, at one point they were drifting apart until he followed her lead and went back to education.
She told Big Issue: “He was stuck in that alpha male, motor mechanic, ‘got to put the food on the table, got to pay the mortgage’, breadwinner mindset. Educating Rita, that was my story. I should have written that. I always felt like Willie Russell beat me to it.
“But god bless Anthony, he knew that if we were to sustain our marriage, he would have to change. So he went to Stockport College and got a degree in social welfare. And he became interested in education and politics. So we caught up.”
After graduating with a BA Hons degree in 1983, Kay – a natural creator and entertainer – began to explore her love of drama and co-founded the Yorkshire Theater Company.
She began her writing career on soaps, including Coronation Street and Brookside. Kay’s creativity began to fly when she co-created the Bafta-award winning children’s drama Children’s Ward in the late 1980s and the early 1990s soap Families.
Never afraid to stick her head above the parapet, Kay put forward the idea for a drama following the lives of sex workers in Yorkshire – Band of Gold – which became a huge hit with viewers and ran for three series between 1995 and 1997.
She said: “I had a lot of life experience at a young age. And that meant I was never fearful. When you’ve given birth at 16, when you don’t know where your next penny is coming from, you’re afraid not of saying things.”
What she didn’t know, she made it her business to find out and Kay was renowned for her impeccable research, going out to meet real people on the streets, in pubs and community groups, to learn about their lives.
Unusually for a writer, Kay soon became a household name as the ideas and words kept on flowing, spawning an incredible body of acclaimed TV series.
For Fat Friends (2000-2005), set in a Leeds slimming club, Kay insisted on using larger actors so they could bring their genuine experiences of trying to lose weight to their roles. The series brought together James Corden, Ruth Jones, Alison Steadman and Sheridan Smith for the first time – leading on to the sitcom Gavin and Stacey.
In an unusual twist, Kay adapted Fat Friends as a musical and it burst onto the stage as a star-studded production that toured the UK between 2017 and 2018.
The Syndicate, the ever popular drama about what happens to ordinary groups of people who get rich quick by winning the lottery, was her longest-running show, screened on BBC One from 2012 to 2021.
Her other highly acclaimed dramas including Playing the Field (1998-2002) for the BBC, The Chase (2006-2007), Strictly Confidential (2002), In the Club (2014-2016) and Girlfriends (2018).
Kay’s one-off two-part drama, A Passionate Woman (2010), was inspired by her stage play about the affair her mother had with another man while unhappily married to her father – a secret Dinah kept for more than 30 years.
In 2010 Kay won special recognition for her services to drama and was invited to Buckingham Palace to be presented with the OBE by the Prince of Wales – a scenario a millions miles away from the tough beginnings that Kay never forgot or shed away from.