Kay Mellor, one of Britain’s finest TV writers and a trailblazer for British working class drama over the past three decades, has died suddenly aged 71, it was revealed today.
Yorkshire-born ‘luminary’ Mellor, who wrote hit series after hit series including Band of Gold, Playing the Field, Fat Friends and The Syndicate, passed away on Sunday.
She earned an OBE in 2009 and was awarded the Writers Guild Award for Outstanding Contribution to Writing in 2014. Her work helped transformed the careers of many young British stars including James Corden, Jude Law, Samantha Morton and Ruth Jones, who said today: ‘British television has lost one of its greats’.
Ms Mellor’s gritty and often hilariously funny northern dramas mirrored her own extraordinary life, which began in poverty in Leeds. She had her daughter Yvonne aged 16 and then Gaynor at 19. It was only in her late 20s that she went to night school, doing an A-Level in theatre studies that would inspire her to write. Her tutor saw her talent and encouraged her to go to university, where she would forge ideas that would become much loved TV hits watched by millions each week.
Her own daughter Gaynor Faye, a celebrated actress in her own right and star of Coronation Street and Emmerdale, appeared in her mother’s drama The Syndicate and recently helped bring Band of Gold to the stage.
Mellor is survived by her husband Anthony, who she married in 1968. They have always lived in Leeds, where many of her TV shows were set. They have two daughters, actress Gaynor, and television producer Yvonne Francas.
She also leaves behind her beloved dog Happy, a shih tzu she recently admitted she and her husband are ‘obsessed with him’. She said last year: ‘I think we talk about him more than we did our kids’. Happy even inspired her owner to write the fourth series of The Syndicate – a show where friends or colleagues win the lottery – all about a team of exploited kennel-workers.
A spokesman for her TV production company, Rollem Productions, said: ‘It is with profound sadness that we announce the untimely and sudden passing of our beloved friend, mentor and colleague Kay Mellor on Sunday May 15. We have lost a phenomenal talent and a true luminary. We ask that you please respect the privacy of the family and friends at this time.’
Kay Mellor, who wrote hit series including ITV ‘s Girlfriends, Band of Gold and The Syndicate, has died aged 71. She was awarded an OBE in 2009 (right)
Gaynor Faye and her mother Kay Mellor at the premiere of the film , ‘Ravenous’, at The Odeon West End cinema
Gaynor Faye with her mother Kay and father Anthony, together on holiday in 2020
Fiction Jury members Moritz Polter, Mans Marlind, Anders Tangen, Kay Mellor, Joeystarr and Arnaud Ducret at the 60th Monte-Carlo TV Festival last year
Speaking last year, Kay described her own personal journey – and how she would give the money away if she won the lottery.
She told the Sunday Express: ‘I had nothing at all. We didn’t even have enough money to buy a pushchair, but we were lucky because we both came from working class families that were there for us. I worry for young people out there who don’t have a family to support them. There are more mental health issues today.
Kay, pictured here in her 20s with her two daughters, went to university after a recommendation from her tutor
‘In my day and age, if somebody wanted to be cruel to you, they’d do it to your face and you’d call them a bully, but nowadays, these trolls can do it under a cloak of anonymity and I think that’s so harmful for young people’.
She added: ‘In the late 1970s when I was in my 20s. My husband and I were living in a council flat with our two little children and we scrimped and saved to buy a tiny terrace house for £3,000.
We could afford the mortgage but the first month the rates bill came in – the then equivalent of council tax – it was a surprise and we couldn’t pay it. It was around that time that my father came back into the picture. I remember crying and being upset because I couldn’t see a way out. I thought we were going to lose the house. It was a bill for something like £37.
But my father gave me £50 and said: “Keep the change, go out for a meal and I’ll look after the kids”. And so my father, who had been remiss and not been a part of my life, suddenly came good.
Despite becoming a millionaire in later life, she shunned a new life away from Leeds, staying in the family home with their dog and driving around in a Mini.
She said: ‘All I want to do is tell stories, entertain and absorb people and I’m passionate about helping new writers get their voices heard. I drive a Mini and live in a detached house in Leeds. My main luxury in life is my imagination’.
She went on: ‘What would I do if I won £27 million? I’d give it away. I’d pay off my family and friends’ mortgages, give money to the NSPCC, animal welfare and care for the elderly. I’d make sure my family was all right. I’d want my grandchildren to be set up for life. I do worry about them.
‘I’m so fearful when my granddaughter Lily goes on social media. I’m forever saying things like, “Don’t put anything like that on Twitter.” I’m also forever telling them how lovely they are to try and counteract some of the negative things on social media’.
Describing lockdown she said on the Zoom call: ‘I haven’t had time to be bored. This table I’m sat at now is my editing suite. We’ve had to get this series out fast, so I’ve been sat here editing and making sure the sound
She added: ‘One thing I’ve thought about, but haven’t done, is some sort of big community show and I like the idea of setting up a writing/ acting academy for young people. Every time I drive past the right kind of property I think “That would be a great place for it to happen”.’
Kay Mellor with her daughter Faye and actor and singer Shayne Ward as they launched the Band of Gold theatre show last year
The stars of ITV’s Band of Gold: Geraldine James, Barbara Dickson, Cathy Tyson and Samantha Morton. The drama made Kay Mellor’s name
Fat Friends helped make a star of James Corden (pictured with Janet Dibley on the show). He also met Ruth Jones there, before they wrote Gavin and Stacey. Jude Law appeared on Families, which ran between 1990 and 1993
Fay’s hit Fat Friends launched many careers, including Ruth Jones (bottom right) and James Corden (top left)
Kay Mellor also wrote and directed the film Fanny and Elvis, starring Ray Winstone and Kerry Fox
Tributes have poured in from the world of showbiz, including from Ruth Jones, who said ‘British television has lost one of its greats’.
The Welsh actress and comedian, who starred as Kelly Chadwick alongside James Corden in her series Fat Friends between 2000 and 2005, said: ‘I am completely shocked to hear the news of Kay’s untimely death.
‘Her contribution to British television was outstanding and I feel privileged to have worked with her. Such a down-to-earth, funny, big-hearted person whose brilliance lay in seeing the extraordinary in the day to day.
‘She was a great mentor to me when I first started writing – and always hugely encouraging of new writers – a real testament to the idea of paying it forward. Her series Fat Friends was a massive turning point in my career and I will be eternally grateful to her for what she did for me. British television has lost one of its greats. Thank you Kay for all that you gave us. I cannot believe you’ve gone.’
Sir Lenny Henry, who starred in Kay Mellor’s hit TV series The Syndicate, based on a group of lotto winners, tweeted: ‘I was saddened to hear that Kay Mellor has died.
‘I was lucky to work with her on the Syndicate and found her to be incredibly creative , funny and instinctive.
‘She knew what she wanted and knew how to get the best from us as actors. She will be missed. Condolences to her family.’
Corrie star Antony Cotton tweeted : ‘I’m totally shocked to hear that Kay Mellor has died. I can’t imagine how her family feel. Devastating. She was a real trailblazer for women in this industry. Rest In Power, Kay x’.
Her big breakthrough came in 1995 when ITV made Band of Gold, a drama about a group of prostitutes with Barbara Dickson, Geraldine James and Cathy Tyson. Playing The Field, Fat Friends, The Chase, In The Club and Girlfriends followed in a prolific 27 year TV career. The Syndicate had a long run on the BBC, with the most recent series going out last year.
Band of Gold, which ran from 1995 to 1997 was a ground-breaking drama and a huge hit, with critics hailing it as one of the first major drama written by a woman, for women.
Millions watched as Ms Mellor brought to life the often grim, and sometimes darkly funny life of a group of sex workers in Bradford.
One of its breakthrough stars was Nottingham-born actress Samantha Morton, who would soon star alongside Tom Cruise in Minority Report and she also played Alpha in The Walking Dead.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2017, she hinted that Fat Friends was perhaps her favourite show. She chose The Beautiful South’s Perfect 10, the Fat Friends theme tune, as one of her sound tracks, admittingL ‘Every time I heard that I used to get excited and get butterflies’.
She added: ‘It was such a lovely time of my life, it was a drama that was really important to me because I thought I had something to say about weight and body image.’
She began her career writing plays, worked on Coronation Street and created the award-winning children’s drama Children’s Ward.
She also wrote BBC One’s women’s football series Playing The Field and in 2010 received an OBE.
Writer Kay Mellor pictured in 1995 on the set of Some Kind of Life, one of her first big hits
Kay Mellor was also an actress herself, pictured here in ‘A Good Thief’ with Angel Coulby (left) and Liz Smith (right)
The BBC’s chief content officer, Charlotte Moore, paid tribute to Kay Mellor following her death.
In a statement, Moore said: ‘I’m shocked and deeply saddened to hear that Kay Mellor has suddenly passed away.
‘Kay was an outstanding writer and the creative force behind many of the nation’s best-loved television dramas.
‘She wrote with such heart, humanity, humour and passion with strong female characters often taking centre stage.
‘She will be missed and our thoughts are with her friends and family at this difficult time.’
West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin paid tribute to Leeds-born screenwriter Kay Mellor on Twitter.
She said: ‘Just dreadful news & difficult to take in. Sending all our love from everyone in £westyorkshire to Kay’s family, friends & colleagues.
‘Our voice of the North, she put working class characters at the centre of her brilliant compassionate, moving & funny stories. Such a loss.’
Shameless and Emmerdale actress Hayley Tamaddon tweeted: ‘Such sad sad news about the wonderful kay mellor.. She was always so lovely and kind to me.. a truly brilliant lady.
‘My thoughts and love and strength to @MsGfaye and all her family at this difficult time.’