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As her latest show hits our screens, Natalie Anglesey chats to Kay Mellor about friends, inspiration and making it in a mans world.

As actress, playwright, scriptwriter, and director, Kay Mellor, waited in Buckingham Palace, to receive her OBE, she paused for a moment. “I just thought — not bad for a little girl from a council estate!”

Kay was one of the first women to carve a niche in what used to be a male-dominated area of television. You’ve probably enjoyed her award-winning series without even being aware of her involvement. The BBC’s Love, Lies and Records was screened at the end of last year. While at the start of 2018, her new ITV series, Girlfriends, first appeared on our screens with an impressive cast headed by Phyllis Logan, Zoe Wanamaker and Southport’s Miranda Richardson.

“It’s a celebration about women of a certain age who feel they have no voice and are almost invisible,” Kay explains. ”With me hitting 61 and going through the menopause while juggling children and grandchildren, looking after my elderly mum before she passed and now my husband’s dad – I know that’s how life is for many people my age. We haven’t seen that on television yet. These women are not just someone’s wife, girlfriend or partner. I’m lucky I have supportive girlfriends and that’s what this series is about”.

It’s a compulsive watch. Instead of resting on her laurels, we’ll soon see Kay’s popular television series, Fat Friends, turned into a stage musical starring Cheshire-based cricketer Andrew ’Freddie’ Flintoff. “When I was casting Love, Lies and Records, I heard Freddie had been taking acting lessons and was keen to audition,” Kay recalls.

“I gave him a small role in the final episode and he made an impression. While casting Fat Friends, The Musical, I discovered he’d also been taking singing lessons. He has amazing stage presence and Nick Lloyd-Webber, who composed the music, said he could sing! That was enough for me. “Before casting even started I’d invited Andrew Lloyd-Webber to a workshop of the musical and he advised me to get Blackpool’s Jody Prenger for the female lead, which I did! While we’re in Manchester, Freddie will be staying at home with his family but on tour he’s happy to stay in actor’s lodgings and is great mates with Kevin Kennedy who leads a strong supporting cast.”

Drama, for this BAFTA winner, has not always been confined to the written page. In Kay’s private life she’s also faced difficult decisions. Born and raised on a council estate in Leeds to a Christian father and a Jewish mother, she fell in love with her first boyfriend, Anthony, at 15, was pregnant at 16, and they married and kept the baby. They now have two daughters. Yvonne Francas is a television producer while Dancing On Ice champion, Gaynor Faye, is well-known for roles in Coronation Street, Fat Friends and now Emmerdale.

“We’re a close, supportive family and I’ve four lovely grandchildren. Waiting until her children were at secondary school, Kay trained at Bretton Hall College and set up the Yorkshire Theatre Company, performing in pubs and clubs. I only discovered what the public really liked to watch by performing. I got us an Arts Council grant and carried on writing as well as acting on stage and television.”

Meantime Anthony, a car mechanic, trained at Stockport as a teacher of children with learning difficulties.

“He’d supported me but I wasn’t earning enough to pay the bills. I was acting in the ill-fated Albion Market but knew I could write better scripts so I did. Bill Podmore, who looked after Coronation Street, made me a story-liner. But then most script-writers were men and I was this young woman with ideas which were shouted down most of the time. It was depressing.”  

Natasha Hamilton - Natalie-Anderson - Andrew Freddie Flintoff - Jodie Prenger - Kevin Kennedy - Sam Bailey

With fellow script-writer Paul Abbott, they worked on Children’s Ward for 12 series so Kay  got to know Manchester well. “On Merseyside Phil Redmond created Brookside about real people and I worked with writers like Jimmy McGovern. It was one of my happiest times writing for wonderful actors like Sue Johnston and John McArdle who played Sheila and Jimmy Corkhill. But Kay also worked on solo projects like Families and Band of Gold.

“I slogged for eight years to get the latter off the ground. It was successful and suddenly I was hot property. I wrote Playing The Field and adapted Jane Eyre. I got the idea for Fat Friends because family and friends were on diets so I joined Weight-Watchers to discover more. I thought there’s a series here about people being defined by what they weighed rather than by who they are as people. I could have gone on writing that because it was so popular but I wanted to tell other stories. Kay followed that with Between The Sheets, Strictly Confidential, The Syndicate and a drama called The Chase — not to be confused with the quiz show!

Gaynor was embarrassed about appearing in my work but I only rang her agent if I thought she was right for a role. We’d worked together with John Thomson on Stan The Man and had a great time.  Unfortunately they chose to transmit The Chase opposite Britain’s Got Talent on one side and Heartbeat on the other so it didn’t stand a chance.

I’d already written a play called Fanny and Elvis, which was optioned by a film company, and directed it myself choosing a relatively unknown actor called Ray Winstone. I’d seen him in Nil By Mouth and thought he was terrific. That was a real labour of love filming in appalling weather with water running down my back. But it was my baby.”

Kay both wrote and directed the two-part television drama A Passionate Woman, starring Billie Piper, which was based on her 1992 stage play. 

“My mother and I were once washing up together when great plops of tears fell into the washing up bowl as she confessed she’d once been madly in love with a Polish man. I’d no idea she’d been carrying the grief for losing that love all those years and the relief in talking about it was tremendous. I was in my forties and very nervous when the play opened in London starring Ann Reid, followed by Stephanie Cole, with the lovely Neil Morrisey as the son. Fortunately audiences and critics liked it. However, when tour director Gareth Tudor-Price suggested I performed it at the Oldham Coliseum, the first night my heart was thumping so loudly I thought the audience would hear. But you could hear a pin drop and then came laughter. I felt very close to my mother the whole time and Gaynor remarked I’d spookily become Nana - so that was touching.”  

I saw Kay in that production and she definitely deserved the favourable reviews. No stranger to writing about strong women, she’s full of admiration for her mother.

“She instilled the work ethic in me which I’ve passed to my daughters. Mine has been an interesting journey and now directing means I have more control of my work. Now Girlfriends is on our screens I hope viewers are enjoying it as much as we did filming it. Fat Friends The Musical had nightly standing ovations in Leeds so I’m just hoping Manchester will enjoy it as much!”

Girlfriends is on ITV now. Fat Friends: The Musical comes to Manchester Opera House in March 2018.