She was a working class girl from Leeds who could live the lives of sex workers, diet club friends and lottery winners with unwavering sympathy, honesty and humor.
Kay Mellor was the voice of the underdog and ordinary people whose groundbreaking writing also helped launch the careers of James Corden, Samantha Morton and Sheridan Smith.
The TV industry was reeling yesterday to learn that the creator of iconic series, including Fat Friends, Band of Gold, Play the Field and The Syndicate, had suddenly passed away at the age of 71.
A spokesperson for her television production company, Rollem Productions, confirmed “with deep sadness” that she passed away on Sunday.
The tributes flowed in led by Gavin and Stacey star Ruth Jones, who was part of the cast of ITV’s Fat Friends along with Smith, Corden and Alison Steadman.
She said British television had “lost one of its greats”, adding that she felt “completely privileged” to work with her.
“Such a realistic, funny, big-hearted person whose brilliance lies in seeing the extraordinary in everyday life,” she said.
She is best known for writing dramas featuring strong female characters, and setting them in the North.
Her upbringing on the land of the municipal council taught her work. Her father, George Daniel, sold vacuum cleaners, and when she was nine, her mother married upholsterer Abby Harris.
Ken McKay / ITV / Rex / Shutterstock)
Mellor and her husband, Anthony, married in 1968 after becoming pregnant at age 16 with daughter Yvonne Francas, who is now a television producer.
She gave birth to her second daughter Faye – an actress who has appeared in many of her plays including Play the Field – four years later.
She reflected on this experience in the 2013 drama In the Club, saying it helped her “exorcise some demons”. “I remember Anthony and I going home to tell my mom and I was so scared,” she said, considering becoming a mother while at school.
It was wonderful though. She sat up and said, “You know, you don’t have to marry him, if you don’t want to.”
But she was happy about the marriage of 17-year-old Anthony and the move to his mother’s house where they were both “wearing high heels”.
But Mellor added, “I was always grateful to my mother for saying that, though.”
With their two daughters, Yvonne and Gaynor, getting older, Kay had both O’s and A’s, then trained in drama as a mature student, before founding a touring theater company and entering television.
She began writing plays, before moving to Coronation Street and creating the award-winning children’s drama Children Ward with Paul Abbott, who later wrote Shameless.
Her big break as a writer came with Band of Gold, a pioneering group about sex workers on the streets of Bradford trying to run their own business.
She wrote the ITV drama, which ran for three years from 1995, after taking a wrong turn and driving into the red-light district, where Mellor was shocked to see underage girls promoting for work.
Hollywood star Samantha Morton gave one of her first major roles, before starring in Minority Report opposite Tom Cruise.
Mellor had long been determined to put her plays in and around Yorkshire.
“It is critical that the north of England is represented in mainstream drama, not just television series,” she declared.
“Northern drama has a different feel because I feel like these are my people, this is the world I know, this is the world I grew up in.”
She once said that the city of Leeds “nourishes my creativity”. Mellor was also an actress, starring in her adaptation of Jane Eyre in 1997 and The Gifted in 2003.
Her play A Passionate Woman, based on the story of her mother’s doomed affair with a Polish trade fair worker, has been turned into a BBC drama starring Billy Piper and Sue Johnston.
Ken McKay / ITV / Rex / Shutterstock)
Her BBC1 series The Syndicate about lottery winners ran for four series from 2012 until last year.
Mellor said she was inspired to write the drama because of “the times we live in, where people feel hopeless and cling to the dream of winning the lottery as the only solution.”
West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Braben called her “our voice in the North”, saying: “She has put working-class characters at the center of wonderful stories that are touching, sympathetic and funny. Such a loss.”
Broadcast on ITV from 2000 to 2005, Fat Friends also gave Corden her first acting role alongside Ruth Jones.
He said: She was more generous, kind and loving. It gave a lot of people their first chances. I have the fondest memories of being with her.”
Former Emmerdale actress Lisa Riley, who also starred in the drama about a weight loss group, called her “the best boss she’s ever worked for” while Coronation Street’s Anthony Cotton noted she was “a true pioneer of women.”
Sir Lenny Henry said: “I have been fortunate to work with her in Guild and have found her incredibly creative, funny and instinctive. We will miss her.”
Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies said he learned valuable lessons from Mellor, who had “an unwavering faith in the story, the story, the story.”
He added, “I adored her. She taught me a lot and was fun.” “I was fortunate enough to hear Kay Mellor talk about Band of Gold, and the care and concern with which I told that story, in which she told all her stories, was fantastic,” said Jack Thorne, writer of his Dark Materials.
Kim Marsh, who appeared in the guild, said it was an “absolute honor” to work with Mellor who was “a huge talent, a huge personality, and an amazing lady”.
BBC Director of Content Charlotte Moore said: “Kay has written with humanity, humor and emotion, with strong female characters often taking center stage.”
“I’ve been with her a few times as people have stopped her in the street and told her how much they love her characters and how they relate to her and want more,” said Polly Hill, ITV’s head of drama.