Her serial `Band Of Gold' has given the oldest profession a human face and redefined the word `gritty'. She can't believe how successful it is

the interview: KAY MELLOR TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON photograph by david sandison
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very telephone box on Marylebone High Street is wall-papered with prostitutes' calling cards. At 3.30 on a Tuesday afternoon, a posse of homebound schoolgirls swarm around an especially lurid one. It's clear their curiosity is about to get the better of them. There is an atmosphere of frenzied intrigue - they're like starlings round a takeaway. One especially bold soul picks a number and dials it, but excitement rapidly boils over into bathos: "It's an answering machine!"

Just across the road in the foyer of Greater London Radio sits Kay Mellor, whose landmark prostitution drama Band Of Gold has not only given the oldest profession a human face, but also redefined the outer limits (in ITV terms at least) of the word ``gritty''. Mellor is not only one of the busiest but also perhaps the most, well, dramatic of the wave of female television dramatists pouring through the prime time breach made by Lynda La Plante. She is now working on Girl's Night (a one-off drama in which Julie Goodyear will star, Granada politics permitting) and has her next television film ready for screening, called Some Kind Of Life. It is a saga of motor bike accidents and brain damage, and promises the spectacle of Jane Horrocks playing a ``normal person''.

For all the severity of her storylines - "I have to be angry to write" she insists - there is nothing grim about Kay Mellor in person. All smiles on a trip down from Leeds to London to see the opening of a friend's play, she is accompanied by the younger of her two daughters. There is a striking family resemblance and Gaynor Mellor, who plays Coronation Street newcomer Judy Mallett, is no slouch in the fame stakes herself. But this is not to be one of those mother and daughter things though, and Gaynor obligingly heads off to Boots so as not to get in the way.

"When I first came up with the idea of doing a series about prostitutes," Kay remembers, "I thought about six people would watch it." Wasn't she instantly surrounded by sleazy television people exclaiming: "Oh good, a prostitute drama''? ``Quite the opposite. Male executives at the BBC commissioned it originally but then decided not to go ahead. It took a woman, Sally Head at Granada, to say that it would be a winner. ITV still hovered for a while. It was probably Band Of Gold's vocational framework that finally won the day: if you can have firemen, soldiers, doctors and policemen, why not prostitutes?''

Mellor retains the capacity for bashfulness about her choice of subject matter. "When they put the first series on opposite The Choir I thought, `Fancy showing Band Of Gold on a Sun- day, no one will speak to me...' " This was not the way things ended up: Band Of Gold against The Choir turned out to be a mismatch of Tyson versus Bruno proportions, with the victor attracting 15 million viewers. "The funny thing was," Mellor grins, "there was more sex in The Choir."

The second series of Band Of Gold (back with crack habits, sado-masochism and a couple of slightly superfluous new characters) started off with a bit of a Hollywood sequel feel about it, but soon swiftly re-established its vice-like grip. The secret of Band Of Gold's success is that it somehow manages to be lurid without being exploitative. This is how the script enticed Mona Lisa actress Cathy Tyson out of ``no more prostitutes'' retirement by offering her a shot at redemption. Would it be fair to say that if you were going to think up the most morally reprehensible portrayal of prostitution imaginable, Mona Lisa would probably be it? "I think so, yes," Kay says quietly. "I was very clear in my stage directions," she insists "about what I did and didn't want to see. To be honest when Carol [Tyson's character] walked for Curly [well-meaning stocking-fetishist, now deceased] I wasn't bothered to see the black stockings and suspenders - that was a choice the director and Cathy made. But it wasn't particularly sexy or titillating: it was more edgy." Edgy is a word that Mellor uses a lot. "If something makes you nervous," she insists, "that doesn't mean you should shy away from it, it means it's good."

Does she consider it a condition of her employment to run towards danger? "Good writing is like good acting - you have to be in it in the moment, and the world of Band Of Gold is a frightening world to be in. I've talked to prostitutes, and it is terrifying - their ponces are over the road looking at them, and all the time they're talking to me their eyes are darting left and right and I'm thinking, `What is it at the back of me: is someone going to hit me on the head?' "

Her life, she is relieved to admit, is "cuckooland by comparison". There is certainly more than a hint of fairytale about it. Brought up on a Leeds council estate, Kay married young and had had two children by the time she was 18 (that's how she got to be a grandmother at 43). "The best that you could ever hope to be as a working-class Leeds woman was a teacher," she recalls. "People I've known for a long time say to me: `I can't believe it, your name comes up after televison programmes!' The funny thing is, I can't believe it either."

Role models were not thick on the ground. "People aspire to be someone don't they? But plays just weren't written by women. I remember when I saw the name Caryl Churchill, I thought `I must go and see her stuff' just because I had no one to look up to." Mellor studied drama as a mature student ("I'd been trying to persuade people to go to extra lectures with me, and they'd say, `No Kay, we're staying in bed' '') and on leaving Bretton Hall, also alma mater to John Godber and Colin Welland, she founded her own travelling theatre group.

Q-and-A sessions after the show with blunt Yorkshire audiences ("I could only write an hour's worth, so we were looking for padding'') proved instructive.

Mellor's big break came while working as a "jobbing actress" on the short- lived northern soap Albion Market. "My husband had gone back to college [Mellor's other half Anthony, a former motor mechanic, now runs a daycare centre] and I was the breadwinner. I had two kids and a mortgage, but I wasn't earning much money, so I couldn't afford to miss an opening". Kay dashed off her own idea of an Albion Market script and left it on a desk at Granada. "I thought, `What a stupid thing to do, they'll not ring', but they did. Somebody read it and said, `Hey, this woman can read'." Mellor laughs, "I mean write".

After serving an invaluable apprenticeship as script associate on the ailing soap, Mellor moved on to write "bits" of Coronation Steet and Brookside, and then her own series Childrens' Ward and Just Us. The harrowing Prix Italia-nominated film drama A Place of Safety, and hit West End play A Passionate Woman made her name, but Band Of Gold took things to another level. Initially inspired by a random sighting of a Leeds streetwalker through a car window, Mellor has managed to steer a path between the tart-with-a-heart and turbo-slapper stereotypes to a real place where children have to be met from school.

"There are times when you're trying to get a character from A to B," Mellor explains "and you'll think, `Well, perhaps she'd do this'. But at other times you just know. It's seeing the potential that's important. When the women are getting rid of the body [the unfortunate Curly] I'm thinking, `Okay, they put the body in the car, but will they know how to drive?' Better! Why would they? So they're kangarooing the car down the street. People say it's almost slapstick, but that's how life is sometimes. It's like if Mrs Bloggs over the way has an argument with her husband and she's running down the ring-road in her nightie: I love that. It's so revealing about how vulnerable Mrs Bloggs is and how passionate she can be".

At this point Gaynor returns from the shops, dabs a bit of mascara from her mother's cheek and retires with a magazine, claiming to have "heard it all before". "It's funny that all the women in Band Of Gold have daughters," Kay muses. "If you're a mother of daughters, at certain times in your life you do worry about what will happen to them. Maybe that's why I wanted to write it - as a warning of where someone might end up if they went down a particular road." Presumably a harrowing expose of the perils of the acting profession is on the cards now then? "That's my next one," Mellor grins "don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington".