Monday 03 November 1997
it is precisely this undaunted attitude which ideally equips her to write soap, where the main characters are inevitably tough women
Ever wondered why prostitutes chew gum? For sticking on to car seats in silent anger at their unsuspecting clients? To provide adhesive for those little cards in telephone boxes? Not even warm. Apparently the gum is often a condom, held in reserve until the last vital moment, when that stubborn male, who refuses to dress properly for the occasion, is too distracted to argue.
This is just one of many fascinating nuggets collected by Kay Mellor, creator of Band of Gold, ITV's landmark prostitution drama. Its authenticity is fast establishing her as one of Britain's great, innovative female screen writers. Yet initial impressions of Mellor in the South Bank Show's Sunday night profile (ITV) seemed at odds with a writer obviously at home in a shadowy world. Glancing at her, you think of a Jewish Delia Smith, calm and steady, certainly a stranger to vice, for whom steamy writing probably has more to do with cooking vegetables.
However, Melvyn Bragg's quick trawl through her past provided vital clues to her talent. Abandoned by her father at four, Mellor was pregnant and married at 16. So she knows about life being tough for women. And there is a bitterness towards men - at one point she likened financially dependent married women to prostitutes. But what has marked her out throughout and now so distinguishes her work is an unwillingness to be a victim or have them as her chief characters. With young children and barely into her twenties, we discovered how Mellor pursued, with the fervour of Julie Walters in Educating Rita, her "obsession with knowledge". Drama school followed, an apprenticeship as the female Jimmy McGovern of the soaps, successful plays and then Band of Gold.
It sounded effortless, which it wasn't. The profile glossed over some of the failures - dramas like Just Us - in the same way as Mellor has herself breezily set them aside. But it is precisely this undaunted attitude which ideally equips her to write soap, where the main characters are inevitably tough women, like Coronation Street's Bet Lynch, anchors in hearth dramas through which pass a string of weak men. For Mellor, it was a short step on to the world of a prostitution drama and infusing the likes of Cathy Tyson and Geraldine James with her Yorkshire grit, winning out over yet more inadequate men.
Seeing Kay Mellor with her family threw light on her innovative adaptation of Jane Eyre as a fearless, no-nonsense, sexy woman. Here was a Brontesque scene, the dramatist's rough-hewn Yorkshire daughters acting out mum's latest script. And following Mellor around the dark side of Los Angeles on research for an American version of Band of Gold, you could see that this is a determined woman with unfulfilled ambitions.
Abigail's Party Night (Saturday BBC2) offered a chance to revisit another woman for whom relations with men were punctuated with depressing contempt. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mike Leigh's hugely successful study of Seventies suburban horror, the night inevitably focused on Beverly, immortalised by Alison Steadman as the epitome of lower middle-class aspiration. Two decades on, the play itself survives as a period masterpiece, complete with leather suites, rotisserie, ice bucket and shagpile. Beneath the brilliant social commentary and humour, I found the play's claustrophobia, it's disillusioned relationships and the sense of barely repressed marital violence as excruciatingly painful as when it was first screened. In retrospect the play now seems less modern than when broadcast in 1977. It is a reminder of how little Britain had changed in its obsession with class since the Fifties. Today, Abigail's Party seems all of a one with Michael Palin and Maggie Smith in A Private Function. Have things improved? If you think that improving your lot in life is stressful today, then watching Lawrence, Beverly's husband, go through his torment should make you feel better.
The best bit of the night was catching up on Mr Tent Man, Demis Roussos, whose music was adored by Beverly and hated by Lawrence, who couldn't stand that "fat Greek catwallering". The bad news is that this god of excess has got into all sorts of health foods and diets. The good news is that he is still fat, hairy, balding and radiating a happiness that Beverly's gang never achieved.
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