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Kay Mellor: Getting pregnant 16 gives you the life experience to be a writer

Having so much life experience at a young age only makes your writing stronger, says the Band of Gold creator Kay Mellor.
Kay Mellor, creator of Band of Gold. Credit: Rollem Productions / Ben Blackall

They say that if you want to be a writer you need to live. Kay Mellor, the mind behind Fat Friends, The Syndicate, Band of Gold, and countless other TV classics, is nothing if not short of life experience.

Becoming a parent will change anyone’s life. The change when that happens at 16 is earth shattering. She tells Jane Graham her story in this Letter To My Younger Self.

When I was 16 my main preoccupation was being pregnant and about to have my first child. With nowhere to live and no income. I’d left school and gone to secretarial college. Back then in the day, you could either be a secretary, a nurse or a teacher if you were a woman. Those were three things that were open to you.

So because I was a bit of a writer and wanted to do drama, my mum said, if you do a secretarial course for a year, you can go to drama school. So that was the deal. And then when I was at secretarial college I got pregnant.

When I first found out I was pregnant it was a catastrophe. Anthony was my first proper boyfriend. We’d been going out for about 18 months. We had no money. He was very optimistic, ecstatic that I was pregnant and having a child. But I remember feeling, this is terrible, this is the end of my life. My mother was horrified. And then when she came around to the idea she said look, you don’t have to marry him if you don’t want. You can stay here and have the baby. And for that I’m eternally grateful to her, because there’s not many mothers who would have said that.

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In these days if you were pregnant you got married, and very hastily. So I wasn’t forced to marry. But actually, I did love Anthony. And he loved me. We saw each other every single day for 18 months. We were obsessed with each other. So we did get married. Somebody made a dress for me, somebody organised a special licence, and this wedding, which I had nothing to do with organising, went ahead, with everybody crying all through it. The vicar wouldn’t marry us in the church. Anthony wanted to have a church wedding but the vicar said no, it won’t last two minutes. I wish I could find him now.

I didn’t need two parents; my mother was a mother and a father to us.

Everybody I knew on our estate had a mum and dad, apart from me. I just had a mum. People used to say to me, to tease me, you haven’t got a dad. But I remembered the breakup, it was a very violent breakup. Those images don’t go away, ever, ever, ever, ever. You will remember them all your life. When my dad came back into my life when I was 21, I found it very difficult to make a relationship with him.

But I didn’t need two parents; my mother was a mother and a father to us. She was a very affectionate, loving woman who, if she wasn’t working, was making sure that me and my brother were alright and given love. She was a brilliant mother, she made me believe I could do anything. I had a wonderful childhood in many ways, because having one loving parent is all you really need.

Kay Mellor with 1999: With the stars of Fanny and Elvis (l-r) Gaynor Faye (her daughter), Kerry Fox and Ben Daniels.
Kay Mellor
1999: With the stars of Fanny and Elvis (l-r) Gaynor Faye (her daughter), Kerry Fox and Ben Daniels. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Growing up, I didn’t know anybody that was a writer or an actress. I had no thoughts of going to drama school, I didn’t know what that was. Then one day I was entertaining the class during dinner break – making up little sketches and stories as I often did – and Mrs Davis, an American teacher, came into the classroom. I didn’t even know she was there, I was so wrapped up in acting out. After all the kids finished clapping she sent everyone out and asked me to stay behind. I thought I was going to get into trouble. And she said “How do you do that? Where does the story come from? Is it written down?” And I told her I just make it up on the spot. And she said, I wish I could put you in my pocket and take you back to the States with me.

I had no idea what she was talking about, but after that day I was chosen to go to everything in school that was art, even a trip to the ballet. It was always me and I never understood why. And when my mother went to the open day, Mrs Davis said, she needs to go to drama school. She’s got a talent. My mum was kind of furious, saying, you’ve got your head in the clouds, Kay, you need to concentrate on your maths and sciences. But slowly she came round to the idea and realised that what Mrs Davis was saying was true.

They say that, even when you’re 30, you’re a young writer, because you need life experience to be able to write. I had a lot of life experience at a young age. And that meant I was never fearful. When you’ve given birth at 16, when you don’t know where your next penny is coming from, you’re not afraid of saying things.

I remember the producer of Band of Gold telling me what he thought my series was, saying it should be this and that. And I said to him, no, it’s none of those things. It’s about the women that walk the streets in Bradford, it’s about prostitution, it’s about sex workers. I said, you should get your hat and coat on and go up to Bradford and meet those women like I did. And then you wouldn’t tell me what my series is really about. It takes a certain courage to talk to a producer like that. I think my life experience, so different to his, gave me that courage.

Kay Mellor receiving her OBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace.
TV writer Kay Mellor receives an OBE from the Prince of Wales during the investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Kay Mellor receiving her OBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace. Credit: Paul Harness / Alamy

Anthony and I did go through a bit of a rough patch. When I went into further education, Bretton Hall College, Anthony was out earning a living, looking after the kids and putting a roof over our heads. And I was moving in a different direction, towards drama, writing, acting. In many ways, I was leaving him behind. He was stuck in that alpha male, motor mechanic, ‘got to put the food on the table, got to pay the mortgage’, breadwinner mindset. Educating Rita, that was my story. I should have written that. I always felt like Willie Russell beat me to it.

But god bless Anthony, he knew that if we were to sustain our marriage, he would have to change. So he went to Stockport College and got a degree in social welfare. And he became interested in education and politics. So we caught up. There was one day, we’d gone on holiday, maybe to Majorca, with the kids. And we were sat on that beach, and we were talking about things that interested both of us. Our minds were both opening.

We were still juggling two small girls, and we had bills to pay, but we were connecting on a different level to how we had as young people. We were looking at architecture, noticing things. Our brains were both starting to open. And I started to grow closer to him.

Kay Mellor joined by dog Ava and Katherine Rose Morley, who plays Keeley in The Syndicate.
Kay Mellor with Dog
Kay Mellor joined by dog Ava and Katherine Rose Morley, who plays Keeley in The Syndicate. Photo: Rollem Productions

I think if the 16-year-old Kay could look at me now and see that people actually know my name, and see that I make television, and that my name goes up as writer and creator and director… I think that would blow her brains out. In a million years, she could never have dreamt that. And she’d also see that you can be happy in a long, long relationship if you work at it. I’ve said so many times – people fall in and out of love. And that’s alright.

If you look for what it was that fundamentally attracted you to that person. Not just the physicality, but that person underneath, the letter in the envelope. Don’t throw it away, because you’ll just have another letter. And then you’ll get bored of reading that letter.

If I could go back and live one day again, it would be from the first time I went to the Caribbean. It was a mind-blowing moment because it was such a different culture. We’d never seen anything like it. It was our first big holiday and Anthony’s 40th birthday. We went to Barbados, St Lucia. And it was just like paradise. It took my breath away, it was just so utterly beautiful. A sort of simple life, but so beautiful. I remember standing on our hotel balcony, watching the fish being netted by these young Caribbean lads.

The sun, the sunsets, the palm trees, the colour of the sea, the colour of the little houses – everything about it was just glorious. I felt like I was in a great big film. Those images will stay with me all my life.

Season Four of The Syndicate will air on BBC One in late March.