Twenty years after a drama about Bradford’s red-light district brought a helping of grit to the Sunday TV schedules, Kay Mellor reveals why Band of Gold is about to be reborn on the stage.
T he week before the first episode of Band of Gold went out one Sunday evening in 1995 Kay Mellor was just another aspiring screenwriter. The day after, there were more than 20 scripts sitting on her agent’s desk and all had her name on them.
Back then, television drama was dominated by period adaptations and Mellor’s gritty alternative to those bustle and bonnets captured a very different world. Set in Bradford’s red-light district, audiences immediately clicked with the story of Rose, Carol, Anita and Tracy, but the show hadn’t been an easy sell.
The research had taken Mellor 10 months and it was another seven years before the series was green lit. However, it was those rejections by a succession of TV execs which made Band of Gold’s success taste even sweeter.
“I kept hearing people say, ‘Oh I won’t be watching that, it’s about prostitution’,” says Mellor, who is now working on a stage version of that hit show. “Then Granada called with the overnight figures to say eight million people had seen that first episode.
“Everything went mad, by the second episode we were up to
15 million and people even started throwing Band of Gold parties.”
The series’ working girls were more nuanced than the usual tart with the heart portrayals viewers had become used to and Mellor’s own story was also unusual in TV land. Raised by a single mum in a working class suburb of Leeds, by 18 she was married with two children.
While husband Anthony worked as a mechanic, Mellor was determined to finish her education and won a place at Breton College near Wakefield to study drama. It was there that she discovered she was a natural storyteller and afterwards Mellor became a jobbing scriptwriter on the likes of Albion Market and Coronation Street.
Before Band of Gold she had created the children’s series Dramarama with Paul Abbott, but it was the 1995 series which made Mellor’s name. Without it there would have been no Fat Friends, no Between the Sheets, no In the Club and no The Syndicate.
“I remember looking through all those scripts on my agent’s desk and thinking, ‘Right Kay what is it you really want to write about?’ Whether it’s a red-light district, a women’s football club or a slimming group, the setting for me has always been just a spring board to explore the lives of characters.”
Mellor’s is a distinctly northern voice and she has been famously loyal to Leeds, the city she still calls home. Where possible, she insists all her productions are filmed in Yorkshire and when last year she also gave the stage treatment to Fat Friends, turning it into a musical, the premiere was at Leeds Grand Theatre.
“Transforming Fat Friends into a musical was just so rewarding,” says Mellor. “Being able to sit in an auditorium and get that instant feedback from audiences was just such a positive experience and it got me thinking about Band of Gold.
“Theatre is where I started out and I can completely understand why some actors and directors never want to do anything else. The immediacy of theatre is very special.”
The play of Band of Gold is still very much a work in progress, but like the series it will be set in 1980s and will feature the original characters TV viewers fell in love with.
“I knew that if I moved it to a contemporary setting the audience would have been disappointed,” she says. “Also when I went back to the original scripts I thought they still had something really important to say. Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and for those girls on the streets in Yorkshire today life isn’t much different from those 30 years ago.”
To test the temperature, Mellor held a couple of workshops in Leeds towards the end of last year and asked an invited audience what they thought of her new version of a Band of Gold.
“Some of the people there I knew; many of them I didn’t which was important because I wanted them to feel they could be honest. At the end they were asked to write their feedback on a piece of paper and say whether they would pay to see it.
“I have spent a lot of time with those 30 pieces of paper over the last few months, but everyone single one of them said they would pay to see it, which I thought was pretty good given there were no lights, no set and no costumes.”
Mellor has always been prolific, but throughout her career she has also been a champion of new writers and each week sets aside time to read the many scripts which are sent to her.
“I do it because I know how difficult this industry can be. It’s a business and when you are starting out it can feel like one which is impossible to break into. But I did it and it feels important that I help others to do the same.”