Kay Mellor, creator of TV dramas The Syndicate and Fat Friends and a champion of regional working-class voices through her Leeds indie Rollem Productions, has died at the age of 71.
Starting out on Granada Television, Mellor went on to create ITV’s Bafta-winning children’s drama Children’s Ward with fellow Coronation Street scribe Paul Abbott before landing a string of primetime hits for the channel, including Band of Gold, Fat Friends and Playing the Field.
Later successes included directing an adaptation of her theatre play A Passionate Woman, plus writing, and directing episodes of, three series of In the Club and four of The Syndicate, all for BBC1.
Mellor launched Rollem in her native Leeds in 2000, initially to produce her own work but with an eye on emerging drama voices, having previously championed and mentored the likes of Last Tango in Halifax creator Sally Wainwright and Gavin and Stacey co-writer Ruth Jones, who got her break on Fat Friends.
Together with Lime Pictures and Bonafide, Rollem is part of the Channel 4 New Writing Northern Talent Development Partnership and the indie is also part of the 15-strong West Yorkshire Indie Lab cohort.
Writers nurtured through Rollem in recent years include Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan, who wrote BBC3 drama Overshadowed, and Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney, creators of BBC3 comedy-drama My Left Nut.
Both series started as stage plays and Mellor maintained strong links with the theatre world throughout her career. She was a patron of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with whom she established the Kay Mellor Fellowship, an initiative that gave writers a year’s support in working up an original idea for stage and TV.
Its first recipient was actor and writer Kat Rose-Martin, who developed her drama idea Whipped with Rollem and went on to write for Sky drama Wolfe and CBBC’s The Dumping Ground. She has also projects in development with Urban Myth Films, Chalkboard TV, Red Planet Pictures and Red Production Company.
Receiving the Special Recognition Award at the Broadcast Awards in 2020, Mellor made an impassioned plea to back new talent.
“I’d like to ask – no, beg – commissioners to trust new voices coming through and think of a way that they can actively encourage these voices, instead of thinking of ways in which they can actively turn them down, because sometimes, I’m afraid, that’s what it feels like,” she said.
Mellor was a champion of Channel 4’s move to Leeds and in her last TV appearance three weeks ago, she told Channel 4 News that the broadcaster’s proposed privatisation would be “a tragedy” for the indie sector.
Manchester-based EastEnders writer Rebekah Harrison, who had been developing a BBC3 pilot called Sugar Baby with Rollem, said she was “shocked and devastated” at Mellor’s passing.
“She was truly an inspiration to me – paving the way for working class woman and our stories on TV,” Harrison wrote on Twitter. “I was in awe of her talent and tenacity, relentlessly championing new writers. I wouldn’t be the writer I am without Kay. I know many will say the same.
“Her generosity of time and wisdom meant so much, having grown up with her work. The true impact Kay had on the world of TV will continue in ripples for many years to come.”
Ruth Jones saluted "a down-to-earth, funny, big-hearted person whose brilliance lay in seeing the extraordinary in the day to day," adding: "She was a great mentor to me when I first started writing - and always hugely encouraging of new writers - a real testament to the idea of paying it forward."
Rollem said in a statement that it had lost “a phenomenal talent and a true luminary”, while Screen Yorkshire said she had “put Yorkshire and Leeds on the map”.
The agency added: “Kay's genius lay in her ability to capture the warmth and humour of everyday relationships and turn it into entertainment that brought joy to millions around the world. Her legacy will burn brightly.”
The team behind fellow Leeds indie Candour Productions described Mellor as “a role model for a female founded production company in the north as well as a brilliant writer”.
Sheffield-based documentary-maker Holly Cocker also shared her memories.
“My parents made children's TV progs with her in the 90s so she was a constant presence in our home,” she wrote. “I would steal bits of scripts and study them dreaming of being even half the writer she was.”