Yorkshire's Kay Mellor On New Fat Friends Musical
As it takes to the stage in Yorkshire, director, writer and proud Leeds lass Kay Mellor tells us why her drama Fat Friends is still as important as ever – more than 20 years on from the successful ITV show
The original show, which aired on ITV in 2000, followed the lives of a group of slimming club members in Headlingley, and highlighted the way their weight impacted on their lives. As with the theatre show, that too had an allstar cast including Ruth Jones, James Corden, Sheridan Smith and Alison Steadman (who all went on to appear in Gavin & Stacey), and Kay’s daughter Gaynor Faye. We’re keen to find out why and how this musical reboot came about – but first, we asked Kay to reflect on her career so far.
‘Have you got an hour?’ she laughs. Kay grew up in Leeds in a single-parent family on a council estate, and became pregnant at 16, so started married life early with her husband Anthony. Having always been interested in drama, when her two daughters (television producer Yvonne Francas and actress Gaynor Faye) started school, Kay returned to her education and studied drama at Bretton Hall College. In her third year at Bretton, Kay wrote a play about a boy who had a learning difficulty. ‘I had people like Susannah York and Bill Alexander asking me how I did it, and I didn’t know what I’d done to be honest with you, but it was clear that I was a writer,’ Kay says. After taking the plays she was writing to the stage, her writing continued to improve, and she was soon introduced to the small screen.
‘I played small parts in shows like All Creatures Great and Small and that introduced me to television scripts,’ Kay reflects. ‘To have all that freedom to do what I wanted to do was wonderful. I wrote an episode of Albion Market, left it at the front desk, the producer read it and asked me to come in to meet him. He was a very big wig at Granada at the time, and he told me my script was brilliant, so I joined the team. Then I went to Brookside and Coronation Street and began writing my own stuff with Paul Abbott, including Children’s Ward. That series was awarded plenty of accolades including a BAFTA, and led me to Band Of Gold. I’d watched Boys from the Blackstuff and found it really interesting how Bleasdale had written for an ensemble, and I wanted to do that. He was writing for men, and I wanted to write for women. Band of Gold led to a meteoric rise, and everyone was trying to get hold of me. I think I had 28 offers after the first week – that was it for me. After Playing The Field [a BBC drama following the lives of the Castlefield Blues, a fictional female football team from South Yorkshire], David asked what else I had and I decided I’d love to write about people who are trying to lose weight in one way or another – so Fat Friends was born.’
But where did the idea come from? ‘I saw someone outside the Town and Country Club in Leeds as it was at the time. She was a curvy young woman and it was a cold November night. There she was in a strappy lycra dress, blonde hair cascading down her back, and everybody was looking at her. I remember thinking gosh, look how confident she is, look how amazing she is and look at how everyone’s looking at her in adoration. All it was really was confidence. She had bucketloads of it. I thought: why aren’t we all like that? Why are we all obsessed with how much we weigh? She didn’t care, and she looked gorgeous. I remember thinking I wish I could bottle that and put that out for people to see, and that’s what I did with Fat Friends. Kelly was born (the part that Ruth Jones played), and then I thought, what if she had a mother who was a yo-yo dieter? Then, what about people who drive for a living and sit down all day? Slowly but surely all these characters came together. It varies, you know. You go to these slimming groups (I went to one), and you see people and think, what are you doing here? But they might have a pound to lose.’
Society has changed a lot over the past two decades, but Kay feels social media has a part to play in body confidence. ‘The way people are portrayed on social media, the way you can airbrush… you might see a candid shot of someone getting out of a car showing a bit too much thigh and someone will write a disparaging remark about them,’ she says. ‘Even the other way round: people will comment on how thin people look. People are just obsessed with other people’s sizes. I think it’s got worse, I really do. We have to do something about this for our young people’s health. I hope there’s lyrics in this show, and things said, that will make people stop and think.’
Despite it being such a delicate topic, Kay has once again tackled it with warmth – and with new music from Nick Lloyd Webber, we’re positive that fans of Kay’s work won’t want to miss the musical. It’s starring Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’s Lee Mead, Sherrie Hewson (Coronation Street and Benidorm), Hollyoaks’ Jessica Ellis and Les Dennis, straight from his acclaimed West End run in Hairspray. The musical sees the friends reunite at their local slimming club, whilst Kelly (Jessica) fantasises about fitting into the wedding dress of her dreams – it promises to be plenty of fun.
With the TV show having been such a success, especially among Yorkshire audiences, the theatre cast had big shoes to fill. Just how did Kay decide on her cast? ‘Funny you should say that, oh my goodness, I’ve been casting forever,’ she laughs. ‘Kelly has to be right: she has to be warm, she has to be funny, she has to be confident about her body – a body positive image. Finding Kelly was hard but funnily enough Jessica came in to read for me for Band Of Gold. I looked at her and I said “can you sing?”. She came in and she was so bubbly, and so funny, and in the end (when I knew she wasn’t going to get that part), she said she could sing. When we were looking to cast for Fat Friends, I asked to see her again. Well, she went in front of Nick Lloyd Webber and he thought she was a singer that could act, not an actress that could sing!’
Kay’s passion for Yorkshire, and Leeds in particular, shines through in everything she does. It’s particularly obvious in her work, with another of her popular dramas, The Syndicate, also based in the county. ‘It’s important that it’s represented because once upon a time we had a few dramas that were set in Yorkshire: Heartbeat and The Royal,’ Kay explains. ‘I’m not categorising my work as the same as that but it has a sense of identity. I don’t wish to name drop (although this will sound like I am), but Steven Spielberg saw the first Syndicate and I had a chat with him. One of the comments he made was: “it’s got a sense of home. You know where you are with it. I don’t know Leeds, I’ve never been there, but I feel like I know it. All those people are from the same place.” It’s funny because he’s an outsider; someone who’s never been to Leeds, so it was really interesting to hear. The thing for me is I write what I know… and I know Yorkshire. I love Yorkshire and I love Leeds.’
There are even songs about Yorkshire in the musical. ‘We sing about Headingley,’ Kay laughs. ‘It’s a huge part of it. Historically, my work has been taken and shot somewhere else, and when I’ve looked at it on screen, I know that there’s something wrong with it but I’d never been able to put my finger on it. That’s why I started my own company, because I wanted my work to be shot where it should be.’
Kay has been actor, writer and director in her time. ‘I think I’d like to do a bit of acting now,’ she says. ‘I haven’t done it for a while, and I’ve let a couple of things go that maybe I shouldn’t have. I feel like I’ve done the directing and I’d be able to brief a director and trust them with my work now.’ She’d love to act in something that she’s written herself. ‘I’ve watched Stephen Merchant do it, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge do it, even Victoria Wood – and I often wonder why I stepped away from it instead of stepping forward.
‘I’m just taking one step at a time at the moment. All my life I’ve been racing to do stuff because I was married young and my career didn’t really take off until I was in my 30s, I’ve always felt there was a rush. Now I want to enjoy each and every one of my projects. The other thing I love, which I’m doing a lot of now, is mentoring young people and trying to find new voices, bringing more diversity in and getting different voices coming through. That gives me enormous pleasure.’