Sunday, 24 March 2013

Kay Mellor in the New Headingley Club

Kay Mellor in New Headingley Club.   Photo by Richard Wilcocks
Sally Bavage writes:
Tea and homemade cake - the walnut sponge was chosen by our guest - revived the forty or so frozen souls who battled in to the New Headingley Club on Saturday afternoon for a question-and-answer session with our very own heroine, scriptwriter, actress, director - and much more besides.  And Kay's smile and personality would melt the North Pole.  Chutzpah. Pizzazz.  Whatever the word, she has it.

What scripts hasn't Kay written over the past decades!   Theatre first, after her schooldays at West Park School and her degree in Drama from the sadly-missed Bretton Hall.  Each had one inspiring teacher who had recognised her natural writing talent and given her encouragement to “just get it down in writing.” Kay has a perceptive eye for detail, a keen ear for dialogue and an ability to bring people to life so vividly that we can probably all name someone in our own lives who is just like one of her characters.  As she lives very locally, it could indeed be us!  She confessed that she does use her friends, family, those she meets casually, dinner party conversations, what she reads  - all of these as inspiration for her storytelling.  

Her latest story, The Syndicate, series two, had just started on BBC1, and we were treated to some tantalising glimpses of the second episode which hint at what lies in store for the new Lottery-winning characters who work in the lower end of the embattled NHS.  Celebrations of the win are clearly foreshadowed, with some jealousy and heartache to come - but without these it wouldn't be a Kay Mellor script.  She finds people endlessly fascinating and has no desire yet to write her autobiography whilst the ordinary lives of others in extraordinary circumstances provide such rich material.

Unlike series such as Band of Gold, wich she researched with Bradford sex workers, she prepared for this by talking to Lottery winners over the telephone rather than immersing herself deeply in their lives.  She incorporates psychology as well to carry the story and does not write for a particular actor, but does her homework thoroughly then just writes fluently and keeps going.  When asked why she had used the Syndicate theme for a second series, as with other themes on which she has written several series, she made it clear that she stops when she has said what she wanted to say, explored all facets of people's characters and captured the 'Zeitgeist'.  The Syndicate gave her a vehicle to examine the life-changing consequences of rags-to-riches, and the follow-on story holds less interest for her. She is not impelled to write a moral tale, just to tell a tale and pose questions that leave viewers the opportunity to engage with their own viewpoint.

“Would she ever set her stories outside West Yorkshire?”  she was asked. She countered that she knows the area, lives here in Leeds and loves the place and the people.  The theme for this year's LitFest 2013: Lives and Loves in a nutshell.  Would she respond to the blandishments of Steven Spielberg and move to Hollywood? No again, although a small part of her would love to have that power to produce blockbuster film scripts like Richard Curtis - but family and especially the grandchildren exerted a far greater pull than anything Steven could come up with.  We laughed at her anecdotes of being in conversation with the great mogul himself.  Steven?  Steven who?  Sorry, I'm losing signal - I'll call back after my granddaughter has finished in Topshop.  She is now overseeing the two writers working on the US version of The Syndicate and does get to go to Tinseltown rather than Tinshill just occasionally.

Yes, she does receive a huge amount of mail, not just fan mail, but often from viewers who have been so touched by her stories that they send her very personal information, cries for help really.  She does answer them, briefly, and feels privileged that so many trust her with their confessions.  She also had some advice for young writers trying to 'make it.'  “Can you write your story premise in six lines?”  It is the idea that is the most important thing; good writing will only hang from a sound structural base.  

The choice of which actors will deliver the dialogue she has crafted is negotiated with the producer and casting director after she has written the part. Only once did she dislike who had been cast for a leading role and have to go away to re-write to play to the strengths of the actress.  On that early occasion it was an improvement, but it doesn't happen nowadays.  She produces real dialogue, in two columns, so that it can be intercut, interjections made, overlapped, cut off - just as in real life.  Real conversations in other words - just as we could hear in the audience as we were leaving; even from Finlay who at 19 weeks old was probably the youngest member of any of our audiences this year.

And her ambitions for the future?  Well, 'Steven' had suggested she really ought to write and direct movies, but they would have to be about 'her people', the ones she knows and whose voices she can hear.  Perhaps … watch this space?  She is still very busy running a business and ensuring that what she wants to talk about gets transferred to an audience.  When asked, now that she is growing older, if she thought she would write more parts for older people, she agreed - the babyboomers in her own life gave lots of scope for future plotting.  Scriptwriting for the theatre, the television and other media was still a delightful way to earn a living - if Shakespeare did it, then it was good enough for her!

And finally, does she play the Lottery herself?  No, she has enough richness in her life and is happy to follow the maxim of Ian Fleming when he said “It reads better than it lives.” Our audience plunged out into the freezing spring weather, replete with cake, and looking forward to the next instalments of local life, and the life of locals, that Kay can craft.  Will we be in it? - that may be another story!

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