'Educating Rita was my story'

Despite leaving school at 15 with no qualifications, Kay Mellor is now one of Britain's most successful TV writers. Simon Midgley

discovers how she transformed her life through further education KAY MELLOR could so easily have been the model for Willy Russell's heroine in Educating Rita.

The award-winning playwright and writer of the TV screenplays for Band of Gold and Playing the Field left school at 15 without any qualifications.

Brought up in a two-bedroomed, overcrowded council house in north Leeds, she failed the 11-plus and hated school. She says: "All I really wanted to do was make plays and live in a fantasy world."

It was only when she enrolled at the city's Park Lane College a decade after leaving school in 1977 that she discovered the excitement of learning.

Yesterday she and five other former further education students were honoured for their outstanding achievements by the Association of Colleges. They were given the association's gold awards for outstanding alumni.

The prizes were presented by Lord Tope, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson in the Lords, during a House of Commons reception.

In her twenties, and a young mother of two daughters - she had her first when she was just 16 - Ms Mellor joined a local amateur dramatic group where she was dumbstruck to meet educated middle-class people for the first time.

"I was working as a general dogsbody for a small lift company in Leeds and still living with my husband's parents when my first daughter was born.

"During my time with the amateur dramatic company I read everything I could lay my hands on, spending hours in the library.

"I realised I was learning things through reading plays. My thirst for knowledge grew as I became obsessed by my own ignorance.

"I enrolled at Park Lane College to do drama O-level. Then I wanted to do everything. I did human biology, economic and social history, pottery, anything that was going. Once the thirst starts, it's very hard to quench it.

Ms Mellor took three A-levels - - English, drama and art - and a mature matriculation qualification, which enabled her to get into Bretton Hall college to study drama.

She studied by day and evening classes and her family - mothe, father and husband Anthony, who at the time was a motor mechanic - rallied round to help look after the children.

"Park Lane was wonderful. I could not wait to get there. I loved it. It had everything for me. The lecturers said I was fantastic at acting and that I should take it up. I was cast as Viola in Twelfth Night.

"I had gone from being knee-deep in nappies. I thought in many ways that my educational life was over. I thought: 'Well I blew that.'

"This was before Educating Rita came out. People did not go back to college in those days. My mother-in-law did not understand what I was doing. We did not come from that sort of culture really."

Gordon Wright, her inspirational drama lecturer at Park Lane, gave her the prospectus for Bretton Hall and said she had to make something of her talents.

"I had an absolute ball at Bretton Hall. I remember somebody asking if I'd taken a couple of years off in between (school and college). I said: 'Try 10.' Drama school in my mid-twenties! I've grabbed every opportunity to live life to the full since."

Ms Mellor started writing plays while she was studying for her degree.

She says: "When I saw Educating Rita I sat there and thought: 'I cannot believe a man has written this, because this is my story.' It was extraordinary. I knew how she felt."

Like Rita, her attempts to transform her prospects through learning had repercussions on her personal life.

"It was tricky because I was in education and I was growing very quickly and Anthony was a motor mechanic. There were very difficult times for him and me. Fortunately, he went back to college to train to work with people with learning difficulties and that kept our marriage together."

The other award-winners were Gary Rhodes, the chef and TV presenter (catering and food preparation, Thanet College, 1976-9), Jimmy Choo, the footwear designer (footwear design at Cordwainers College 1982-4), Marco Marenghi, an animator of Steven Spielberg's films (HND in animation at Pontypridd College 1995-7), Baroness Lockwood, deputy speaker in the House of Lords (secretarial studies at Dewsbury College in the 1940s) and the actor Richard Griffiths (A-levels at Stockton and Billingham College in 1963).

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