A young teen-age girl compelled Kay Mellor to write “Band of Gold,” a six-hour miniseries from Britain’s Granada Television about a group of prostitutes and how their lives change after one of them is brutally murdered.
The adult thriller starring Geraldine James (“The Jewel in the Crown”) and Cathy Tyson (“Mona Lisa”) makes its American TV debut Monday on HBO.
Mellor, who lives in Leeds in Northern England, first encountered the seedy world of prostitution a few years ago while driving with her husband to a party in nearby Bradford. The two turned up a lane frequented by prostitutes in the working-class town. “I don’t think I ever witnessed prostitution so overtly,” she recalls. “The women were sort of out there looking to work in a very kind of obvious way.”
One stepped forward and peered into their car window. “We have tinted glass,” Mellor says. “It was dark and she was looking to see if it was a man alone. The thing that startled me was her age. She was so young. I think she was probably 14 or 15. She still had baby fat in her face. You always expect prostitutes to be in their 20s or 30s. I just had no idea at all that the age of these women was creeping so low. It really affected me and stayed with me the whole evening.”
And into the next day. Mellor, who volunteers at a help center, told one of the counselors about the incident the following morning. The woman suggested she and Mellor drive to Bradford to find the girl. Though they were unsuccessful, Mellor managed to talk with a few other prostitutes.
“Their situation was greatly dangerous because there were a lot of pimps around,” Mellor says. “It’s very threatening. They were afraid to talk with me properly. I realized I was in a very dangerous situation there because I didn’t know what the protocol was.”
The counselor then suggested Mellor talk with someone she knew–a woman in therapy trying to quit the world’s oldest profession. That woman, who is still kept by three men, became the inspiration for Cathy Tyson’s character Carol, a prostitute with a cleaning fetish who suffers a nervous breakdown.
“In fact, Cathy Tyson is very similar [to her],” Mellor says. “It’s actually uncanny how alike she is. She portrays her absolutely perfectly.”
Mellor also researched her script in consultation with the English League of Prostitutes, a collective group of prostitutes and ex-prostitutes who offer aid to one another.
Some English critics, Mellor says, found “Band of Gold” anti-male. Though Mellor pleads not guilty to the male-bashing charge, she acknowledges, the “sad state of affairs is that behind most women who are working in prostitution today, there will be a man somewhere–either a father or a husband or a pimp. I haven’t met a woman who could tell me honestly that she went on the lane by choice. It’s not a happy picture for men, unfortunately, but it’s not a piece about them. It’s a piece about women and I’m not painting them in the most wonderful light. It’s a darker side of life.”
Geraldine James, who played a deaf prostitute 18 years ago in the British TV film “Dummy,” found life has gotten harder for prostitutes. “It’s a lot more dangerous,” says James, who plays Rose, the aging prostitute desperate to find the daughter who was taken away from her several years before.
These days, women work in pairs for protection. “It used to be a very lonely profession,” James says. Currently, there are “drop-in centers and places where working women can go and talk to each other, see doctors, have a coffee break and pick up their supply of condoms or whatever. They are trying to make their lives better for each other.”
In the course of her research, James met prostitutes who fantasized that Richard Gere’s character in “Pretty Woman” would eventually turn up, buy them beautiful clothes and make them happy. “I met the ones who are going to give it up next year and retrain for something else and I also met the ones who said, ‘It’s a great life and I’m sticking with it, thank you very much.’ ”
“Band of Gold,” which aired on British TV in March, has been the most successful new drama to air there this season. Mellor is currently writing a six-hour sequel which will begin filming this fall.
The series’ success initially shocked James. “I was very alarmed,” she says. “I was, like, why are all of these people watching the program? How much of this audience is watching it for the wrong reasons? I was only reassured by it when so many people came up to me and talked to me in the streets and so many people in [show] business said, ‘That is great television. I love it.’ ”
Mellor was especially pleased with the positive response from her prostitute contact. The woman, she says, refused to be paid for the time she spent talking with her. “She said, ‘The only thing I want, Kay, is that I want you to write it like it is.’ Can you imagine how nervous I was at the preview? She didn’t speak all the way through it, but at the end of it she said, ‘You wrote it like it is.’ I felt like I had achieved something.”