The inspiration for my Passionate Woman

Monday 12 April 2010, 10:38

Kay Mellor Kay Mellor Writer

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I must have been about 28 when my mother told me. She was at the sink washing up at the time and I was drying the pots. It's hard to remember what's fact and what's fiction now, but I'll try.

"We had a bit of a thing," was how she described her affair with the Polish neighbour that lived in the two-roomed flat below her. I thought I was hearing things. One minute we were talking about me and my husband having a bit of a fall out and somehow the conversation turned to Mum telling me how she'd committed adultery with a Polish fairground worker.

Billie Piper as Betty and Theo James as Craze dance with each other

Now you'd have to have known my mum to realise how shocking that was. She was the most ordinary woman, very mumsy, not a vain bone in her body. She wasn't one to show her emotions, she was strong but affectionate with me and my brothers. She wasn't a man's woman, she had three sisters and was, in her own way, a bit of a feminist - way ahead of her time.

My dad had a violent streak and she divorced him when I was three, refused to wear a wedding ring, wouldn't accept money off him and refused to take 'handouts' from the state, preferring to work full time as a tailoress instead. It sounds nothing now, but you've got to remember this was the 1950s, people didn't get divorced. You married and that was it - for better or worse. I remember the other kids off the council estate making fun of me and my brother, saying we didn't have a dad.

Anyway I digress.

"His name was Craze and I loved him with every breath in my body," she continued. She'd mentioned a man and the word love in the same breath - it was unheard of for her to say that; even her second marriage had not been successful.

But even more shocking than that, I realised that tears were falling from her eyes into the washing up bowl. I tried to reassure her.

"I'm happy for you Mum, I'm glad you found someone to love."

"He was murdered."

"What? In Leeds?"

"In a fairground brawl. I've never been able to tell anyone."

It was hard to take it all in and then I realised that not only had Mum never told anyone about this affair, she'd never been able to grieve properly for the man she'd loved and lost.

For the best part of thirty years she'd held onto this grief - it had been locked in. No wonder her marriages hadn't worked and she found it difficult to show emotion. She had no trouble showing emotion now - 30 years of tears cascaded into the washing up bowl as she continued with her story. At the end of it she was exhausted.

"You won't ever tell anyone will you?" She made me promise. And I didn't - for 10 years. Then it was my younger brother Philip's wedding and I could see this really pained her as she faced a life alone with my stepfather Alan.

He was a good man and the marriage should've worked. He was the same religion (my dad was a Catholic, Alan was Jewish) and he was political - a strong socialist, but they clashed.

Billie Piper as Betty holds a gass of wine and a pint of beer in A Passionate Women

The look in my mother's face reminded me of the day she told me about Craze. Somehow these two events - my mother's affair and her youngest son getting married - were linked.

A play was burning inside of me and I started to write it for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I called it A Passionate Woman - because I realised that's what my mother was.

I set it on the day of her son's wedding. Betty climbs into the loft to escape from all the arrangements and chaos and drops the flap shut! Her dead lover Craze comes to her and she relives her time again with him. Her son and husband realise she's in the loft and try and coax her down to the wedding, but she's not going anywhere - except up!

The play went into rehearsal with the glorious Anne Reid playing the middle-aged Betty. Two days before press night, I thought I should take Mum to see the play. It was essentially Mum's story, but I'd changed loads of things and I was interested to see if she realised it was her story. She absolutely loved it, wanted to see it again.

The second time she saw it, she turned to me at the end and with tears and bewilderment in her eyes she said: "This is my story."

I reassured her. "Yes, but I'm not going to tell anyone and you're not, so who's going to know?"

Then came the opening night of the show. All the press were there. The play went well and as is customary with a new play, the cast, myself and the director David Liddiment all sat on the stage to answer questions. One particular journalist kept asking me where I got the idea for the play - "Did something or someone inspire it?"

I could see my mother sat in the middle of the audience - I had to protect her and keep my promise. I replied: "Yes, someone did inspire me to write it, but I'm not at liberty to say who it was."

And then from the middle of the auditorium came -

"It was me!"

I looked up. My mother was waving her hand in the air; her eyes were gleaming with pride. "It's MY story!"

And as the press turned to interview her, I watched the years of shame and secrecy drop away. My mother came out publicly - she'd had an affair, she'd known love, she had a sexual awakening, she was A Passionate Woman.

Two years later the play opened in the West End to rave reviews. The play ran for a year at the Comedy Theatre and has toured extensively all over the world. Film rights were fought for, but I held on to them tightly as I didn't want Cher playing my mum on a rooftop in Detroit.

It's still running in Poland I think.

Kay Mellor is the writer of A Passionate Woman. The first episode is available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday, 25 April. Part two will be broadcast on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday, 18 April

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Such a beautifully written story. Can't wait for the next episode...just wished I'd seen it on stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    This was amazing to watch, i haven't watched anything like this in a very long time. Thank you very much for blessing us with this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I didnt really know if i was going to like such a period drama but i read about a passionate woman and thought i would give it a go. How glad i am now that i did, my eyes were fixed to the television screen for the whole 90 minutes. It is a lovely story, throughout the programme i was willing betty not to leave her husband for craze but after reading the inspiration for the show i really wish she had, as when she was with him she became a different woman, a happier woman. Can't wait for the next episode.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Kay youve done it again, a wonderfully poignant story, told with sensitivity and stirring emotion. It left me wondering "what if?". What will the final part bring, cant wait!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    A beautiful love story, i can't wait to see the next part on Sunday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    A beautifully depicted story of a woman's coming to life. Far too common that it is hidden so it is wonderful to see here. Your mum wasn't just your inspiration - she's inspirational! Thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    This story is, indeed, magnetic. It is wonderfully expressed and put together. Without knowing anything about it, the feel of it was enough to give it a look and it was truly inspirational. A mixture of emotions arose and now hearing the inspiration behind it makes it all the more intense and real.
    Thank you for being there for your mother. At last she is free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    i absolutely loved it! probably one of the best dramas ive seen on tv in years. the story was lovelly and i was gripped throughout, i cant wait for the second part. thought billie piper's acting in it was excellent, not really seen her in anything before, and also a big fan of sue johnston so i can imagine she'll also be brilliant in part two. wish i had a next door neighbour like him, no such luck

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    This was one of the best things I have watched in a long time. I was so disappointed when I knew I was going to have to wait a week to view the second episode.I am now sitting with tears in my eyes having read about Kays inspiration for the piece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    For the first time in ages I've been glued to my seat. Such a well put together drama, shame we have to wait a week for the next part, I so wish this didn't happen with decent dramas. Billie Piper just gets better and better, she has grown into such a good actress, she was an excellent choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Such a beautiful story, I have heard similar stories from my mum and aunts, things that happened during the war, they had similar experiences with the American and Canadians soldiers, it must have been a wonderful time for all, but how many broken heart..... The actor is gorgeous, how come I have never heard about him before. Obviously destined for much bigger things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    i loved it. the whole thing was really lovely, i watched it over again. i loved the music that accompanied it, the clothing, the attention to detail and best of all, the story. im a child of the late 50s so i recall a lot of the items being used in our home and that of our relatives as well as the era itself and i think this it captured very well in the detail. i loved the quality of the clothing to that which is affordable now, well by me at any rate. im sure this (falling in love/affairs) happened a lot and i know how society treated women who were enveigled in this kind of thing. i am myself, a passionate woman ! tho my story is of the entry into the 2000s so more recent. cant wait for the next episode. mmmm cant wait !

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Can Sue Johnston be made a dame please

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    After a wonderful first part, the second part has been a major disppointment and turned into absolute nonsense.

    I'm willing her to jump off the roof, in the hope the BBC dont make a sequel!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    that was fantastic! well done to all involved...

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    Comment number 16.

    Congratulations to all involved in the making of this fantastic programme, the props were great and the acting superb. I sang and cried last week and I've laughed and cried tonight. I will be watching it again on iplayer. Thank you for two enjoyable sunday evenings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Have just finshed watching the second episode, it was filmed just about two minutes from my house. I was so moved by the story, i had little cry when they went off in the ballon at the end! Was lovely seeing images of my home, coupled with such a beautiful and honest story. Was a fantastic programme and i'm so glad i got to see it, it really touched my heart,
    thank you for making my sunday night

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Absolutely loved it ...what a beautiful love story with fabulous music that brought tears to my eyes. Does anyone know if there are any plans to release the soundtrack?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I wouldn't normally watch something like this - I seem to have attention deficit when it comes to TV and can rarely watch anything longer than 30 mins before I get bored. However, this was a beautiful story, I was utterly transfixed. Couldn't believe I had sat through 90 mins last week and doubted I could do it again but I did, and what's more, I couldn't believe it was the end. Sue Johnston is incredible and I was very impressed with Billie Piper too. Not to mention that Theo James is utterly gorgeous! Seeing from this how the story came about, I just wanted to thank Kay (and her mother) for sharing it with us. Well done

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The first part was absolute brilliance and the second part absolute rubbish. The first part made me feel very nostalgic and everything about it was superb but I wished I'd never watched the second part. I feel like we have all been made a bit of a fool of now. Something beautiful was turned into something silly and comical and I think the writer should have stuck to what really happened in the end in that her mother had a couple of unhappy marriages and a couple of children and how she still longs for her one and only true love.


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