By Simon Button
Bringing Band Of Gold to the stage for the first time, writer-director Kay Mellor promises fans are in for a treat.
“They’ll get all the joy and the suspense they had from the television version,” says the creator of one of the most-watched shows in British TV history, “but it’s live theatre so it has that excitement to it because it’s unfolding right in front of their very eyes.”
Revising the plot of the first series but adding a few twists to keep it fresh and surprising, the play’s writer and director adds: “It’s funny and it’s sad and audiences are going to be told a big story not over six weeks but two hours with a beginning, middle and an end.”
Set, like the TV show, in the early 90s, the stage version is bringing back the iconic characters and moments that made Band Of Gold such a sensation when it premiered on ITV. But the killer of young mother turned sex worker Gina won’t be the same, with Mellor teasing: “I think people will be more satisfied than they were with the TV revelation.”
The Leeds-born writer was originally inspired to write the hard-hitting drama when, on the way to a party, she and her husband drove through Lumb Lane in Bradford – a notorious hangout for sex workers – and a young woman approached their car. “It was like someone had hit me in the solar plexus,” Kay recalls, “because she was so young – 14 or 15 – and my daughters weren’t much older than that.”
Haunted by the encounter, Kay left the party early to track down the girl but was told by another sex worker that the teenager had ‘pimp problems’. Mellor sighs. “I never saw her again, but I started thinking ‘What is it that drives a woman onto the Lane to sell her body?’”
It took eight years for her to get what would become Band Of Gold on screen “fighting, everybody and literally begging people to read the script, because I was an unknown writer writing about sex workers in the North of England and who’s gonna put that on television?”
The fight paid off. The show wasn’t just a gripping crime drama, it was a phenomenon – with more than 15 million viewers tuning in each week, fans holding Band Of Gold parties where they’d catch the latest episode over wine and pizza and bookies taking bets on the identity of Gina’s killer before the big reveal at the end of the first series.
Kay would go on to become one of the UK’s most successful and revered dramatists, penning the likes of Playing The Field, The Syndicate and Girlfriends for television and turning her much-loved show Fat Friends (which aired from 2000-2005) into a hugely successful 2017 stage musical, which she also directed.
Band Of Gold remains a firm favourite amongst Mellor fans. She smiles about people in the street still yelling ‘What’s happened to Carol?’ in reference to Cathy Tyson’s feisty prostitute who takes Gina (Ruth Gemmell) under her wing. “And I get in taxis and the driver goes ‘I love that Band Of Gold, why don’t you write some more of it?’”
Twenty-two years on from the series finale, Kay has done just that – opting for a stage version of the classic story with a brand-new cast rather than trying to bring back original stars Tyson, Geraldine James, Barbara Dickson and Samantha Morton for a sequel.
Having loved adapting Fat Friends for the stage, she adds: “There’s nothing like sitting in an auditorium listening to your play and hearing people laughing and applauding. It’s absolutely magical. It’s like a drug.”
After reworking Band Of Gold as a play, she workshopped it twice and made big changes, but the anonymous feedback from the second workshop was that everyone would pay to see it and everyone would recommend it to a friend. “That’s when I thought ‘OK, let’s take this to the next stage’. And I decided to set it in its original time period because actually nothing much has changed since then. If anything, things have become harder with austerity and Universal Credit.
People just can’t get to the end of the week. There are more sex workers than there were 20 years ago – people selling their bodies to basically feed their kids or make ends meet. It’s more relevant to today than ever before.” We’ve assembled this brilliant new cast of great actors and some well-known faces and it allows me to re-invent Band of Gold for both it’s long term fans and those coming to it for the first time.
Gaynor Faye, who recently left Emmerdale to be able to star in the play, takes over from Geraldine James as Rose for the stage version and agrees the Band Of Gold revival couldn’t be more timely. “It’s more than two decades on and I think we’re in a worse position than we were then,” she feels. “There’s as much poverty if not more poverty now. People are really struggling, and more people are visiting food banks.”
Rose is like the mother hen, ruling the Lane where the younger girls work, with the actress noting: “She’s very territorial and nobody is stepping on her patch, but she’s a good friend and the kind of person everyone would want to have their back because she’s tough.”
Laurie Brett plays Anita, “a working-class survivor who’ll do whatever it takes to get through life”. She rents out a room to the girls for a cut of their earnings. “She’s very multi-layered and a really interesting person,” says the actress best known for EastEnders and Waterloo Road.
A fan of the TV show when it premiered, Brett says: “It was extremely gritty and it still is, plus it was an honest portrayal of women who weren’t victims. Yes, they were victims of circumstance but not in terms of their everyday lives.”
Coronation Street and dinnerladies star Andrew Dunn is Ian, a counsellor and client with all sorts of flaws. “He has this front as a pillar of the community but in the background there’s a lot of other stuff going on. That’s really interesting to play.”
The role marks a reunion for Dunn and Mellor, who starred as husband and wife in the play A Passionate Woman at the Hull Truck Theatre in 2010. “Kay was fantastic to work with so I’m really looking forward to working with her again,” says Andrew.
He knows all about devoted fans, smiling: “It’s been 21 years since dinnerladies first started and people still love it. It’s the same with Band Of Gold. It was one of the first dramas with so many female characters at its centre and the story is still relevant. Prostitution may have diversified but it’s still happening.”
Fellow Coronation Street star and X Factor winner Shayne Ward is relishing the role of DCI Newall, the detective tasked with finding Gina’s killer who was played by David Schofield on TV. Schofield was in his 40s at the time whereas Ward is in his mid-30s so his take on Newall is as a younger man keen to make his mark rather than as a seasoned professional.
“He wants to be taken seriously,” Shayne says, “and although he’s a nice guy he’s also now in charge of the investigation so he wants to assert his authority.”
After three years on Corrie, Ward is excited about going out on his first-ever tour in a play. “I’m looking forward to how much I can learn from working with so many great actors and with Kay, of course. I used to watch The Syndicate on TV and think ‘I’d love to be in something like that’, never thinking I’d get to meet Kay let alone work with her. It’s a massive privilege.”
To research the role of Carol, Emma Osman has delved into documentaries about sex workers. “And it’s interesting to see how even though they have to be tough they’re also very vulnerable and they’re just everyday girls in extraordinary circumstances,” notes the actress whose credits include Doctors and Snatch. “They’re so resilient. Carol constantly talks about not wanting to be controlled, to be independent and her own woman. She’s so scared of being abandoned.”
She sees Carol as a character on an emotional rollercoaster, not to mention an iconic one. “So, there’s a pressure there, but you have to make the role your own. I appreciate being given this opportunity to do something so powerful and to play a character who is so strong and feisty.”
Sacha Parkinson is equally thrilled to be playing Gina, who is driven to prostitution after splitting from her abusive husband Steve. Sacha was only three when Band Of Gold started and hasn’t watched it so as to bring a fresh take. “Plus, that kind of mirrors Gina’s own experience of going into a world she doesn’t know anything about,” says the former Corrie star whose CV also includes The Mill and Mr Selfridge.
Hailing from Manchester, she calls Kay Mellor “a real voice for the North”, adding: “Getting to work with her is an amazing opportunity and Band Of Gold has been her baby for years so to be a part of her exploring it again is really special.”
Hollyoaks regular and Dancing On Ice finalist Kieron Richardson is making his professional stage debut as bad-boy Steve who becomes a prime suspect in Gina’s murder. And Richardson has a strong connection to Band Of Gold, revealing that his father Thomas was an on-set security guard for the TV show.
As a youngster Kieran would go along to the set and hang out in Carol’s house and ride around in the blue police van. “And watching them all work is one of the reasons I got into acting in the first place so it’s kind of come full circle,” he beams.
Band of Gold runs at Darlington Hippodrome from Monday January 27 to Saturday February 1, 2020.
Tickets are on sale now. For more information or to book call 01325 405405 or visit www.darlingtonhippodrome.co.uk