Woman on top
- Credit: Archant
Celebrity agent and author Melanie Blake signed a six-figure deal for her new novel, an exposé of life in soap, that’s all too close to the truth
Melanie Blake grew up in Stockport, Cheshire, had her first job at 13, left school at 16 with not a single GCSE and, after a period of homelessness that gave her added drive, headed to London with not much more than self-belief and a determination to work in the music industry in her pocket. She bought her first home – a flat in Chelsea – weeks after her 30th birthday, by which time she was one of the most powerful people (not women, but people) in showbusiness. If it weren’t for her hit novel The Thundergirls, later developed as a sell-out theatre production starring Beverley Callard and Coleen Nolan, we might never have been aware of her existence – it is after all the place of an agent to stand between her client and the casting director, never in the limelight.
Melanie’s first book was inspired by her personal experience when working behind the scenes at Top of the Pops. Her second book, Ruthless Women, which was put out to auction by Melanie’s literary agent and sold for a six-figure sum, is based on her experiences in the TV soap industry, both in front of and behind the cameras.
‘While I was working on TOTP I bumped into Gillian Taylforth, from EastEnders, in the car park,’ she says. ‘We got to know each other and she said I could easily get work as an extra. I first worked on EastEnders, and then got work on Coronation Street, which took me back up to Manchester. The time I was there was during the period of Brian Park, when a lot of long-term characters were being cleared out. Sherrie Hewson had just been told she was being fired and I spent time comforting her. At the time I also got to know Claire King, from Emmerdale. It was their idea that I should step into the role of an agent; they said I offered great empathy and advice but was no-nonsense too.’
Melanie did just that, setting herself up as an independent agent, with an increasingly powerful grip in the world of British TV soaps. Just as in The Thunder Girls, Ruthless Women is based on actual people and actual events, from stars being sacked on a whim to the, very many, sex scenes she so evocatively creates. Or should I say recreates?
‘Did you like the sex scenes?’ she asks, with delight. ‘I didn’t make them up – I witnessed them all.’ What, even the one with the chauffeur? Yes, she says, even the one with the chauffeur. She won’t say the name of the very famous (as in she’s in our lounges every week) soap star in question, which I am grateful for, as I need to be able to look her in the eye, even if said eye is on a flat screen. ‘Did you notice?’ she adds, ‘They’re all written from the perspective of the woman – all my women take what they want.’
It’s at this point that the penny drops for me – this story isn’t a fantasy, imagined from start to finish by someone with a lurid imagination a flair for the dramatic. Melanie Blake isn’t the Jackie Collins of the 2020s, she’s Lady Whistledown. Melanie has seen the realities of life inside the big British soaps, and is sharing what she knows with the rest of us, which may explain some of the reviews of her novel: “She knows where all the bodies are buried, and this book is like a map to find them”, says Gillian Taylforth, while Beverley Callard adds: “Until now, no one has written about what it’s like to be a woman on a show that gets syndicated all over the world. At times, I felt sick reading, as it was like someone had shadowed my life on set, but I still couldn’t put it down, and you won’t want it to end.”
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Melanie wrote her book in lockdown in 2020, a very strange time in her life.
‘For the first time in decades I had no work to do. All my stars were on lockdown, nothing was being produced. I was totally alone in my house – then these women just moved in with me and 24/7 I was writing their stories. It’s the weirdest experience ever, I was basically just serving their needs.’
Plus ça change, as they say, as surely serving the every need of high-maintenance women has been Melanie’s bread and butter her whole career?
‘You’re absolutely right; that’s hilarious. Suddenly I was working for a bunch of imaginary clients. Perhaps it’s the trauma, maybe it’s PTSD... Genuinely I have dealt with some of the most traumatic situations; one client with such bad depression she tried to kill herself, another went bankrupt, one of my favourite clients ever died of cancer – and the constant. Maybe this was some form of therapeutic expunging of all those years? This book is my real life reflected.’
I read the book with a degree of horrified fascination, completely caught up in every character’s story, but all the while assuming that Melanie had exaggerated, created caricatures, written her own mini soap opera, in fact, but no – it’s a lot closer to life in a soap than any of us could possibly imagine.
‘They’re not caricatures, that is what they’re like. But you have to realise why they have to be like that – because they’re constantly battling, it’s a war. This is how soap stars are, how they have to be, or they’ll be eaten alive. It’s a whole different story of course when they’re not in work mode, but that wouldn’t make compelling reading...
‘Ageism is still completely endemic in the business. When Jake described Catherine as “old mutton”, that’s how they talk. When I wrote Jake’s character I had people telling me they knew who he was – and dozens of names were offered. That just shows you how many Jakes there are in the industry. It’s a horrible place to spend a life. Older women have to battle every day to be seen as relevant. It’s always men in power, or (sadly) younger women happy to write older women off. Soaps is a game of snakes and ladders.’
And indeed sharks, both metaphorical and real, if you read Melanie’s book. No spoilers here – but oh my, the ending is a read-till-dawn doozie...
Ruthless Women is out on February 18 2021