Magazine arts show. Julie Walters meets Willy Russell, to find out how a 15-year-old dropout became one of the most successful playwrights in the history of modern British theatre.
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At the age of 14...
..when me and the other kids in the D stream,
we were put on a bus and we were taken out to see the bottle factory.
Many of us would gain employment and stay there until we were 65
and be given a gold watch and thank you very much,
if you lasted that long.
# Any father would be glad to know
# You went further than he'd dared to go
# He would forgive you that you dared to dream... #
I always would go into books for peace,
go to a different world,
where everything was all right.
# Don't say a word... #
I felt like a dickhead for even thinking I could be a writer.
This working-class kid from Liverpool,
who dropped out of school when he was 15,
would become a musician, songwriter,
and one of Britain's most beloved and successful playwrights.
His name is Willy Russell.
# Tell me it's not true...
He wrote the play and composed the songs for Blood Brothers,
one of the longest-running musicals in West End history.
And he has had the balls to write some of the most memorable
and insightful female characters in British theatre history...
..including Shirley Valentine...
What's wrong with that?
..and a role I played in a film called Educating Rita.
For God's sake, come in.
I'm coming in, aren't I, it's that stupid bleeding handle on the door,
you want to get it fixed.
Willy and I go way back.
Willy will soon be turning 70.
It has been a long, long time since I've played this riff.
It's time for a fresh look at his creative legacy.
Liverpool Lime Street.
This is where I fell in love with Liverpool.
my first day of professional work.
Got off the train,
absolutely laden with bags,
and this woman came to me and said, "Come here, love,
"them bags are too heavy for you, let me carry them."
Fell in love.
My destination in Liverpool was a place called the Everyman Theatre.
It was where Willy and I first met,
and where our professional dreams would begin to come true.
Willy was a resident writer at the Everyman,
which was leading a theatrical revolution
that put working-class voices centre stage,
and overthrew the idea that theatre was the exclusive preserve
of the middle class.
The extraordinary ensemble of actors I was part of
included Jonathan Pryce,
Pete Postlethwaite, and others.
My first thought upon meeting Willy was, what extraordinary hair!
Willy! Oh, my God.
-It's so lovely to see you.
-And so lovely to see you.
Where's your lovely hair gone?
It's all gone, look.
-Yeah, it's all gone.
-Ooh, it looks fab, actually.
-Thank you, darling.
-I modelled it on yours.
-Yes, of course. I see that.
Obviously inspired you.
-Look at this.
There we go.
# We may be mad, we may be sad
# But we'll keep it in the family... #
The grandeur of the Philharmonic pub
is just downstream from the Everyman.
So this was my local.
And sometimes after a show down the road it would be mob-handed in here.
The Everyman was at the centre of that revolution.
What were your goals, then?
I mean, did you want to entertain,
or did you want to change people's lives,
or cause a social revolution?
Or did you just want to pick up women? I don't know.
Certainly the latter. No, I didn't,
-because I was with Annie at the time, anyway.
-Yes, of course.
You wanted to do all that.
My initial thing was, thinking back, I mean,
I wanted to be world-famous, probably.
-As all young writers want to be, you know?
Liverpool is a city often pushed to extremes.
In the 1970s and '80s,
its back was up against a wall of urban decay,
union-busting, and industrial turmoil.
Regional theatres were emboldened to challenge the deep despair
associated with Britain's class divide.
What do you think made that period, that Everyman period, unique?
Money was put into theatre.
-It meant that theatres like the Everyman
could have a company of 15, 18 actors.
Because the theatres were decently funded...
..the directors could take a chance!
Long before Willy dared dream of being a playwright,
in 1961, at the age of 14,
he had a musical encounter that changed his life.
I walked into the Cavern for the first time
and saw, you know, this incredible thing called the Beatles.
-You know? And people with accents writing songs.
And, oh, maybe it is possible, you know, for me to do something!
The Beatles would be the subject of Willy's first breakthrough musical
for the Everyman.
The first thing I saw when I walked in here, in June 1974,
was John, Paul, George, Ringo...& Bert.
It was brilliant.
The musical told the story of the rise and break-up of the Fab Four
And there were people in the audience here that first night
who thought it was the Beatles really getting together
-at the Everyman Theatre.
I say don't be an idiot, man, we've got to stick together.
The money men are moving in.
Look, we could end up on the scrapheap after all.
It was titled in this very pub.
-I was at the bar...
-..with Alan Dosser,
and we said...
I outlined my idea,
there'd be this other character in it, this narrator character.
Remember them, do you?
They were a group from Liverpool.
Everybody knew them once.
The story of the Beatles is narrated by the character named Bert.
The Beatles had got caught up in the power game.
The money game.
The play opened at the Everyman,
and went on to become a smash West End hit...
..and launched Willy's career as a playwright.
So, Willy, what were the obstacles
between you and what you aspired to be when you were young?
I mean, as a kid, you know...
If you had gone in our house and said, I'm going to the theatre,
my dad would have gone, what, Noel bloody Coward and all that lot?
Don't be so daft! You know...
Willy was already writing and performing his own songs
with a folk group called the Movers.
To avoid working in a factory,
he took a day job as a women's hairdresser.
# Jimmy got married
# to Judy or Jean... #
A new girlfriend would turn him on to the theatre.
I started going out with this girl,
called Ann, Annie.
She'd say something like, I'm going to see such and such and such
at the Playhouse on Saturday. You know. I've got two tickets.
So, I mean, I was trying to get off with her, you know?
-I'll come to the theatre!
Was there a playwright or a play that you saw
that really sparked off some inspiration in those days?
Annie and I saw a John McGrath piece called Unruly Elements.
In the mansions,
in the mansions and rectors' well-ordered homes,
there've been unruly elements.
The whole thing was written in a scouse,
but a kind of heightened, surreal, Liverpudlian idiom...
Cook up a din-din, scoff for a trough,
hug him and fug him and drop a few piglets.
..revealing that ordinary, everyday vernacular
can be capable of carrying great big themes,
and that's what John McGrath was doing with Unruly Elements.
-And that struck an absolutely massive chord for me.
And, well, led me, in fact, to start trying to write for the theatre.
In the Liverpool of the 1970s,
the political humour of John McGrath
was performed as one-act plays of theatrical subversion.
They're knocking down the pie shop.
You don't seem very upset.
Oh, don't I?
I thought they were your favourites, Palicier's pies?
When I could afford them.
It's the relentless advance of monopoly capitalism.
SHE HUMS The Wedding March
Hey! Eh! Palicier's porkpie shop
had to be destroyed in accordance
with the growth of a larger and larger businesses,
as foreseen by Marx in the 1850s.
How much of your, you know, your finding your voice and everything,
when you started writing,
how much of that was fuelled by anger, do you think?
When I came to write Educating Rita, for example,
I was fantastically angry,
because when I tried to get back into education at the age of 21...
..I was told, categorically,
I remember being in the Council offices in Liverpool...
..asking for a grant to do O-levels and A-levels,
and getting, finally getting this interview with this guy.
He listened to my shtick, and he said to me...
"What gives you the right to think you've got a second chance?"
"You buggered up your years at school.
"There are no more chances, son."
They wouldn't give me a grant.
I went and worked cleaning the girders in Fords,
during the shutdown.
35 feet above all this factory equipment with rickety old ladders.
And I had enough money after three weeks of this
-to pay my course fees for the rest of the year.
Willie eventually got his levels,
gave up being a hairdresser,
and qualified to teach.
-You know I've always liked to write about kids.
And certainly write for kids,
so it was great for me to be able to do that.
Not far from his Liverpool neighbourhood,
known as the Dingle, in Toxteth,
Willie worked as a remedial teacher for several years.
This local resident attended the school where Willie once taught.
-Flown on Saturday.
And then you fly up to, 500, 600, 700 miles, 1,000 miles,
up to Scotland, a thousand miles in a day. But these are only babies.
They stop off on the way, don't they?
On the way up to Scotland.
Did you see my film about the kids from Shorefields,
called Our Day Out?
It was about all the kids going out to Wales for a day.
They end up lifting the animals from Colwyn Bay zoo.
-Willie wrote that.
-Did you write that?
-Loads of kids around this area were in that.
Right, just stop there.
-Miss said we could get on.
-Oh, did she now?
Well, let me tell yous lads something now.
Miss isn't the driver of this coach.
Can we talk a bit, Willie, about Our Day Out?
I mean, I saw it again just recently,
and I have to say, it still totally stands up.
I love it as a film.
A lot of you wouldn't have been on a school visit before.
So you won't know how to enjoy yourselves.
So I'll tell you.
As a sort of extra bonus,
we've decided to call in here and let you have an hour at the zoo.
Being a young teacher,
I'd been on a trip very similar to that with a woman,
a great teacher called Dorothy King,
who was the prototype for Mrs Kay,
and the same thing had happened.
They'd sent a deputy head along, to try and control things.
Have we forgotten something?
-Are you supposed to be in charge of this lot?
-Why? What's the matter?
Children?! They're not bloody children, they're animals!
It's not the zoo out there, it's a bloody zoo in here.
Would you mind controlling your language
-and telling me what's going on?
-Right. Come on, where are they?
-Call yourselves teachers?
-You can't even control them.
-Now, look, this has just gone far enough.
Will you tell me exactly what you want, please?
And now I want the rest.
QUIET CHIRPING AND SQUEAKING
I wrote the whole thing in four and a half days.
We bring them to a crumbling pile of bricks and mortar,
and they think they're in the fields of heaven.
You are on their side, aren't you?
Absolutely, Mr Briggs, absolutely.
You won't educate them, because nobody wants them educating!
-Listen, Mrs Kay...
-No, you listen, Mr Briggs!
If these kids and all the others like them had real learning,
the factories of England would empty overnight.
And don't you try and tell me that
there's kids that, given the choice,
would still stand on production lines and empty bins.
There would be more TV commissions...
..all of which were set in Liverpool,
with stories that centred around working-class families
A recurring theme begins to emerge in Willie's work,
and can be found in the made-for-TV play, Terraces.
An individual refuses to conform to the pressures...
All right, Sue, love, can we have a word with Danny?
..or expectations of family or friends.
I mean, OK, you don't want to be bothered painting the house,
so what we've decided, Danny,
is a few of the lads and myself have agreed that we'll do it for you.
When neighbours decide to paint their homes yellow
to honour the colour of the local football team...
We'll get cracking, then.
One resident dares to refuse.
-What's that, Del?
You lay one hand, one finger on an inch of this brickwork,
and I'll have the coppers on you.
-Danny, we're offering to do your favour.
We'll even paint it back to normal when the final's over.
-I wouldn't push it too far, Danny.
I'm not pushing it at all.
Listen, mate. We came around here to make things OK between us.
If you want to start being unreasonable...
I'm warning you.
They won't play with me.
They said our house is a house for freaks.
See what you and your stupid bloody ways have done?
He's a brilliant character.
But at the same time, you can see what a nightmare it is for his wife,
You can't blame his wife for what she does, and what the kids do,
-cos the kids go through hell because of him, you know?
If you look at Terraces,
you could see it almost as a Western, a mini-Western,
the single dude standing against the crowd for what he believes in.
I always thought there was something about you, now I know what it is.
You need treatment, you do, do you know that?
You're soft in the head, son.
I've never been blind to the fact, when we behave tribally,
that people can easily be turned,
especially en masse.
It has been a long, long time since I've played this riff.
# Tell my mama not to wait for me
# I got a job with the MSC
# As a shoe shine-y boy... #
# And I can shine those shoes
# So the shoes will shine
# Like the sunshine shining on the local line
# I'm a shoe shine-y boy... #
The film Dancing Through The Dark
was based on the play Stags And Hens,
written by Willie in 1978.
It also featured his talents as a songwriter,
and his uncanny skill at writing strong female characters.
I was fortunate enough to get my foot in the door at the Everyman,
and just as the Everyman was rife
with world, kind of, social politics,
it was the beginnings, for me,
of notions of feminism.
It was the first place I ever heard that notion discussed, you know?
Somebody said of a very early play of mine,
it's a bit sexist, isn't it?
And I thought they meant sexy.
It's not sexy at all.
And I learnt very fast about all that.
So do you think you're a feminist? Or were you a feminist, then?
-Did you become one?
-I think, naturally,
I was naturally inclined to be but I have some of those male...
ignorances, you know...
Again, we're talking about the late '60s, early '70s.
Stags And Hens was written before Educating Rita...
..but also has a Rita-like character named Linda.
Right, here we go.
One for you.
One for you.
None for you.
Oh, hey, why don't I get one?
At her hen party...
You can have mine, Linda...
..deep doubts about her wedding plans,
and the life of a housewife which awaits her begin to take hold.
So that's what you call a blow job!
I love being out with you lot.
Sometimes you don't half bring me down.
You just never do what you want to do, any of you.
You just do what you're told to do.
I think that was the only play I ever wrote
which came from an idea for a set...
-Oh, right, really?
-..which was the ladies and gents.
There was an immediate theatrical audacity to it.
His hobby, is it? Looking down bogs?
He was drinking Lambrusco.
And Southern Comfort before that.
To focus it in the ladies and gents
meant that it was dramatically viable.
A lot of drama goes on there.
A lot of drama, the real truth gets told, doesn't it,
between what's happening on the main floor.
And don't you go telling no-one you're not getting married to Dave,
because you are.
Piss off, little man.
-Da, da, da, da!
-Oh, my God, it's amazing, Willie.
was it this fantastic toilet that inspired you to write
Stags And Hens/Dancing Through The Dark in the toilet?
This has always been a legendary loo.
I've always been aware of it and so I think this may well have fed into
the idea. It gave me the idea that you could set a play
in the ladies and gents.
You're used to doing this, aren't you?
That's better, yeah. That's it.
Yeah, there's something you don't know about me, Willie.
What's wrong with that?
There's a woman three doors down talks to her microwave.
The film Shirley Valentine,
starring Pauline Collins,
was an international hit written by Willie.
It's a story about a 42-year-old woman
in the grip of a deep midlife crisis.
I like a glass of wine when I'm doing the cooking.
Don't I, wall?
Don't I like a glass of wine when I'm preparing the evening meal?
Chips and egg.
Shirley Valentine began as a play at the Everyman,
starring Noreen Kershaw.
But her unexpected illness forced Willie to step into the breach.
It would be somewhere down in that, kind of,
very spot down there that I walked on and said to these poor people
who thought they were going to see
a great performance by a great actress,
"Do me a favour, just pretend I am 42-year-old woman."
And they did.
-You know, if I said to my fella,
we're off to Greece for a fortnight, just me and Jane,
he'd think it was for the sex!
Wouldn't he, wall?
Well, two women, on their own, going to Greece...
It's obvious, isn't it?
I wouldn't mind.
I'm not even particularly fond of it, sex.
I think sex is like Sainsbury's, you know.
Course, it would have been different if I'd been born into
the next generation,
our Melandra's generation.
They discovered it, you see.
The clitoris kids, I call them.
And good luck to them. Don't begrudge them a thing.
Mind you, it was different in my day.
Do you know, when I was a girl, we'd never even heard of the clitoris.
No-one had! In those days everyone thought it was just a case of
in, out, in, out, shake it all about.
Stars would light up the sky, and the earth would tremble.
The only thing that trembled for me was the headboard on the bed.
At the end of that year, in the awards,
Noreen won the award for Best actress,
and I won the award for Best Supporting Actress!
SHE LAUGHS I love it!
So did I!
You have written some amazing parts for women,
I mean, it can't be argued.
I mean, you know, Rita, obviously, and Shirley Valentine,
and Stags And Hens, Dancing Through The Dark.
I mean, just fabulous, but where does that come from?
Where does... I mean, did you ever doubt that you could do it?
They are so genuine and authentic, those voices.
It's the one question that's been put to me...
more than any. And I've never, ever...
..and I'm trying hard now, Julie.
I've never been able to come up with,
I think, a satisfactory, you know...
..pithy answer to that.
All I'm doing is getting an education, that's all.
Just trying to learn.
And I love it, it's not easy.
I get it wrong most of the time, I'm laughed at half the time,
but I love it because it makes me feel as though
I'm in the land of the living.
And all you try and do
is put a rope around me neck
and tie me to the ground.
Are you going to pack it in?
The frustration at the battle that Rita has on her hands
is one that I felt in everything, as a man.
Shirley I wrote when I was coming up to my 40th birthday,
so every doubt that she has and every bit of questioning...
You know, I was feeling that as a male,
coming, approaching kind of middle age and stuff like that.
I've led such a little life.
Why do we get all this life if we don't ever use it?
Why do we get all these...
..and dreams, and hopes...
..if we don't ever use them?
When I write, it has to come out of a process of imagination.
But once it is out...
..usually when the production's up and running,
I start to sit back and, "Oh, my...
"Oh, my, that's so... that's so much about me."
-So you discover that later?
-You discover it later.
As you can imagine, I've seen Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine
a few times in my life.
It's not by accident that my character, Rita, was a hairdresser.
I'm just giving her a blue tint,
that's what we used to do when I worked in a hairdressers.
I was the world's worst hairdresser.
Women wept with joy in the streets when I gave up hairdressing.
Is that a book you're reading?
Willy could connect to being a hairdresser
from first-hand experience.
It's what he did for several years,
before he was motivated to return to school, and become a writer.
So many people now, it's a given that they go to university.
-And the idea that learning and education
could give you a route to a different place,
a place you might, like me, want to go to,
-like Rita wanted to go to.
People don't see education in terms of social mobility any longer.
So does that mean that Rita has now become a historical play?
I think Rita is a history play, yeah.
Now, fortunately it has, at its centre,
the universality of one human being trying to achieve something.
And that's, you know, that is contemporary.
"The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly
"into our hearts and our bones." Paul Simon.
Had you any inkling that it would take off
the way in which it would?
No, none whatsoever.
I thought we were going to do a nice little run at the Donmar.
-And then, suddenly, ooh!
I remember on the first night, I was terrible,
I just didn't think I'd got it.
No confidence at all.
And Mark and I holding hands backstage,
going, "Here we go, then."
And he had some Valium!
I shouldn't be telling you this, viewers...
And so we had a quarter of a Valium each before we went on
and I think that's what did it, everybody.
I think I'd had a quarter bottle of whisky,
and Mike Ockrent had done the same, and Mike didn't drink!
And then after the play were some legendary uncles
at the Philharmonic pub.
I remember being here one night with a raucous group of rugby players.
A young actress leapt up onto a table
and proceeded to out-sing them in absolute filth.
And now, would you like to reprise that moment, Julie Walters?
I'm not getting up on the table.
No, you're not!
-Do I remember it?
Oh, yes, I remember how it starts, anyway. It's...
# A trace of lipstick on an old French letter
# A dose of syphilis that won't get better
# And when you piss, it stings
# These foolish things remind me of you. #
So, Willy, where does that determination,
Rita's determination, where does that come from?
That determination to break out and to not conform.
Do you know, I don't think I know the answer to that question.
What are we doing?
We'll go on to the next one, Willie.
'Well, actually, I think the answer is obvious.'
The steely determination to succeed comes from Willy Russell.
It's all right, oh, little heart.
It's OK. No, I'm not your dad.
I'm not your mum, either.
You're very beautiful.
Look, very photogenic.
I'm thinking of going into this, actually, pigeon fancying.
-It's going to go.
-He won't go, it's all right.
If he goes, he'll just go back to my loft.
-Hasn't shit on you, has he?
-It's good luck! I've heard.
That's good luck, Tommy, there.
Julie Walters, one of Britain's most popular actresses, meets Willy Russell, to find out how a 15-year-old dropout from a working-class suburb of Liverpool became one of the most successful playwrights in the history of modern British theatre.
Russell's Educating Rita catapulted Julie Walters to international stardom. He has written some of the most insightful and sensitive roles for women actors in modern British theatre history, like Shirley Valentine, and Blood Brothers is one of the most successful musicals in West End history.
But there is more to Russell's talents than play writing. As a friend, collaborator and comedic inquisitor, Julie uncovers Willy's remarkably diverse creative passions -from an award-winning record album, musical scores, novel writing and, most recently, painting.
In this unforgettable Liverpool reunion, Julie and Willy visit the legendary men's loo at the Philharmonic Pub, which inspired the play Stags and Hens, encounter eccentric local residents on the terrace house streets where Ringo Starr grew up, and dissect how the notion of working-class theatre has fundamentally changed since the heyday of Liverpool's legendary Everyman theatre.