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Willy Russell looks back on the day he escaped from beehives and blue rinses ...

Like the main character in Educating Rita, his play which became a hit film, the young Willy Russell suspected that life held treasure beyond women's hairdressing. He had stumbled into salon work, by the sound of it, via a short commercial-college course in cutting and styling at 15, when he left secondary school. "I never wanted to be a hairdresser, I never wanted to be anything really."

He did know that he didn't want the future he had glimpsed when he had been given what passed for careers advice at school. "At 14 years of age I was taken to a bottle factory and told: This is where you're going to work."

As those blue rinse and beehive years passed, he felt a growing urge to add to the English language O level he had left school with in 1962. "If I were to be doubly honest, I suspect that what I was doing was taking a step towards what I had to be, which was a writer. I would have time to write and I would be in a more sympathetic environment."

So, at the age of 20, he signed up for an English literature O level at Kirby college of further education, and armed with Animal Farm, one of the set books the class had been advised to read, he went along for his first evening. "That first night I walked in through the door was terrifying. That smell you always get in school, mix of disinfectant, polish and piss. "I'd been in there a minute and somebody shouted. I froze. I just assumed that I was going to be hauled off to the headmaster's office." It is entirely to the lecturer's credit that Russell came back for a second night and stuck with the course. "This rather terrific man, whose name I can't remember now, was just the antithesis of what teachers had been at school.

"He started off talking about Animal Farm and he used the word allegory. I did something I'd never have done at school and asked him what the word meant. "And then I completely understood the basis of this book. Until then I'd thought it was just a story about pigs. "That night Russell read the whole novel through in a state of excitement. "The next day I bored the whole hair salon by going on and on about allegory and George Orwell."

With a sparkling English literature O level under his belt he braced himself for the big task. "I started the hellish trek to try to get what is nowadays a completely acceptable thing for a working class person who's missed an education - a return to learning." He knew he couldn't hack doing an O level a year until he had enough for higher education. He needed to do a wodge of Os and As in one go, but on his long trudge around institutions, he couldn't find a place offering this.

"Finally I remember one principal sat me down and said: "Listen, son. You failed at school. You did nothing there, you abused the system. Why should I help you or give you a second chance?" "I started to explain, but he just told me to get out." Spitting with anger, Russell stormed round to the Liverpool City Council Education Department to try and register a complaint, but he was blocked at the reception desk.

Before leaving, with his rage unvented, his eye caught an advert on the wall. At somewhere called Childwall Hall county college they were offering a package of O level courses. "For two years I'd been asking where such courses took place." He stalked out, caught the first bus there, and asked to see somebody. "I must have been in a terrible state. The deputy head came out, sat me down in his office, calmed me down and asked me what the problem was. "It was such a tender thing to do. I must have talked for an hour. I went on and on about not having being able to find what I wanted." The man told him that subject to him passing a test proving he was capable of basic English, he would be offered a place. "I said: I've got English O level. He said: You're in. "It was one of the most significant moments of my life."

He was told he would have to find a grant, but that didn't bother him. He knew he could carry on working, if need be, to support himself, and that is exactly what happened. And so he went to college full-time for a year, a man of 20 amongst an initially suspicious class of 15-year-olds. "They thought I was a CIA plant. Fortunately I played guitar and after about eight weeks everything was fine. "The experience was "just unbelievable. It was a year's idyllic learning, drinking beer and playing guitar.

He did O level law, British constitution, history, sociology, general studies and drama, and English literature A level. And he learned how to type. He ran for student union president against a young Derek Hatton, then a fireman doing day release. "I won, but it would have been better for the students if Derek had won." That further education, he declares, saved his life.

"I have no hesitation saying that. I think that on that one day, if I hadn't got on a bus and gone out to Childwall, or if I'd come up against another authoritarian luddite I might have crumbled and decided the wall was just too high. "It let me go back to the beginning. It gave me the chance to start again."


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