Willy Russell was born in Whiston, near Liverpool in 1947, grew up in a left-wing household and left school with one O-level in English. His dad, at various times, worked in the mines, in a factory, ran a fish and chip shop and also ran a library-on-a-bicycle, transporting books in two suitcases strapped to the sides of his bike.
"When I grew up, on an estate, we didn't live in a classic extended family, but there were all my aunties, cousins, my mum and granny. It was after the war and all the men were on shift in the factories, so I was brought up in a very maternalistic atmosphere, and I suppose I must have spent a lot of time sitting un-noticed but absorbing the women's view of the world. You know what adults are like when they're all together, talking; they think a small child isn't interested or isn't taking it in. But I think I did - not by consciously doing so. I think I absorbed it through my pores"
At his Mum's suggestion he became a women's hairdresser when he left school at 15 and although maintains he was never very good at it, Willy eventually managed a shop in Kirkby. He was a hairdresser for six years, an experience, he says, that made him an indifferent dresser of hair but 'a good listener'. When he left he did a variety of jobs, including stacking stockings in the warehouse at 'Bear Brand' and a brief spell in the Ford car factory at Hailwood cleaning girders.
He originally began writing as a songwriter, composing songs in the folk idiom. Many of his songs were performed at local folk clubs playing in a semi-pro capacity on the same kind of circuit where the likes of Billy Connolly, Barbara Dickson, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot and Victoria Wood cut their teeth. He contributed songs and sketches to local radio programmes. Willy also ran a folk club for a time. He had one song recorded on a Radio Enterprise LP 'A Sampler of Britain' and he and his group The Kirkby Town 3 performed on Granada TV in 1967 - losing out in a talent competition that also featured an early incarnation of Tyrannosaurus Rex and was ultimately won by the band Amen Corner.
He also collaborated on a stage documentary ' A Lancashire Story' (performed at Notre Dame College, Liverpool in 1969). At the age of twenty, he decided to complete his education and went to college in order to improve his qualifications, after which he became a schoolteacher in Toxteth. Willy met Annie (now his wife) and at her prompting, he became more interested in drama, started going to plays and began to write.
The Everyman Theatre
His ambition to be a serious writer was fired and further focused when he saw a production of John McGrath's Unruly Elements at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre in 1971. What he particularly noticed about this play was 'the poetry of common speech', and this has been a hallmark of his own work.
His first play, Keep Your Eyes Down, was produced in 1971, but he made his name with John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert, a musical about the Beatles. This had been commissioned by the Liverpool Everyman where it ran for a (then) unprecedented eight weeks before transferring to the West End where it won the Evening Standard and London Theatre Critics awards for the best musical of 1974. Thereafter his plays have won widespread popular and critical acclaim. He has said that his work is concerned with the essential goodness of humanity, and although his characters are often depicted in bleak circumstances, there is an underlying optimism and warmth in his view of the world. This has inevitably led to accusations of sentimentality, but on the whole Willy Russell manages to avoid this pitfall.
Two of his best-known plays have female protagonists, Educating Rita, which was inspired by his own experience of returning to education, is about a young woman working class woman who decides to study English with the Open University. Much of the comedy arises from her fresh, unschooled reaction to the classics of English literature, but she is never patronised by the author, who recognises from his own experience that education is a means of escape from one's own circumstances. Shirley Valentine is also about escape, and takes the form of a monologue by a housewife before and after a transforming holiday in Greece. Both plays were made into very successful films from Willy Russell's own screenplays, featuring the actresses who originally created the roles on stage (Julie Walters, and Pauline Collins each of whom won an Oscar nomination for their respective roles, as did Russell for his Educating Rita screenplay).
Willy Russell's other huge theatrical success has been Blood Brothers, 'a Liverpudlian folk opera' about a pair of twins separated at birth and brought up in completely different environments. It continues to enjoy a very long run in London's West End and played a two year run on Broadway. The British touring version continues to play to packed houses and many foreign productions have been produced, including Korea and Japan.
Willy Russell has also written plays for television, the most famous of which was Our Day Out, an affecting story of a group of Liverpool schoolchildren on a coach outing with two teachers, one of whom is a disciplinarian, the other a liberal. This play has been enacted by tens of thousands of school kids across the UK.
The Wrong Boy, Willy Russell's first novel, was published in 2000 to critical acclaim and, as with his all his plays, has been translated into many different languages.
In 2003 Willy Russell's first album - Hoovering The Moon - was released, and Willy's musical talent, partially sheltered for years behind his literary skills, was available for all to see and hear. In 2004 Hoovering the Moon was given a full commercial release and is now available direct from Pure Records (see side bar). A successful tour followed its release with In Other Words & Singing Playwrights touring with fellow wordsmith Tim Firth and a full band.
In 2009 the new musical version of Our Day Out- The Musical premiered at Liverpool's Royal Court theatre to rave reviews. In 2010 The Menier Chocolate Factory revived Willy Russell's award winning plays Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine and their success led to a second season (currently running) in London's West End. In August Our Day Out- The Musical returned to Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre.
And in 2012, The Menier Chocolate Factory again revived Willy Russell's award winning play Educating Rita, with Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney in the roles of Frank and Rita. The play opened at The Menier Chocolate Factory, before embarking on a nationwide tour.
Willy Russell continues to live and work in his home city of Liverpool and is currently working on a number of projects.