We've added snippets of an interview with Willy Russell and Mark Shenton (Theatre Critic for the Sunday Express) recorded at the Shaw Theatre in 2008. During part one Willy talks enthusiastically about his love of music.
PART ONE - Musical Influences
Please note - There is a slight distortion on the early section of this recording.
PART TWO - An Introduction to Theatre
PART THREE - Musical Theatre
You can now purchase Hoovering The Moon
and listen to tracks from Hoovering The Moon here.
Willy toured in 2004
with a music and
with Tim Firth.
At 13, real life for Willy Russell took place outside of school. He was 'sagging' off school to attend lunch-time sessions at the Cavern and during that time discovered the Beatles. "The Beatles were a truly great 'r&b' band in the 1960s." Later he would get to know band members a little better. John wished him well with 'John, Paul, George, Ringo ...and Bert' and Paul asked him to write a screenplay involving Wings. Willy spent a week up at Paul's Scottish home where Wings were recording the album, Back To The Egg. With long time friend and collaborator Mike Ockrent, Willy then decamped to Jamaica and wrote the film (provisionally titled Band On The Run).
Although the film was never made, it was, says Willy, "A great project with which to be involved. Apart from anything else, both Mike and I recognised that if the film had gone ahead it could have revealed something that became all too apparent during the various read-throughs with Paul - that Paul McCartney is a very capable actor indeed, one who would have been extremely convincing in the rather serious role that we wrote for his character. I think too that had the film been made it might have helped alter the (then) prevailing image that Linda had to bear. She was so far removed from the image that the press always pedalled and we took delight in writing a part for Linda in which she was a 'real hard bitch of a bruiser' - the real hardcase of the (fictitious) band that's at the centre of the story.'
Why the film didn't get made still remains something of a mystery but, says Willy Russell, "For one thing Paul got locked up in Japan for a few weeks and on his release he'd decided that as far as Wings was concerned he'd taken it as far as it could go. I thought that was a good decision. But it did mean that there was then no hope of making a movie when the script had been specifically written around the notion of an existing band. We'd had to fashion specific parts for people like Linda and Denny Laine and then, like the band itself, the script was redundant."
As well as being heavily influenced by The Beatles, the young Willy Russell later came under the spell of Bob Dylan (see article from FOLK ARTS NETWORK NEWS) and this eventually led to an interest in traditional British folk as well as American roots music.
The Kirby Town Three
Encouraged by Mick Groves of The Spinners - the Liverpool folk group, immensely popular both at home and nationally through their 1960s concert and TV appearances - Russell's newly-formed band The Kirkby Town Three began to write songs of his own and perform them at gigs and the folk club that he and the Kirkby Town Three ran on a Thursday night at The Green Moose Cafe in Liverpool's Brooks Alley - The traditional songs he heard there filtered into his repertoire along with the comic and "deeply depressive social comment" songs he was writing at the time: "If you think Morrissey can be morbid you should hear some of what I was writing during those Green Moose days - wrist-slashing classics such as ' Bottle of Gin'/ 'I Played In My Backyard Yesterday'/ The Death of Georgie Perkins........ Misery on draught!"
"The Moose was a really important period for me though. I never for one second realised it at the time but I now see that from having to do that gig every Thursday I was learning all kinds of things about the nature of performance, about audiences, about what will and won't work, about how overwriting can kill a song (or, indeed, a play or any other form for that matter). Although none of us knew it at the time, all those folk places, cafes, pubs, old cellars were a fantastic training ground for all kinds of talent - it was a completely anti-commercial, anti music-establishment phenomenon. I recently had the pleasure of reading a book by Colin Harper that finally captures in print what all that period was like - "Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival" really terrific for anyone who's interested in an area of musical and cultural history that's so often ignored."
It was during those early Green Moose days that Willy met future collaborator Barbara Dickson..... "I met him first in Edinburgh, then again, at a folk club the night before he got married. I became friendly with him and I used to go and stay with him in Liverpool when I was doing the folk clubs in that area. He liked what I did, liked my voice and in fact ran a club himself. I was actually staying with him as he finished writing 'John Paul George Ringo...And Bert' and I thought it was a real scream. Willy thought of me doing it, so it was my big break." (Barbara Dickson)
As Willy Russell's interest in writing drama developed, he found ways of linking it to folk music. Early experiments included setting up a contemporary parody group, The Brooks Alley Bummers, which lampooned folk song.
Russell's first truly 'serious' piece of work was an update, adaptation and relocation of the Robert Burns poem Tam O' Shanter. ' I'd become aware of (and greatly influenced by) the work of Burns. I think I could quite easily identify with a poet who was considered 'uneducated', the 'ploughman poet' and through my connections with Scots friends like Davey Johnstone, George Alden and Tich Frier I was able to hear as well as read Burns. I particularly loved Tam O' Shanter, a great great narrative ballad, aching with great language, myth, dramatic pace, comedy, the macabre. Tich used to recite it marvellously and I always fancied having a crack doing so myself. The problem for me though was that the poem is written in dense Scots and even if I'd had a stab at the pronunciation the chances were that any English audience would probably be left understanding not more than one word in twenty. And so I solved the problem by, simply, translating the poem, resetting it in modern day Liverpool, turning Sam's horse into my battered old Ford Escort van, reshaping the devil as a graveyard Jimi Hendrix etc..
"What I didn't realise when I was writing it was that, again, I was taking a kind of crash course in what writing was all about. Again I learned so much from the month it took me to render the genius of Tam O Shanter into what became Sam O Shanker."
Willy Russell later turned this adapted poem into a play, which along with two other one act plays, PLAYGROUND and KEEP YOUR EYES DOWN formed the trilogy, BLIND SCOUSE which appeared at Edinburgh in the 1972 Fringe festival. And later still, SAM O SHANKER became a play with songs which toured Merseyside pubs and clubs as part of the Everyman Theatre's Vanload experiment. This contained songs for which Russell used both original and existing folk melodies, an attempt at writing theatre in the voice of apparently ordinary people while revealing the extra-ordinariness of them, much in the same way that the likes of James Reeves and A L Lloyd (who was musical adviser to many post-1956 Royal Court plays) had attempted to do. "We were constantly trying, over-zealous as we probably all were, to convert people who had an antipathy towards folk music - to show that it had this sublime, majestic, universal power. I always wanted to harness that in theatre."
Blood Brothers, the musical...
Willy wrote not only the book and the lyrics but also the score for his musical Blood Brothers, spending the whole of 1982 turning the small scale production of Blood Brothers into a full scale musical. Revising the book, writing the lyrics and composing all the music himself.
In addition of course, Willy Russell created musical stage version of the original television film Our Day Out and has provided the scores for the feature films, Shirley Valentine, Dancin' Thru The Dark and Mr Love as well as for the TV series Connie and the television play Terrace.