PC: On the face of it 2006 may have seemed like a very quiet year for Willy Russell, but I know that’s far from the truth. You’ve been busy on an exciting project with Alan Parker. How did that come about?
WR: For me, 2006 wasn’t at all quiet as I was working on a number of things, including writing and composing for the screenplay of Blood Brothers. As you know, for many years I’d refused to pursue the idea of a film version of the musical but when I was approached by a producer who wanted to investigate the possibility of as a film musical directed by Alan Parker, I decided to explore the matter. Alan had originally approached me way, way back in 1983 after he’d seen the original stage show at The Lyric in London. Alan had loved the show and wanted to talk about doing it as a film musical. As delighted as I was that Alan had reacted so favourably and warmly, the notion of Blood Brothers as a film was then off the agenda, as far as I was concerned. A few years later, Alan was spending some time in Liverpool where he was directing Adam Faith in a stage version of Alfie. Alan and I met and had a few memorably convivial evenings together. It was obvious that we were each fond and appreciative of the other’s work and I think, during one of those evenings I said that if the day ever did come, when I wanted to explore the idea of Blood Brothers as a film, then Alan would be the perfect director for it.
And then, a couple of years after Alan’s film The Commitments had come out, I was in a restaurant where I bumped into him again and was able to tell him just what an exquisite film I thought The Commitments was. I remember that Alan was at dinner with Jonathan Pryce, and so I guess he must have been in pre production for his film of Evita. I recall too that I was at dinner with my – much missed - great, great friend Mike Ockrent and we must have been working on Dancin’ Thru The Dark at the time.
Anyway, outside of pleasantries, nothing further was said between Alan and me, we each went on with our respective lives and careers and once again:
Until, my agents called to say they’d been approached by a film company investigating the possibility of doing some kind a film musical with (the now ‘Sir’) Alan Parker and that Alan’s preferred option would be to make the film of Blood Brothers.
I wasn’t interested in taking things further with that particular company but, for some reason, it suddenly seemed instinctively right to finally look at the idea of the film of Blood Brothers and that Alan and I could possibly do this without the pressure or bother or commitment that would be involved if we were working for and being paid by a company. What I certainly did not want to do was commit to a film before I had at least satisfied myself that it was even possible to make Blood Brothers as a musical film!
As I’ve noted, on other occasions, when it comes to even thinking of Blood Brothers as a film, one has to immediately take account of the intrinsic theatricality which is crucial to its original form and structure as a stage musical. Stage and cinema are such different forms and whereas on stage one can make an absolute theatrical virtue out of having, say, adults playing the roles of children or the figure of an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator pervading the action and wandering in and out of the scene, on film, these same things would look hopelessly arch, false and contrived. The very theatricality, which can be so potent and effective in live theatre can be disastrous when applied to film.
Being all too aware of these and other problems, I therefore wanted to see if and how, they could be overcome before finally committing myself entirely to the idea of Blood Brothers as a film. Meeting with Alan, I put this to him and told him that the only way in which I’d know if Blood Brothers could be a film would be through the very business of trying to create the screenplay. Knowing Alan to be a screenwriter as well as director, I asked if he wanted to come on board as co-screenwriter, and after satisfying himself that we both shared the same kind of vision of what the film would be (Alan was adamant that although we were making a musical it should nevertheless feel ‘real’ rather than ‘musical’) he agreed. We very quickly decided that the best way forward as for us two to work together, entirely at our own expense, so that if by the end of the process I did not want to pursue it further, I would be entirely free to withdraw without anything having been pre-sold or agreed.
Collaboration can be tricky and I had no real idea of how Alan and I would actually work together. I asked him about other collaborations and how, for example he’d worked with his fellow writers on The Commitments (where he’d worked with the dazzling trio of Roddy Doyle, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais). Alan’s (modest) response was that he’d mostly made the tea and left the other three to do the heavy lifting!
In the case of Blood Brothers, it became a process of such immense enjoyment and satisfaction that I remember worrying about whether our work could really be any good when it was proving to be so deeply pleasurable. Which is not to say that it was without effort or sweat or the kind of tussle which would sometimes have us slugging it out for round after round until we either found the best way forward or crept away into our respective corners trying to summon the strength to come out and give it one more shot.
As well as writing the screenplay I was, of course, also composing new music and writing new lyrics where required. In Alan’s Soho office, where we worked, Alan’s son Alex (a musician, composer and music producer) has his own small recording studio and so when it came to introducing a new piece of music, I could just take Alan across the lobby and, borrowing Alex’s guitar or keyboard, quickly demo for Alan, the music in question. This proved invaluable and, having a director of Alan’s musical passion and experience, was a real bonus for me.
On reflection, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I am, in fact, far more of a collaborator than I’d ever imagined myself to be (or perhaps my ego had allowed me to be!). Creating Hoovering The Moon and the Blood Brothers screenplay involved real levels of collaboration and were both immensely pleasurable writing experiences.
PC: Can we assume that the film version (if this comes about) will have life parallel to the stage musical? Will the stage musical continue?
WR: Well, you are right to quote "if it comes about" because, regardless of how delighted AP and I are with our work on the screenplay, there’s still a long, long way to go before the film could become a reality. Although Blood Brothers is a British subject, (and the screenplay is rooted very, very firmly in its original time and setting) the fact that it is a musical means that it will be an expensive film to make. This probably means attracting American investment and, as a general rule, this kind of money is not usually forthcoming when the subject matter is, on the face of it, so culturally and socially specific. I’m still confident that the money will be raised but at the same time realistic enough to know that it might be a while before this happens. Apart from anything else neither Alan or myself are interested in making the film unless we have the right backers and if we have to wait a while before they come along then so be it - it has, after all, already been twenty five years since Parker and I first flirted with the idea!
In the event that the film does become a reality, I wouldn’t in any way see this as a bar or hindrance to the life of the stage version. Once upon a time, the thinking might have been that a film would damage the ongoing life of the play upon which it was based, although this no longer seems to be true. If you think about something like, say, Chicago, I think most people would agree that its stage presence has been enhanced and prolonged by the successful film version. I’m sure that the revival of Evita has happened, in part, because of AP’s film version bringing the work back into focus. And one would hope that both the film and the stage versions of Blood Brothers could co exist.
PC: We have talked previously about investigating the release of OUR DAY OUT and DANCIN' THRU THE DARK and we still continue to get lots of requests via the guest book on WR.com. Has there been any progress with these investigations?
WR: I can’t tell you how tiresome and frustrating a process it has been to try to get these (and other) titles released. We are still working on it, although I understand that’s probably very little comfort to those people who write to the guest book complaining about the unavailability of these titles. I’m not trying to, in any way, pass the buck here but I think it might be more pertinent and even do more good if such enquiries/complaints were aimed at the BBC who, as makers of ‘Our Day Out’ and co producers of ‘Dancin’ Thru The Dark’ (BBC Films), are the principal players in this matter. We have, apart from anything else, tried to persuade them that making these titles available would be the simplest way to deter the sale of wholly illegal pirate copies through outlets such as ebay. For each title, however, the BBC is asking for the kind of upfront payment which would make this exercise wholly impracticable. We continue to try to persuade them take a more realistic approach so that the DVD option could become a possibility and allow the BBC to generate some income and, at the same time, deter the flagrant sale of illegal pirate copies– from which the BBC receive absolutely nothing. Currently, though, it’s proving to be the proverbial uphill slog and so, please, please, if you do want to see any of these titles available on DVD then please aim your understandable rage and frustration at the Beeb.
PC: I think that’s a good suggestion about directing request for release to the relevant department. I’ll track down the details and add it to the website shortly. Let’s hope ‘people power’ prevails.
WR: Well, as I said earlier, little else seems to be working but I’m sure that if enough of those who pay the licence fee make their views known then they might just prevail
PC: OUR DAY OUT is such a popular work. It crops up frequently when actors talk of formative works and times. (most recently with Rebecca Atkinson, who plays Karen Maguire in channel 4’s Shameless). Can we talk a little about the new (musical) production which I know you’re currently planning ?
WR: At the moment I don’t exactly know when Our Day Out – The Musical will appear on stage but I’m working on it (with Bob Eaton as co-composer and Glen Walford directing) as we speak. This is something that’s been evolving over a very long period and for some years now we’ve been threatening to get together again and finally present the full scale musical version towards which we’ve intermittently been working. (see ODO link for history so far - http://www.willyrussell.com/odo.html) We’re working with producer David Pugh and as soon as the details are settled I’m sure they’ll be posted here.
PC: You recently did a charity event to raise money for writers in prison, in Yorkshire (Hebden Bridge), and talked about your career and answered questions from the audience. How did that come about and is it something you would like to do more of?
WR: The reading in Heb. turned out to be a terrific night. It came about because Steve May, who is one of the centre directors for Arvon at Lumb Bank wanted to try and raise some funds in order to allow a group of ex offenders to benefit from the Arvon experience. The Arvon Foundation (www.arvonfoundation.org) is a movement which has always been very dear to my heart and, knowing of its undoubted redemptive nature, I am always happy to do what I can to support any initiative linked to Arvon.
The Heb reading was one of a number that I did over a ten day period in early October. Throughout the year I’d been receiving various requests to appear at festivals and book events and, on this occasion, it just worked out that most of these were taking place around the same time and so, I put it together as a mini tour. No music, of course, it was purely a question of giving readings from various works of mine and then taking questions from the floor. When I have the time to do it, I really enjoy these kind of evenings and value the interaction it allows me with the audience.
PC: And I see from the latest course at Ty Newydd that you continue your interest in teaching and helping others develop as writers and composers.
"Thank you all for sharing one of the best weeks of my life".
"Willy and Tim were instrumental (!) in drawing out of us, a sense of
community, collaboration, tolerance (especially for the non-musical old
gentleman) and uncritical support for each other".
"They (Willy and Tim Firth) led us down paths of creativity which freed our imaginations".
WR: I think that because I was very fortunate to have the benefit of people who were prepared to spend time and energy helping me find my own way as a writer, I’ve always tried to follow this example. After 30 years and more of running courses, I still don’t know if writing can ever truly be taught, although I do remain absolutely convinced that talent can be encouraged and stimulated and tested and developed. And the wonderful thing about teaching such courses is that this applies just as much to those who would teach as to those who would learn. I’ve just returned from a quite extraordinary week at Ty Newydd where Tim (Firth) and I were running the third of the Song-Writing courses we’ve given. The participants (fifteen of them) ranged in experience from gifted but relatively inexperienced writers, through occasional lyricist/composers to experienced professional singer/songwriters. Working to the really tight deadlines we set, the student writers had to come up with songs that met or were sparked by and took flight from whatever criteria we set for a particular session so that, for example, on night one we explored the second most common recurring theme in popular song, place – geographical, physical, spiritual, metaphysical. And then each writer was given just forty five minutes in which to come up with (at least) two verses and a chorus which took ‘place’ as the starting point; and then come back and play/sing the results. Yes, I know that for some it might sound absolutely terrifying! But, in fact, on this type of course the best approach really is to dive straight in. And as was shown in this particular case, rather than being restrictive, being given this kind of deadline can in fact become quite liberating. Certainly Tim and I were absolutely knocked out with what we heard played back to us that first night and it immediately established a benchmark for the course in which we really did feel privileged to witness the birth of some really fine and memorable songs.
PC: Liverpool’s 2008 Capital of Culture is fast approaching - will the work of Willy Russell be part of the celebrations ?
If I can make the distinction, I think there’s a chance that some of my work may be seen in Liverpool during 2008 – as I said earlier we’re currently working on Our Day Out – The Musical and I think Blood Brothers may well be making a return as part of the tour. None of that though, is as a result of the Capital of Culture planning and both of these shows would have appeared in Liverpool regardless of the Capital of Culture arrangements.
When there was still sufficient time for the planning of such things, I was certainly prepared to explore the possibility of doing something specific for 08 but the simple fact is that I wasn’t asked or invited or approached or whatever it is that this Capital of Culture process involves. I did have an early informal exploratory meeting with Robyn Archer but nothing further came of this. Subsequent to Ms Archer’s departure I received no further approach from anyone connected to or representing the Capital of Culture organization. At my own initiative I did have some preliminary discussions with representatives of the theatres in Liverpool and, in one case, even made a proposal for staging one of my works there in 2008. After waiting over ten months and still not receiving even a reply to this proposal I came to the rather inevitable conclusion that for those charged with making the plans and arrangements for this celebration it didn’t really matter one way or the other whether my work was seen or not as part of the 08 festival.
Cest la vie.
And, anyway, there’s always 2009!
PC: The visitors to WR.com obviously feel a real closeness with your work and still bombard (in the nicest of ways) the site with questions.
WR: Yes, and it’s always a real encouragement to learn that one’s work has been appreciated in the way that some of the correspondents describe. With something like ‘The Wrong Boy’, I don’t (as in theatre) get a chance to be amongst the audience and experience for myself the interaction with the work and the effect it has. By it’s very nature the reading of a novel is a personal and private, rather than a public act and so one is, to a large extent, dependent upon this kind of feedback in order to get some kind of idea of how Raymond is getting on out there in the world. I’m always delighted to learn of when he has touched a new heart. It was lovely to read John Heywood’s note about him and his wife listening to the serialisation of The Wrong Boy on Oneword – so much so that they were no longer getting out of bed at their usual time!
To other correspondents, who have passed on their enthusiasm for The Wrong Boy, my thanks. And to those who have asked about the TV series, my apologies for the fact that it’s currently in some kind of televisual limbo, the powers-that-be having decided that they don’t see The Wrong Boy as a TV series. To me, that reeks of spectacular short- sightedness, absence of any kind of taste and discernment and a hugely emblematic example of why so much of our television is currently so insipidly appalling; but then, as the author of The Wrong Boy, I would say that wouldn’t I?
Good to hear via the guest book from all of those who feel such an affinity with Blood Brothers. It sometimes seems incredible that it’s now almost a quarter of a century since Blood Brothers first opened. I was recently reminded of just how long ago this was when I came across an archive copy of a video recording of the original Liverpool Playhouse production. The recording had been made at the dress rehearsal on 7th January of that year and although it’s just a one camera, very basic technology record of the dress rehearsal (still parts of the set waiting to be painted!), it’s really quite remarkable and, for me, wonderful to see the show in this almost naked state. Despite the quality of the video, the performances are wonderful and strikingly true from actors speaking and singing lines which had yet to be heard by an audience. There is no sense of anyone knowing the effect a particular line or song will have, no awareness of reaction from an audience, no knowledge of being in a successful show (or whether this show will even work!).
Just as I’d come across this video, I saw the guest book entry from Terry Corrigan, who attended the course at Lumb Bank which I tutored with Carol Ann (Duffy) in the early 80s. I do indeed remember the course and those who attended. I remember too that along with Carol Anne we had the pleasure of working with another great poet, Liz Lockhead who came as our guest for one evening – and then stayed for the rest of the week, so good a time she was having. And yes, as Terry says, I was writing the original Merseyside Young Peoples Theatre version of Blood Brothers whilst I was there.
PC: George Smith asks: "Chips and Egg or Egg and Chips" from Shirley Valentine? Does this level of scrutiny surprise you?
WR: Well, what can I say? Mr. Smith is not the first to take me to task over this. The DJ and Broadcaster Robert Elms is on record as saying that he found this culinary inversion so abhorrent that he was unable to go on watching the film!
Considered rationally, of course, both Misters Smith and Elms (and other complainants over the years) are absolutely right. However, in the less rational mind of this particular playwright, the phrase "chips and egg" still stubbornly takes precedence over the rational and linguistically more exact "egg and chips". Yes, orthodoxy has it that the mere carbohydrate accompaniment (said lowly chip), will always have to take second billing to its supposedly superior dollop of protein (say, steak or sausage or fish or suet pudding or duck or barbecued dingo or poulet au foie gras or even egg!) and that such second billing means that, as on posters and front-of-house marquees, this mere accompaniment will be positioned below the ‘star’ name e.g.
But, in my defence and by way of explanation I offer the following:
When I was growing up, my father was for a time the owner of a fish-frying establishment and so the humble chipped potato, loomed somewhat large in the monochrome years of my youth. My father was one of those men who assumed that whatever engaged his interest must therefore hold the same fascination for the rest of mankind and, particularly, those members of his family unfortunate enough not to have another home to go to. Accordingly, I, my mother and other unfortunates trapped in the glare of his bombast would be repeatedly lectured, regaled, informed, harangued, instructed and, supposedly, enlightened on the finer aspects of chip shop practice and management. Some of the mantras, I can still recall:
" A watery spud’s no good for chips! Always go for a spud that’s grown in clay. Soft soil makes a soft spud and soft spuds make bad chips."
" They might have invented a machine for fryin’ them, a machine for chippin’ them – but you mark my words – you’ll wait till beyond the day of doom before they invent a machine that’ll take the bloody eyes out of them!" - this last repeated in endless variants as, in all weather, he stood before a huge barrel of peeled potatoes, picking them one by one from ice cold water and plucking out the offending ‘eye’ as he declaimed:
" A spud with an eye is a spud not properly peeled! And a spud not properly peeled will result in a marked chip!! And a marked chip is a dirty chip! And a dirty chip means a dirty shop!."
Listen as I dutifully did (or, at least, appeared to do) to my father’s pulpit–punching declaration of the lore of successful (and hygienic) chip manufacture I was, in reality, a very bored boy, one without even vaguest scintilla interest in the pedantry of chip manufacture. When it came to chips my only interest was in eating them – eating them piping hot and vinegar steaming, liberally lashed with the tang of salt; or, best of all as part of that particular northern street delicacy which in less enlightened corners of this country is still imagined to be a mere music hall joke – I speak of that masterpiece of culinary invention - the chip butty.
So, delighted as on occasion I was to stuff the scalding salted chip between my eager teeth or to salivate at the rivulets of margarine mingled with brown sauce trickling across the chips and over the surface of the white sliced bread I had no interest whatsoever in any of the art or the craft, the careful science, the intuitive eye and nose or the dedication and graft that the maker brought to the chip . The nearest I ever got to giving any kind of thought to how chips were actually made was when watching an episode of The Army Game I saw the first Liverpudlian TV hero ‘Cupcake’ (brilliantly played by Norman Rossington ) confined to barracks and punished for some misdemeanor or other by having to hand-peel four hundredweight of potatos. Younger readers might like to know that back in the olden days of the late 1950’s a potato wasn’t the kind of soul-less, soil-less, smooth-skinned, polite and homogenized tuber that today adorns the racks at Tesco, M&S or Sainsbury’s. In 1959 a spud was a brute! A big, gnarled, clay-caked carbuncle of a bruiser. And it was to one such specimen that ‘Cupcake’ spoke when in philosophical pause from his labours he stared at the bloated black troll of a spud in his hand and mused: ‘How come such an ugly an’ ‘orrible thing as a spud/Can be turned into such a lovely thing as a chip?’
Were he still with us today would Cupcake ask a slightly different question, ask perhaps: ‘ How come such a lovely thing as a chip has become such an ugly ’an’ orrible thing in the hands of so-called cooks, café owners an’ restauranters ?’
How come, indeed. How did this minor miracle of world cuisine become the tasteless cardboard violation (and worse, much worse) that it invariably is today? Less than the blink of a few years ago, there was barely a household, café or restaurant in Britain that could not, effortlessly, turn out a gob-serenading platter of gorgeous golden slivers, glistening and a-piping, almost squirming in keen anticipation of their imminent anointment of salt and non-brewed condiment.
From the modest and humblest of greasy spoons to the exalted, Ramsay-fied, wallet-withering waterholes of Mayfair where will you ever, ever, EVER these days find a real (and yes, I really do mean "real") chip?
And that is why I gave the chip star billing over the egg!!
Because even back in the days when I was writing Ms Valentine I knew, I could see; that within a mere matter of years, the chip, as we had hitherto known it, the exquisite, irresistible, common-as-muck authentic chip would be no more – would become instead that frozen extrusion of reconstituted mush that is shamelessly, sacrilegiously offered up in the name of the real thing!
When…..WHEN did it become acceptable to pass off such cynical cack in the name of the holy chip? When did it become the norm to serve this sputum of frost and oil and with not even a blink of embarrassment, call it a ‘chip’? Why did a nation do nothing when the gastronomic joy it had taken to its heart, that sublimely simple slice of beautifully fried fresh potato, was cynically and remorselessly cuckooed out of existence by a string of vile imposters ? Perhaps, Dear George Smith ( and Robert Elms et al ) if you can answer me that then you won’t ever need to ask again:
‘ Why chips and egg ‘?
And I give you my word that should that happy day ever dawn when the glory of the true chip is revived, when I can safely eat at the New Piccadilly Café or The Ivy, the The Star Café, Tour D’Argent or Hebden Bridge Sit-Down-Chippy, secure in the knowledge that when ordering chips, I will be rewarded with the sight of true golden pieces of perfectly fried potato on my plate, I will then (and only then) abandon my campaign on behalf of the chip and give back to the egg it’s rightful place and billing in the saga of Shirley Valentine.