‘I broke all contact with my dad for seven years and only spoke to him again for the last two or three weeks of his life’
Ahead of the Belfast Lyric Theatre's production of Willy Russell's Educating Rita at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin next week, the acclaimed playwright tells Julia Malony how the play mirrors his own turbulent upbringing
Willy Russell is tall, has a Noel Gallagher haircut and is dressed in writerly black - all the way from his socks to his watch. You could place him as being from the North of England just by glancing at his face - it is craggy, full of character, and even at rest, retains an expression that is ever-so-slightly challenging.
Unusually for a playwright, he is virtually a household name in the UK - Russell's best-known works, which include Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita and Blood Brothers were mega-hits by any standard. And the former two were both made into successful films. He has written plays, television scripts, novels and essays. He has won four Olivier Awards and his adaptation of Educating Rita for film scored him an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
He was in his early thirties and relatively unknown when Educating Rita, his play about a working-class hairdresser who applies to join the Open University and falls in love with the life of the mind, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I remember being in the pub that is opposite what is now The Donmar theatre, it was then the RSC's experimental home - just called The Warehouse," he tells me, having settled his long frame onto a vintage Chesterfield couch. We are in his agent's plush townhouse in West London which is full of collectible furniture and fine art.
"And we were only scheduled to play for 18 days. I'd had a West End play (John, Paul, George, Ringo and ... Bert) a few years earlier, but wasn't particularly well known. Julie (Walters) was in it. She'd done Talent which had caused a bit of a ripple up North but wasn't well known. Mark Kingston wasn't particularly well known. We were in the pub at 6.30pm just having a Scotch or pint because we were so terrified about this opening. I looked out the window, and there was a queue! It was in the air."
Whatever "it" was, is still in the air today, apparently. "It's always in production," Willy says matter-of-factly. "One can never predict this kind of thing." Even he seems rather surprised by its enduring appeal.
"When it was first on, it was a play absolutely of its time. The idea of people who had squandered or been denied an education, wanting to go back, was in the air. And I just happened to be somebody who nailed it in a play. And it caught the zeitgeist at the time. There's no doubt about that. It had that really big impact." But that's all changed.
"Now that's gone. Completely gone," he says, shaking his head ruefully. "The idea of saving yourself through education. It's almost risible now, isn't it? And the whole status of the student has completely changed since then."
Of all the plays that Russell has written, he admits that Educating Rita is the one that is closest to his own narrative. Not least in its account of a hairdresser falling in love with the rarified world of academia.
Russell himself left school at 15 and at his mother's suggestion, trained as a ladies' hairdresser. It was only after meeting his wife Annie, whose bohemian family moved in literary circles, that he was persuaded to return to education.
"I'd been completely unaware that I'd written something autobiographical," he says of the play. "I'd looted. When I had to identify the job that this girl did, it was much easier for her to be a ladies' hairdresser because I didn't have to stop and research it."
He understood the heavy-drinking university tutor, Frank too.
"I've always enjoyed drink. The artistic community that I came to in Liverpool was massively boozy - it was very much like Dublin. Literature and pints go together - so all that Frank stuff, I didn't have to stop and research that kind of stuff. But I thought I was just borrowing things until about three months after it opened. It was a huge hit …and I'm watching it at this matinee and I saw all of my life laid out before me. It's glaringly autobiographical. Had I known that when I was writing it, it would have struck me dumb. I wouldn't have been able to write because I don't write autobiographical stuff."
In fact, Russell's own life story is every bit as compelling as Rita's, if not more so. He was born into a working-class family in Liverpool. His father was an alcoholic and worked a variety of hard-scrabble jobs; on a production line in a factory, then down the mines. His parents were unhappily married all their lives. They were, he says, "complete opposites. My father loved to go to spit-and-sawdust pubs, she hated that. She'd want to go somewhere posh, or cultured. She was working class, she wasn't a snob, but she had certain aspirations in that sense. She was a great-looking woman and a beautiful dancer... those were still the days of ballroom dancing", he says, remembering an occasion in a ballroom when he watched his parents take to the floor. "All of a sudden, all the dancers danced to the side and my mum and dad were in the circle dancing and we all cleared the ballroom... they were electric. It was a very turbulent marriage but I could see how they'd been attracted to each other in the first place."
Russell was "brought up very much as an only child" and his relationship with his mother was particularly intense. "To be fair to my father, I think I'd been appropriated somewhat by her. Men worked long hours in those days. And I think I was naturally more her child in temperament and sensitivities. My father always wanted me to do maths." He had no truck with what he called "bloody stories and that".
When he was 17, his parents had a daughter, his much-younger sister Dawn, whom he says is like a big sister to his own three kids. It seems to surprise him that his parents stayed together all their lives. "You never know what happens between two people. Underneath all that warring and argy-bargy and resentment and bitterness, there may have been some kind of love. Who knows? They're my parents, but I'm no more privy to or wiser than anybody else as to why they stayed together. I remember my father used to suffer badly from depression, because as well as being alcoholic, for a long time he was addicted to Valium. He was very heavily addicted. I remember him sitting on a chair and saying, 'I just want to put my boots on and go away'. And I said, 'why don't you do it?' And he said, 'there's nowhere to go'."
His father's alcoholism ultimately drove a wedge between them, and Willy broke off all contact for the seven years leading to his father's death. "I didn't speak to him until the last two or three weeks of his life. Yeah. I'd learned through a situation that my sister had - and I wasn't aware of it at the time, she was in a relationship with an alcoholic. And through her I learned that you cannot save the addict. You can only save yourself."
Still the decision came at a huge cost to him. "I was so ill during that time. You pay the price. For five of those seven years I developed the most hideous skin condition. It was never finally diagnosed. I remember coming up to London for a publishing party on the train, I looked down at my hands and the inside of my fingers had turned black - like a blood blister. I had to buy gloves at the station. People thought I was the biggest poseur on God's earth. Drinking wine in gloved hands." He asked one specialist if it was possible the condition was psychosomatic.
"You know it's such an unnatural thing to do to cut off from someone who gave you life, for God's sake." The doctor's opinion was that, "the violence of the reaction is such that I don't think it possibly could be. I now know", Willy says, "that he was wrong - it was. So it was a terrible price to pay. And I had to negotiate that every day. Would it be easier for me to say, alright, I'll go round and see him. And in the end, no".
He has misgivings now about how much he mined his personal relationships in his work. "I feel almost disloyal talking about them in this way," he reflects. "Because it's not a story that belongs to me. In recent years I've started to have such cringe-worthy moments when I think of what I unwittingly must have put them through with some of the plays. Because in Blood Brothers, in the second act where Mickey ends up addicted to pills - it's obvious I had taken it from what I'd seen."
He was in denial, for much of his career, about how much his family's real-life experiences were appropriated - offered up as sacrifice to his creative muse. "I may have flattered myself that I was being very good in not plundering (their stories)," he says, remembering how, when writing his play Breezeblock Park he actually used the names of the real people from his family as character names. His father, when he first saw the play, was horrified. Russell remembers him coming out at the interval, "ashen-faced and saying, 'that's not a comedy, it's a tragedy.'"
His father was a bright, energetic autodidact, but ultimately a man who was thwarted by his demons. His son, however, was saved by the intervention of the woman who is now his wife and mother of his three grown-up children. Annie and her parents "came from that world that Rita wanted a part of", he says of his in-laws. Michael was head librarian of the Hornby library in Liverpool. "They were part of the then, very thriving Liverpool arts society." The world they inhabited was enchanting to the young Willy. "They weren't wealthy but they rented a massive, 18-room Victorian detached house, that had a massive library, a huge grand piano. A real boho kind of place." It was his in-laws who suggested he return to education, and encouraged him in his efforts at writing. And his wife Annie has always been among his most trusted readers. "She's one of the very few people who is able to read a script with a very wise eye," he says.
It's no accident that Willy's best-loved work features female characters at the heart of their narrative. He grew up surrounded by women and has always been uncomfortable in all-male company. "I don't know how to behave. I find it really difficult. I can't do banter. I hate banter," he says. But although plays like Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita were ground-breaking in the way they explored women's inner lives, he never set out to write about sexual politics.
In fact, he claims that when he first heard people talking about "sexism" in the theatre circles he moved in, in the 1960s, "I thought they meant sexy! I was really that ignorant! So there was no awareness of doing something slightly radical. It was just a natural thing to do. I think instinctively I understood that the stories I was telling would be told more effectively through female rather than male voices. And instinctively I probably realised that it was something that wasn't being done, so it was a bit radical to put women centre stage. But in all honesty I just get a voice, and if the voice is right that's what I go with. And it just happened to be women."
It's an issue that perplexes him, even to this day.
"I've never been able to answer the question. Yes, I was brought up by women. My grandmother had the only mobile grocery store on the little estate I mostly grew up in. My mother, my auntie Dolly, my auntie Edna would come and congregate. I was always around women in those days. I was terrified of women when I was a teenager. Then I became a ladies' hairdresser by default - so maybe it just seeped in through the pores - women's take on life.
''There wasn't a conscious effort on my part - even when it came to Shirley Valentine. Oh I'll make this about a woman. There would be no question about it ever being a man. At one point I tried to do a companion piece where Joe arrives home, sees the sign saying 'gone to Greece' and we then have a two-hour play. I couldn't open up. I couldn't get... the conceit of talking to the wall, with Shirley you buy it. With Joe? What's he going to say?"
- Educating Rita by Willy Russell at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, March 21-25. gaietytheatre.ie