I’m not saying a word
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
Knowsley playwright Willy Russell is credited with creating some of the most unforgettable and well-loved characters of the last 50 years. His plays have barely been off the stage across the world since the mid-70’s. Your Move sat down with Willy at Kirkby Gallery, where an exhibition looking back on his career is underway, and discussed the incredible longevity of his work along with his plans for the future.
How does it feel to be in a room surrounded by your life’s work?
It’s slightly embarrassing I have to say, I have to try and divorce that personal side of myself and look at it professionally. It’s a life’s work, the professional side of my life, not the personal side of my life. If it were the personal side of my life you wouldn’t see me for dust! For me it’s a real pleasure to look at certain items, because for me they have back-stories, there is lots of real poignant, rich, kind of memory in here [the room].
In the past, Ringo Starr has been critised for some comments he made about Liverpool. You were born not too far away from here in Whiston, so how important to you are your roots in the city?
They are important but I don’t want to make a fetish out of it! Ringo was a bit ill advised to say what he said but I think it was a joke that went wrong. You can’t be the Beatles and still be living in Liverpool! For a writer, it’s easy; the pressure is not to move because you can write from anywhere. For a performer you have to head south or across the water because that’s where the centre of show business is. As a writer we don’t physically have to be there – our work does. So it’s easier for me.
‘Educating Rita’ celebrates its 35th anniversary this year and continues to be performed across the world. What do you think it is about the play that keeps people revisiting it?
I don’t know, it’s so difficult. My take is only as valid as anybody else’s – who can say what it is? But I think one of the facts is that central to ‘Educating Rita’ is a woman who’s trying to make life better. I think that is something that chimes with us all. That’s what life is isn’t it? We are all trying to make things better.
Michael Caine described his role of Frank in the film adaptation of Educating Rita as the ‘last good picture I made before I mentally retired’. Did you have Michael Caine in mind when you were writing the screenplay?
No, but I have a very strict process when I write – a necessity. When I write, I can’t have an actors face in mind – it stops me writing the character. I didn’t have Michael Caine in mind for the role. The reason I didn’t have Michael Caine in mind for the role was because I always saw Frank as having an absolutely impeccable received pronunciation voice and I knew Michael Caine – one of my favourite actors of all time. But I had filed Michael away under: English, working-class character – forgetting what a great actor he is! I’d insisted on Julie [Walters], so [director] Lewis Gilbert said if we are having Julie then we’ve got to have a star in the male role to get the funding. He said to me ‘what about Michael?’ I hesitated for a second and said ‘brilliant’. Michael saw what a wonderful talent Julie was and played with that not against it and the two of them on film is joyous.
Some of your best loved characters have been children. is there something about younger characters that you enjoy writing about?
I’m glad you’ve asked that question – the question I get asked most is, ‘why do you write so much about women?’ I’ve said on occasion, ‘why does nobody ever ask me why so much of my work is set in childhood?’ because it’s true! ‘Our Day Out’, ‘One Summer’, ‘Blood Brothers’, ‘The Death of a Young, Young Man’ – it always gets overlooked by the question about writing about women! But I love writing things set in childhood because there is a fantastic possibility in childhood and kids are not guarded and have not yet been molded into what they should do, they do what they feel like doing so have got an anarchy. They have access to imagination that is educated out of them a lot of the time.
How much did you draw on your own experiences , both as a teacher and obviously a school child, when you wrote ‘Our Day Out’?
Massively. Obviously as a kid I had been taken out on a school trip very similar to that in the play and we had gone to souvenir shops where the shoplifting was rife. I remember the coach being stopped by police because of stuff being thrown out of the window. Appalling behaviour! Later on as a teacher I was on the other side of the fence with kids from Shorefields school where I taught. I saw on that day, this story unfolding. I’ve often said that it’s the one play of mine that’s taken almost directly from life, I mean it’s not – all the things are heightened and invented, but it’s based certainly on my own experiences.
Next year will be 30 years since your last production, ‘Shirley Valentine’. Do you have any plans for a new play?
I have plans for a new play almost every week! But the difference between having plans for a play and a play getting made is wide. We’ll see! I’m doing a lot of painting at the moment and at the moment that’s where my artistic expression is going but if an idea comes along I will certainly be on it.
Finally, do you have a set procedure when you write, do you have somewhere that you take yourself off to when you need to get work done?
I used to have a room in the house that acted as an office but as soon as I had children, I noticed that if I heard my son crying downstairs I would break off my writing and go down. I was doing what all writers do – finding any excuse not to write. So very early on I moved my office out of the house and rented a space in the Everyman annex. You couldn’t avoid it then, you had to lock yourself in a cell! I wrote one of the songs in ‘Blood Brothers’ after coming into the office with a terrible hangover and I went down to put the kettle on and it just came to me. My agent once said, ‘if you’re not at the desk, it wont happen’ – there will come a time when you are at the desk and it still wont happen but if you’re in a pub talking about it instead of doing it then it definitely wont!