Willy Russell Interview
Posted on 28 September 2004. © Copyright 2004-2023 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to Willy Russell, one of the most successful English playwrights. His most famous plays and films include Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers and Educating Rita, where he used his background as a hairdresser to some advantage. He grew up in a family of women and his work has often focused on strong but often invisible women. He is also an acclaimed musician, songwriter and screenwriter and his first novel, The Wrong Boy, came out recently.|
Willy Russell's plays have been performed in countries across the globe
and have won
countless appreciation and creative awards as well as academic honours.
premiers plays such as EDUCATING RITA, STAGS AND HENS, SHIRLEY
BREEZEBLOCK PARK and OUR DAY OUT have been in constant production
world. Twenty years after it first opened there in 1983, the revival of
BROTHERS is still playing to large and enthusiastic audiences in
End. Much more detail at www.willyrussell.com
How did you start writing?
Began as a songwriter after having been influenced by seeing The Beatles in their pre fame days when I was 14 and in the D stream of a secondary school, nursing a secret desire to write. I thought that to do real writing, you had to wear tweeds, smoke a pipe and come from somewhere called Oxbridge. It seemed to me, though, that anybody, from whatever background, could write song.
How did you turn to stage writing?
I found my way to writing for the stage through a series of journeys, including one where I saw the work of John McGrath as the Liverpool Everyman Theatre and another journey which took me back to education in my early 20s when I studied drama. I had begun submitting my first attempts at TV scripts and, at college, wrote a one act play to meet a gap in the second year production schedule. I immediately knew that this one act play worked – in a way that nothing else of mine had, so far, really worked. I think I liked the difficulties posed by the stage; liked, and responded to, the problems of dealing convincingly with time and with space and with finding ways to believably bring the action into the view of the audience. I didn’t know it then but I think I was also responding to the fact that theatre is a potently poetic medium and not, for one second here, do I mean flowery and excessive verbiage - quite the reverse. Theatre is an absolute distillation, a place in which the imagination can soar.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
In no particular order, Bob Dylan, William Shakespeare, Alan Bennett, Alan Ayckbourn, Anon, Lennon & McCartney, Robert Browning, Brian Patten, Randy Newman, Noel Coward, Bertolt Brecht, John Irvine, Joni Mitchell, Billy Connolly, Charles Dickens, and many, many, many, many, more. And they’re all favourites because, in their various ways, and often through laughter, they all move me deeply.
How did you get your first commission/agent?
I got my first agent, the legendary Peggy Ramsay because, after being treated very shabbily at a Radio Times Awards competition and luncheon, I thieved a bottle of whiskey and left the proceedings feeling patronised and enraged. On the pavement below, I was intercepted by the writer Hugh Whitmore, who was extremely sympathetic and as outraged as me at what had gone on (with the Radio Times Drama Awards, not the robbed whiskey!) and who offered to immediately take my script to Peggy Ramsay.
My first commission was for the BBC way back in a time when the BBC was able and more than willing to take chances on young writers who were showing some promise. I wrote a half hour play for their Second City First series. Apart from play publications, my first publisher was Transworld, who published my novel The Wrong Boy in 2000.
What's the worst thing about writing?
Having to answer questions about it.
And the best?
When you know you’re doing it right.
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