Willy Russell

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A major figure in British theatre, film and television, he has dramatized important social issues for the masses.
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b. William Martin Russell, 23 August 1947, Whiston, Lancashire, England. After leaving school at the age of 15, Russell became a hairdresser, meanwhile harbouring a desire to become a writer. In his spare time, he wrote songs, composing with the guitar, and for a while sang as a member of the Kirby Town Three. He drifted into other jobs, mainly manual, then, at the age of 22, he decided to extend his education and returned to school. He attended Childwall College of Further Education and then St. Katharine’s College of Higher Education in Liverpool, training to become a teacher. In 1973/4 he briefly taught but had meanwhile been directing his burgeoning talent into becoming a dramatist. His first play, Keep Your Eyes Down, was produced in 1971. Among other early works was Sam O’Shanker, an updating of Robert Burns’ epic poem Tam O’Shanter, which he later adapted into a one-act play. Together with Playground, Sam O’Shanker and Keep Your Eyes Down formed the trilogy, Blind Scouse, which was staged at the 1972 Edinburgh Fringe festival. Owing to the Fringe performance, Russell came to the attention of the Everyman Touring Company, which staged some his works.

In 1973, Russell adapted Alan Plater’s play, The Tigers Are Coming into When The Reds. Produced by Alan Dossor and directed by Pam Brighton at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, the cast reads like a who-was-soon-to-be-who of British stage, film and television: Bernard Hill, Anthony Sher, Jonathan Pryce, Alison Steadman, George Costigan, Trevor Eve, Liz Estensen, Philip Joseph, Matthew Kelly, Pete Postlethwaite, Julie Walters, and Bill Nighy. Russell’s next play for the theatre, John, Paul, George, Ringo … And Bert, brought the breakthrough into the mainstream of British theatre when it was transferred to London’s West End. This account of the rise and eventual dissolution of the Beatles was a great success with audiences and critics alike, winning the Evening Standard and London Theatre Critics Awards for Best Musical. Other stage plays followed, among them Terraces (1979), Breezeblock Park (1975), Stags And Hens (1978), which became Dancin’ Thru The Dark when it was filmed in 1990, and Educating Rita (1980). The latter had been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and, after its West End production, it won the 1980 SWET (Society of West End Theatres) Award for Best Comedy. Educating Rita became a successful film, for which Russell wrote the screenplay, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, the latter having appeared in the original stage production. Russell was nominated for a 1983 Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation. Russell’s Blood Brothers was first produced in 1981 but a revised version, for which he wrote book, lyrics and score, opened in Liverpool in 1983 and proved to be a huge success on its transfer to London’s West End. When the play transferred to Broadway it met with poor critical response, but went on to run for two years and pick up several Tony Awards. Another success was Shirley Valentine (1986), which was staged both in the West End and on Broadway, and which starred Pauline Collins who won SWET and Tony Awards as Best Actress. Russell, too, received numerous awards for this work. When Shirley Valentine was filmed in 1989, Russell wrote the screenplay, for which he won The Evening Standard Film Award for Best Screenplay, and collaborated on the score with George Hatzinassios.

Russell’s first television play, King Of The Castle, was screened by the BBC in 1973 and subsequent television dramas include Break In, The Death Of A Young, Young Man (both 1975), Our Day Out (1977), which Russell adapted as a stage musical in 1983 and revised again in 1995, Lies and Politics And Terror (both 1978), The Daughters Of Albion (1979), The Boy With The Transistor Radio (1980), and Terraces (1993). A five-part television serial produced by Yorkshire Television for Channel Four, One Summer, was troubled in production and Russell eventually had his name removed from the credits. He also composed the music for Ron Hutchinson’s television series, Connie (1985), a single of the theme, ‘The Show’, sung by Rebecca Storm, almost charted; and he composed the score for the film Mr Love (1986), for which the screenplay was by Ken Eastaugh. Russell has also written for radio, the play I Read The News Today airing in 1976, and his first novel, The Wrong Boy, was published in 2000 and was subsequently adapted as a television series. Occasionally over the years, Russell has appeared in performance, usually with other writers, including Andy Roberts, Roger McGough (Scaffold; McGough And McGear) and Adrian Henri, singing and playing his songs and reading excerpts from his works. In the early 00s Willy Russell & Friends was staged at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and featured Paul McCartney and Adrian Mitchell. Together with fellow playwright and screenwriter Tim Firth, Russell toured the UK with An Evening With Willy Russell And Tim Firth, in which they presented their own songs mingled with excerpts from their films and plays, poetry and anecdotes. Russell and Firth collaborated again on a 2004 tour of the UK with In Other Words. The same year Russell recorded his own versions of some of his songs on Hoovering The Moon.

A major figure in British theatre, film and television, Russell has observed that he regards drama as a way to bring important social issues before an audience that does not habitually turn to books for its information and enlightenment. Throughout his career, he has maintained this view, creating a succession of works that not only provide all of these things, but do so in the form of outstanding entertainment.