Lorne Jackson meets a playwright who inadvertently broke his own rule in creating a timeless, much-loved female character.
Willy Russell doesn’t seem like the sort of chap who would stumble into a creative quagmire.
The playwright comes across as cheerful and chirpy. An uncomplicated fellow.
He’s a Willy, after all. And Willies are full of bonhomie.
First to buy a round, last to stagger from the pub. They storm into an awkward silence, and ring it like a bell.
Willies can’t be Williams, while it’s almost impossible to conceive of a Willy Shakespeare or a Willy Blake.
Yet back in the late 1970s, on the cusp of his greatest success, Willy Russell encountered a mighty stumbling block.
Two, to be precise.
The first block was a sullen slab of a theatre. A Lego dungeon, drained of colour.
Then arrived the block every author dreads. Writer’s Block – that misty mind-set that turns possibility into porridge.
Russell had been commissioned by the RSC to deliver a new play, which eventually evolved into Educating Rita, starring Julie Walters.
About a working class hairdresser from Liverpool, who broadens her horizons by studying English Literature at the Open University, Rita was funny, moving, smart, yet accessible.
Not surprisingly, it was a hit, spawning a successful movie, also starring Walters.
Russell is visiting Stratford this month, as part of the RSC’s 50th birthday celebrations, where he’ll take part in a reading of Rita.
However, the play did not enjoy an easy birth.
“Back then the RSC owned what is now the Donmar Warehouse, though it was just called the Warehouse, in those days,” says Russell.
“It was their experimental theatre in London, where they did all their new work.
“They’d commissioned me to do a play there, so I went and had a look at this black, brick Brechtian box of a theatre.
“And I remember thinking: ‘I don’t know what to write, but I certainly want to put some colour and warmth into these walls.’”
He genuinely didn’t have a clue what to create for the Lego dungeon.
“I never do. It’s the panic of my life, whenever I write a play. The same was true with Rita.
“I phoned up a couple of times, and tried to get out of it. Then I tried to send the RSC their money back.
“I sat for months, going into work every day, and nothing happening, nothing happening, nothing happening.
“Then, thank God, one afternoon in November ’79, Rita just walked onto my page.
“I didn’t ask who she was, or where she was, or what she was doing.
‘‘I just wrote everything she said for the first fourteen pages, and then sat back and tried to assess what I had.
“I realised that the play was about this woman who, in those days, would never be seen in that kind of setting. A rather drab, rarefied, academic place such as a university.”
It seems strange that Rita arrived on the page, unencumbered by plot or context. Just a character in search of a dynamic.
“But that’s often the case with me,” Russell says. “The first thing I need to have is a compelling voice.
“Once I have that, then I know I can find a play. I can find the route that the narrative has to take.”
It was the same with Shirley Valentine, another notable Russell drama about a working-class woman seeking contentment through empowerment.
As a playwright, he’s celebrated for his lovable, yet single-minded female characters. Women who are too hopeful – and hungry for happiness – to settle for the sad slumber of mediocrity.
Blood Brothers, his eighties musical, also had a determined woman at the centre of the action.
Russell is clearly in touch with the language, dreams and aspirations of ordinary (yet extraordinary) women.
But Rita was based on a man – a man called Willy.
Russell may possess more facial hair than a roomful of Russian writers, but his similarities to Rita are many – and strikingly obvious.
Before forging a theatrical career, he worked as a women’s hairdresser, even owning a salon.
He also dreamed of better things, and returned to further education as a mature student, immersing himself in the delights of English literature.
Yet somehow Willy didn’t realise he had written an autobiographical play.
“It took me ages to figure out that the marrow and bones of the story was all about me.
“I realised that the detail was close to my own life, because I’m not one to go and research. I always feel that if I don’t know something in my belly, there’s no point in researching it.
“So when I came to the point in the play where Rita has to reveal her job, rather than having to stop and get details of some job I didn’t know, it was so easy to make her a ladies hairdresser. Because I’d been one for six years.
“So I was aware that I was looting elements of my own life.
“But it was months after it had opened that I really saw what I had done. In fact it was in Birmingham, where I saw it during its first national tour, that I suddenly realised the whole play was glaringly autobiographical.
“I certainly hadn’t been aware of that while writing it.
‘‘Which is just as well, because I think it would have stymied me, as I find writing directly autobiographically to be a complete turn-off.”
The success of Educating Rita is largely due to Russell’s brisk, bright dialogue, and his empathy towards his protagonist.
However, the contribution made by Walters should not be undervalued.
The Smethwick-born actress owned the part of Rita. But was Russell happy for a Brummie to play his Liverpool lass?
“Very much so,” he says. “Julie had been with me as part of that extraordinary company of actors and writers at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, which included Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Steadman, Jonathan Pryce, Antony Sher and Trevor Eve.
“It was a superb company of stunning actors. And as part of that company, Julie had to tackle all kinds of Liverpool roles.
“She’d been part of a guerrilla van-load of actors who went into hardcore, working-class Liverpool pubs to perform plays in the middle of the bar.
“I remember watching her in a pub, acting opposite Pete Postlethwaite, and they were lucky not to get bottled out of the place.
“But they won the drinkers over in the end, because they were such great actors. And they didn’t condescend, and they didn’t patronise their audience, ever.”
Russell, from Liverpool, actually had Julie in mind to play Rita from the start.
“At the time I’d just written a small play for Granada,” he says. “Having also just finished Rita, I was in the Granada canteen, and Julie was there with Vicky Wood. They were doing one of their first things together.
“I remember passing Julie’s table, and I said: ‘I’ve written just the play for you. I hope you’re going to be free.’
“So right at the outset, I knew it was for Julie.”
The play is a two-hander, featuring Rita and her English professor, Frank.
Characters and scenes were added when it was expanded into a movie.
However, it lost Mark Kingston, the stage actor who played the original Frank. He was replaced by the more marketable Michael Caine.
During an early stage of negotiations with movie bigwigs, there was even pressure to replace Walters with Dolly Parton.
Caine’s role would have gone to Paul Newman, with the movie relocated to the States.
“Actually that would have been brilliant casting for a movie set in America,” says Russell.
“I’m a fantastic fan of Dolly Parton. She’s a great writer, a sublime singer.
‘‘She’s a terrific actress, and she comes from the only really white American equivalent of working-class Britain.
“So it wasn’t as bizarre as it might have sounded.
“And Paul Newman at the time hadn’t long finished Butch Cassidy and The Sting. So he was the hottest guy in the world.
“A more cynical and a more commercially minded human being than myself might have said, ‘What a great idea. Go down that route.’”
But Russell’s instinct to stick with Walters proved correct.
Both he and his leading lady were nominated for Oscars – leading to an unforgettable experience.
“Going to LA for the ceremony was totally nuts, as you can imagine.
‘‘Everyone from Britain who experiences it for the first time says the same thing. It’s surreal.
‘‘It has no parallel with anything I’ve ever done, before or since. I was courted and feted. The amount of smoked salmon and champagne that arrived at my room!
“I didn’t sleep for five days, because every time I tried to sleep, the bloody door would go and it would be more champagne and flowers from people who wanted to make associations with me, because I’d been nominated.
“Thank Christ I didn’t win. No more champagne, flowers or smoked salmon arrived, and I got a night’s sleep at last.”
* Celebration Of Educating Rita is being held at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre on November 27. For more information visit www.rsc.org.uk or call 0844 800 1110