‘I don’t think Rita would lust for university today’
Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is back on stage 35 years on, but its heroine would struggle in our money-mad society, he tell Carol Midgley
Willy Russell’s monster hit play Educating Rita, about a working class Open University student and her bibulous tutor, was set in 1979, the year before it had its premiere at the Warehouse in London. In a new production at Liverpool’s Playhouse that is precisely where it will stay. There has been no attempt to drag Rita into a 21st century world of smartphones and Skype: the cast’s hair and costumes deliberately scream late Seventies.
This seems wise. Modernising the play risks destroying its premise: if Rita joined an OU course now she would probably do so on Facebook and have tutorials via video conference. She wouldn’t be alone in the bookish study with her tutor and thus may never realise he is bladdered on whisky.
At his offices close to Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, Russell agrees that the practical axiom of the play “no longer exists”. “Back in ’79 you still had the possibility of this donnish figure living in his own world, completely secure because they had security of tenure in those days,” he says. That tutor would be able to see someone like Rita much more often but now “somebody in Frank’s position would be responsible for about 300 students a week”. Russell says he was stretching the premise even back then because, strictly speaking, OU students usually saw their tutors only at summer school. “I thought I’d get pilloried by the Open University,” he says, “but they gave me a bloody doctorate so it must have been all right.”
Some 1970’s references, though, have had to go. In the original script Rita refers to the TV series Charlie’s Angels and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, to which Frank looks blank. She says he wouldn’t know because it’s an ITV show and he probably only watches BBC, being a “Flora Man”. Russell has simply cut all this out. One of the most famous lines, though, has stayed. At one point the professor asks, “Do you know Yeats?” To which she replies, “The wine Lodge?” Yates’s Wine Lodges have survived and so can the joke.
“I’ve got to tell you the truth,” laughs Russell. “The best line in the play and it’s Alan Bleasdale’s.” Really? Russell nods and explains they used to go to each other’s dress rehearsals. Bleasdale heard the line about Yeats, he says, and said “You’ve got to do the wine lodge.” “I said: ‘Yes, of course!’”
Next month the part of Scouse hairdresser Rita, originally played by Julie Walters, will be performed by Leanne Best, the Liverpudlian actress who starred in Ripper Street and The Woman in Black 2. Con O’Neill, who won an Olivier Award for his part in Russell’s Blood Brothers, which ran in the West End for 24 years, plays Frank. Russell is thrilled by the casting of two “superb” actors.
Russell’s daughter Rachel was once assistant director of a production of Popcorn in which Best had a part, “There was a buzz about (Leanne) even when she was at Lipa (the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts),” says Russell. In the 35 years since its premiere, Educating Rita has been performed continually all over the world (there are two productions elsewhere in the UK in the next two months) – although not in Liverpool for 13 years.
Initially Russell wrote it for just 18 performances for which he was paid £700. “I’ve never been a writer to ask for a huge advance. I always gambled on my ability,” he says. “If the piece isn’t making money then I don’t want the company that commissioned it to be losing.” Why has it endured so spectacularly? Russell says he believes the desire to improve one’s lot is a primal human force. Rita’s aspiration touched a nerve because it represents “the universal struggle to get something better”. He quotes Paul Simon: “The thought that life could be better/ Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” However, he could never have predicted its longevity. “I was just blessed by something. I didn’t know 35 years later I’d still be talking about it.”
Russell, today a svelte 67, father of three and grandfather of three, grew up in the Whiston area near Liverpool, left school with one O level and worked as a hairdresser, a job he loathed but which enabled him to study women and help conceive Rita and Shirley Valentine. His life catalyst was meeting his wife Annie, whose father was a polytechnic lecturer and whose mother encouraged him to return to college and become a teacher. He felt gratitude at being a student: “It was paradise. Having worked for six years and to sit on a lawn in summer with a pint of beer learning in a universal way…talk about a kid in a candy store.” This clearly drove Rita’s view that the privileged take their opportunities for granted.
And that idea that so much intelligence goes wasted. Has the gap closed so much since then? “It’s a different gap isn’t it?” Russell says, explaining that then there was still an identifiable working class in which most people didn’t own their own homes and didn’t generally go on to higher education, but there was no obvious underclass. Now, he says, the chasm between rich and poor is much bigger. Russell cites a speech from Rita in which she says she wants meaning to her life. Now people have much more, such as housing and a bit of money, but they actually have less.
“All we are ever told is to chase money,” says Russell, becoming impassioned. “The people who are supposed to represent us, like the Daily Mirror, ITV, the unions: they don’t tell us to find meaning, they tell us to go after money. Now there is far more money flooding into her class. It’s a more ‘got to have’ society – and it’s garbage. It is absolute and utter crap. We have staggering levels of obesity. There’s poverty. It’s a different poverty of the soul and the psyche.”
Would he write a play about that? “You could do that play, but I don’t want to hit fat people. It’s actually the grossness of global capitalism, but I don’t want to write plays in which a character articulates about the evils of global capitalism because I’ve seen too many bad plays like that. I don’t think I could identify and articulate in a successful way the pressures on society today in the way I did then. It’s much more complex and I’m older.”
He thinks the way Russell Brand railed against voting “got it all wrong” but believes he was trying to articulate a truth. “Which is: don’t spend the next four months talking about whether there’s going to be a Labour government, a Tory government, a hung government. Does it matter? All we are doing is appointing a group of middle management who do the bidding of corporate capitalism. And if you doubt that look what happened with the banks. We are deluded into thinking we have some power to change things.”
There seem to be a dozen potential plays fizzing within Russell but in recent years he has been embroiled more in his other love painting, presumably cushioned by the phenomenal success of Blood Brothers, which after its record-breaking West End run is still touring the UK as well as being performed in South Africa, South Korea and, later this year, Australia and Japan. He shows me his studio, packed with his quite gorgeous landscape paintings. This from a man who was told in art class at 14: “The only thing you’ll ever draw is the dole.”
Russell’s father, who worked variously in the mines, a factory and a chip shop, was an alcoholic with whom he had a troubled relationship. I wonder if his father, a depressive, was a frustrated creative as Russell was during all those years when he was cutting hair and not writing. “Oh definitely,” he says. “Looking back I have great sympathy for him, but I have learnt the tough-love lesson about alcoholics. You have to save yourself.” To this day, although he enjoys drinking, he can’t stand the company of people whose mood changes in drink. “One glass of wine and it’s like Jekyll and Hyde: It goes across the eyes and a real sweetheart has become a horrendous animal in front of you. That’s what my father was like.”
We talk about how higher education has become more accessible. Russell welcomes this, but questions the “commercialism” of the university system. “Its people processing a lot of the time,” he says, adding that in some cases he thinks standards have fallen.
“The depth of intellectual rigour is so shallow often that it really takes me by surprise. I get communications from university lecturers who don’t even have a command of English, and I think ‘Well, what are the students getting?’ I’m never going to use the phrase ‘dumbing down’ but there has been a thinning out in my observation. Certainly I don’t think Rita would lust for that university education now.”
Russell is presently in talks to do a TV dramatisation of The Wrong Boy, his novel about a closet intellectual and misfit from Greater Manchester who pens letters to Morrissey, and he knows he’ll have to tear himself away from his beloved painting to write it.
Is he hungry to do another stage play? “I’ve always got hunger to do a play but I’ve just never found the right conditions,” he says. What about a sequel to Educating Rita? “I don’t do sequels,” he says. “Once I’ve put ‘final curtain’ or ‘The End’, that’s it. I don’t mind other people speculating: does she go to Australia? Does she have a baby? That’s great.”
I ask whether he wonders about the road not travelled, if he hadn’t met his wife, hadn’t made that life change. “I used to say that I could have carried on being the world’s worst hairdresser, probably frustrated and either dead of drink or blown my brains out by the time I was 40,” he says, “but I don’t think I would have done that, actually. Because I think I always had a drive.”
The only time recently that he has become excited by politics was during Scotland’s referendum when the talk turned to decentralisation. “I’ll start to take them seriously when they make parliament peripatetic, when they have to move out of London and put the seat of politics in St Helens and Wigan for the next 20 years, then in Dunoon or Derry,” he says. This would swiftly regenerate the county he believes.
“We’ll have every rail link we need, every road link we need. Life will get a lot better. But I’m not going to run for leader of the Let’s Make Government Peripatetic Party just yet.”
Educating Rita is at the Playhouse, Liverpool (0151 709 4776) from February 6
THE TIMES - 13 January 2015