This is part two of an interview with Willy Russell and Mark Shenton (Theatre Critic for the Sunday Express) recorded at the Shaw Theatre in 2008. During part two Willy talks enthusiastically about his introduction to theatre.
PART TWO - Theatre Influences
Please note - There is a slight distortion on a section of this recording.
PART THREE - Musical Theatre
PART ONE - Music Influences
|Above: You can see a video of Willy reading Sam O'Shanker at the evening to celebrate Willy Russell's archive collection at John Moores University. Nov 2013
Produced at St. Katherines College, Liverpool in 1972. The same production was taken to the Edinburgh Fringe in August & September.
"The first 'real' piece of writing I did was to adapt, update and relocate
Burn's narrative poem Tam O'Shanter. I had a number of Scots friends, including the singer Tich Frier who used to recite the poem. I was keen to do the same for the English club audiences that I played to; but, of course I couldn't really do justice to the marvellous dialect which would, anyway, probably have been inpenetrable to many in the audience.
So, eventually I came up with the idea of writing a new, updated and relocated version of the poem."
When work’s done and dusted for another day,
and the sky takes on a look of smouldering grey,
as thirsty bloke meets thirsty bloke
and the air in the bar starts to thicken with smoke;
as we all sit talking, perhaps about the match,
or, even the latest loveliest female catch,
we think not once of the long lonely roads
that lie between us and our abodes
where sits a wife, and a dinner grown cold,
a wife, who has long long foretold
that those who refuse to come to their senses
will one day face the consequences
Oh Sam! if you’d listened, if you’d used your brain,
but your wife’s warnings were all in vain;
she told you no good ever comes of a boozer,
that the drunkard will always end the loser.
She told you no good would come of your drinking,
that the devil finds mischief for those who go slinking
from one pub to the next and coming home late;
“Your stomach ? ”, she said, “ More like a river in spate!”
She told her sister that your doom wasn’t far off,
that one night you’d probably drive the car off
the road and die a drunkard in some miserable ditch
where bogey-man, devil and fiend and witch
would claim what’s left of your sodden skin and bone
before whisking you off and away to their foul, evil home.
So, one night in a pub called the Keel & Anchor,
there sits our hero, Mister Sam O Shanker,
the fire roaring and blazing in the grate
lighting up the faces of Sam and his drinking mate,
Bandy Billy, the cockeyed cockle seller;
Sam loves the company of this particular fella!
The pair of them just sitting there for ages
sorting out the world while drinking their wages.
And this night is no exception to the rule
the fire hot and cheering, the Guiness rich and cool;
and Mabel, the landlady’s considerable assets
growing ever more attractive with every pint that passes.
“ A song, Sam, give us a song, she implores
and rising to his feet amid the shouts and the roars
Sam, the bar-room Sinatra has the whole pub-singing,
the glasses, the walls, the rafters now ringing
with cheering and clapping, voices soaring
and drowning out the howl of the roaring
storm gathering and growling in the trees outside;
but Sam has well forgotten the long and lonely drive
that awaits him when all this drunken mirth is past;
Forgotten that the warmest of nights can never last.
So, come, as always it does, the hour of closing time,
to the final echoing strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’,
Sam and Billy bid each other a faltering, fond ‘tara’.
Oh Bandy Bill, tonight how very lucky you are
living barely halfway down this same street
and needing no more transport than your own two feet,
while poor old Sam now faces that solitary drive
along pitch-black country lanes before he’ll arrive
home to a reception, guaranteed to be ice cool
twelve miles away, back in Liverpool;
Liverpool, which no other town reaches
for its curler-headed women, false tans and matching peroxide bleaches.
In company a king but alone now just a mere man
Sam stumbles to the car park and his waiting van.
A lightning shaft suddenly splits the sky apart
and fear folds its fingers around Sam’s beating heart.
Sam has never been the bravest of men
and now alone in the dark he’s just a child again.
He turns the ignition but the engine just splutters,
he tries once again as he curses and mutters
beneath his breath, threatening, then pleading,
then warning his van, calling it a ‘ bleeding
bin on wheels ’ an’ old piece of crap!;
and if it doesn’t behave, ‘it’ll be for the scrap!’
And perhaps it’s just coincidence;
can an engine have ears, a van have intelligence ?
Who knows ? But with that threat of the scrapper’s yard
the ignition catches, the engine is sparked
and Sam pushes the pedal hard down to the floor
and the van pulls away with a shuddering roar -
the wind whistling madly as the van battles on,
the rain hurtling down, the thunder rattling on.
Along lanes hemmed in by billowing trees
down deserted back roads the old van speeds;
past Wilks’s Wood where they found the boy scout
with his throat ripped open and his eyes gouged out;
alongside the quarry where the fishermen found
the mother and her newborn babies drowned,
across Finnegan’s bridge where pickled Father McBain
toppled over the wall and never preached again.
For Sam, every lay-by, each junction and bend
seems to mark the spot of some gruesome end.
And with every blinding, lightning flash
the countryside becomes awash
with a whiteness stark and evil,
Sam speeds through it all, poor devil!
When ancient Knowsley village comes into sight
Sam, instead of turning the wheel right
turns it left, lest the police should put the flag up,
pull him in and make him blow their bag up.
Sam’s drunk so much that well he knows
one single breath would make it decompose.
So to the left instead he turns the wheel
as up ahead the church bells begin to peal
midnight: the time of all things dark and bad.
Oh Sam! poor Sam, you luckless gutless lad:
As the van turns down the side of old Knowsley church
the battered weary vehicle gives a sudden consumptive lurch;
she falters and splutters and slows to a crawl
before coming to rest alongside the church wall.
Sam shakes his weary, bleary drunken head,
the engine is hopelessly, helplessly dead.
He turns the ignition but each time it’s in vain
and outside the lashing rods of rain
threaten a soaking for any would-be mechanic.
Sam finds himself now starting to panic:
how can he fix it? He’s no engineer,
his only flair is for whisky, wine and beer.
With a muttering curse he climbs out of this seat,
gets out of the van and suddenly feels sulphurous heat,
sees a light that glimmers in the graveyard gloom;
then shadowy figures emerging tomb from tomb,
shifting and swaying – a dance going on!
Witches, goblins, ghouls, vampire demon
all thrashing and writhing at some hellish rave
prancing and dancing from grave to gaping grave.
Sam stands dumbstruck, mesmerised,
unable to tear away his gawking gawping eyes;
for witches like these he’s never ever seen
in any fairy tale, story or childlike dream;
this is no ugly, bedraggled haggard band
These witches no hideous odious harridans;
These ? - lithesome beauties supple and slim
their bodies glistening and beguiling him
as they danced, throbbed together brazen and bold;
no sickly waltz or quickstep strict and cold
but an urgent, quivering, rhythmic flow
rippled each muscle from each head to each toe.
And there in the centre of that throbbing throng
was the Devil himself, head thrown back in song,
his cloves carving screams from a black guitar,
splintering notes like a wrecking bar
splaying shards of satanic tune upon the dancers
the urgent, reckless, writhing prancers
their hips like springs suddenly uncoiling
the atmosphere fizzing, spitting, bubbling boiling.
Sam’s gaping gaze feasted at random
until till one dancer even more full of abandon
than the rest of her sisterly coven came into view.
Oh Sam! was there ever a bigger fool than you?
On this shimmering young witch Sam glued his eyes
as to his delight and excited surprise,
she started to throw off her sweat-soaked clothes
and oh! now how Sam’s blood pressure rose.
Drape after drape she provocatively peeled,
With every layer more and more revealed
for any oggling goggling eyes to see
her only remaining claim to modesty
the bra and pants she seemed reluctant to lose!
Poor Sam! Frustration perhaps ?, or merely the booze ?
Something now robbed him of what was left of his senses
and deaf to all thoughts of possible consequences
his voice rings out in bellowing howl
‘ Get the rest off love! Y’ can’t stop now!!’
In an instant all light is suddenly gone
but every evil eye is fixed and turned upon
the meddlesome intruder, that little man
who scrambles now, trying to get to his van
but recalling with a rising sense of dread
that the bloody engine is completely dead:
DEAD! The word echoes through Sam’s brain,
he turns the ignition again and again and again,
as the hellish legion, witches devil and ghoul
swarms in pursuit of the meddlesome fool.
Sam prays, pleads, promises, begs his van to start;
and as if possessed of human heart
she finally responds and Sam puts her in gear
begins, to pull away although still sick with fear
because the ghoulish throng, shrieking and baying,
is following the van, Sam frantically weighing
how he might even now be able to find
some way of leaving that hideous hoard behind –
and then he recalls the cockle-seller’s submission
the one that Sam had mocked as stupid superstition –
that assertion that no otherworldly fiends
dare cross a river or any running stream!
What once spawned Sam’s mockery now sires belief
And feeling the first rush of blessed relief
he remembers that place where, as a young colt
He used to jam-jar for sticklebacks on the banks of the Alt.
Now the Alt, say some, is less a river and more a dribble
but in Sam’s situation who’s going to quibble ?
If its Tesco trolley-blighted trickle can ward
off the clamouring babbling advancing horde
then the River Alt is his chosen destination
that piddling stream his one chance of salvation!
As Sam pulls out onto Knowsley Lane
he glances in his mirror and sees again
through the lightning’s flash his ghoulish pursuers,
that putrified mire washed up from hell’s sewers
some of them running, some half flying,
and every one of them cackling, baying and crying
‘Meddling fool you can never be saved -
come back, come back with us to the grave.’
Sam resolves not to turn his head
and to keep his eyes fixed on the road ahead,
urging the van to buck up and rise to the sitution
to give him more speed, more acceleration.
But though Sam’s foot is pressed, flat-iron to the floor
the weary worn-out out van can barely do more
than anything beyond thirty miles an hour.
Her days of speed and strength and power
all behind her now, no longer sporty, nimble or nifty,
no more cruising bends at a nonchalant fifty;
no more turbo-charged acceleration
And the power to get out of a difficult situation.
These days she’s more akin to a snail
or some poor fishing smack that fights the gale.
Sam’s van knows - all that’s left now is the reckoning,
and that Otterspool Tip is already beckoning!
But even though she knows this trip is the end
she still thinks of Sam, her driver, owner… friend
and determined now just this one last time,
to deliver him, as she’d always done in her prime,
she summons from the depths of her ramshackle frame
a final surge of strength, a last burst of smoke and flame
spitting from her exhaust as she triumphs once more
speeding away and leaving behind the putrid corps
of followers and off towards the Alt she tears
Faster now than she’s gone for years;
Up in the cab, Sam hollers, whoops and cheers
Convinced now that salvation beckons
Oh! What a fool is the fool who never reckons
With the guile of the ghoulish, the determination
Of beasts who are bent on denying salvation!
Round the bend, the bridge looms into sight
Sam punches the air, tells himself now he’ll be alright!
Only, as he does so he happens to glance
In his rear view mirror – and almost fills his pants!
Coming up fast in the outside lane, is a sleek and sporty
Black Ferarri FT 40!
In a flash it’s so close Sam can see its bonnet
and his own half clad witch now stood upon it
and behind the wheel who should be steering
but the Devil himself, horn blasting and jeering
as he eats up the road and now gets so near
that Sam screams out aloud in fear -
the fiendish Ferrari relentlessly gaining
until, with only yards to the bridge remaining
the old van’s last efforts finally take their toll –
leaving her able to do little more than shake and roll -
Whatever reserves she had she’s now spent them
left with nothing but the last scraps of forward momentum
to carry her to the bridge that crosses the stream
where, suddenly the Devil’s laughter turns to a scream
as he and his half-clad satanic daughter
realise that the van is about to cross water,
that it’s gaining the bridge, is almost upon it
when, screaming, the witch leaps from the bonnet
and seizing the van’s back bumper she strains
eye-popping, cursing and swollen-veined
in her struggle to bring the vehicle to a halt
and stop Sam and his van from crossing the Alt.
And well she may have achieved her intention
had Sam ever been one to pay any attention
to basic maintenance of his poor old van;
but we know Sam was never that sort of man!
Which is why, as the witch waged her tug-of-war
the bumper’s corroded rivets, those that never saw
oil or grease, rusted, encrusted, threads all gone
started to snap to shear off one by one,
the bumper ripped free as the rivets give way,
the witch spitting curses as the van rolls away
across the bridge in triumph to trump her,
left holding nothing but the battered old bumper
as Sam is carried safely beyond running water
safe now from the clutches of the devil’s daughter.
Now any man too fond of the ale
Let him hear Sam O Shanker’s tale
And spare, perhaps, a thought for a van
That deserved to be driven by a better man
The kind of man that I know you would hate
To unwittingly come to emulate.
So if your wife declares, ‘ You’ve had enough!’
Just kiss her and thank her
And remember the tale of SAM O SHANKER
( Revised, November 2013 )