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Willy Russell: 'I want to talk about things that matter’.
'Blood Brothers’ is finally leaving the West End, but its restless writer Willy Russell still has plenty to say
After 24 years and more than 10,000 performances, the musical Blood Brothers will, on November 10, finally leave the West End stage. Its story, of fraternal twins who are separated at birth and lead dramatically different lives, has played to packed houses, left its audience in tears, won four best musical awards and been called one of the greatest musicals of all time.
It was written by the legendary Willy Russell, now 65, whose hit shows also include Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita and John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert. “It’s very flattering to have something run for that long,” he says. “The occasion should be marked, which is why I’ve agreed to be interviewed.”
It is a rare event and he establishes his boundaries from the start. “Some people find me difficult because they don’t like confrontation,” he begins, in a voice that could fill any auditorium. “But if I feel I have to say something, I will, because then everyone knows what they are dealing with.” It soon becomes clear that I am dealing with a man who is self-protective, instinctive, a natural observer of the nuances of human behaviour, and someone who prefers meatier questions to more superficial ones.
“I am not interested in talking about road directions, cars or sport for more than five minutes,” he warns. “It’s why I cannot abide being in all-male company. I want to talk about things that matter.”
It is no doubt one reason why his plays have depth as well as being entertaining. They have also provided a forum for him to work through issues of, or similar to, his own. For example, he ponders his own history of nature versus nurture in Blood Brothers; and his own return to education and its effects in Educating Rita (which was a hit film in 1983, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine). And he takes a look, from the woman’s point of view, at stagnating long-term marriages in Shirley Valentine. This, too, was initially a play, and became a hit film starring Pauline Collins in 1989.
Russell wrote both screenplays. He is endlessly creative and cuts a slim figure with a neat beard, black shirt and jeans, and grey winkle-picker Cuban-heeled boots from Topshop, which he adores.
His plays are in production all over the world, and Blood Brothers will continue to tour. “The South African singer David Kramer asked me to relocate the musical in the Cape coloured community, and I agreed. The brothers will be black, and I am going to allow some of the community’s rhythm to creep into the score. It will be shown next year in South Africa and I am very excited – very little work of mine has been shown there, because I observed the apartheid boycott.”
Russell has written plays for television, too, including Our Day Out; a novel called The Wrong Boy, which was published in 2000; and his first album, Hoovering the Moon, was released in 2003.
He has been married to Annie, a former teacher and producer, for 43 years and they have a son, Rob, two daughters, Rachel and Ruth, and three young grandchildren. “I love them all to bits,” he says.
The family home is a 1790 cottage in Woolton, just outside Liverpool, but we meet in a Georgian house in the centre of the city where he has his studio, office and an apartment. He also has homes in central London and in Portugal.
His own story is as powerful as any fiction. An only child, he was born in Whiston, near Liverpool, to a working-class couple who had little in common. “It was a phenomenally tense situation at home because my parents wanted different things from life,” he recalls. His alcoholic father at various times worked in the mines, in a factory and ran a fish and chip shop. His mother was initially a nurse and then worked in a warehouse. “I realised I couldn’t trust my father from a very early age, because I never knew what mood he would be in when he walked into a room. I can’t bear people like that to this day. His drinking became out of control when I was a teenager, and he also took lots of Valium.
“His idea of a good time was to go to a spit-and-sawdust saloon, whereas my mother was aspirational and wanted to go somewhere elegant, and often took me instead. Being an only child made me self-reliant, and I can get by for days without interacting with others – which is good considering the work I do.”
He believes that spending so much time with his mother, aunts and grandmother developed his understanding of women and of how to write convincing female characters.
“When I was 11 I was at quite a rough school, but we used to read one-act plays, and one about two babies switched at birth stayed with me. I thought a lot about what might happen to each of them, and it became the seed for Blood Brothers. (Please write that it absolutely isn’t based on the 1844 novella The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, as written in Wikipedia.)
“I am very interested in nature versus nurture. When I look at myself or catch sight of a gesture I make and see my father… I also know I might have drunk myself to death at 30. Luckily, I was saved by my in-laws, who nurtured me.”
Russell left school at 15 with one O-level in English literature and, at his mother’s suggestion, became a hairdresser. He also wrote songs and set up a group. His life and prospects changed when he met Annie Seagroatt in a café where he ran a folk club. “Her parents, who were professionals, welcomed me into their house, and my folk group used to rehearse there. We married when I was 21, which was late for a working-class boy. She was 22, which was early for someone who was middle class.”
Have they ever had a Shirley Valentine moment? “Every long marriage does, but we talk about it,” he says. “If ever we have problems it is because we haven’t spent enough time with each other. Luckily, we have always made space for each other. We don’t do a weekly date night like David Cameron, but even when the kids were small we’d occasionally go away by ourselves for a few days.
“Meeting Annie’s family was a massive influence in my life. One day her mother Margaret, who knew I hated hairdressing, said if I didn’t want to do it all my life, what was I going to do about it? I said I wanted to teach because I could then write in the holidays. She explained that I needed five O-levels, and suggested I went to night school. I was 20 and took her advice.”
Russell became a teacher in Toxteth, but within a year was writing full time. His second play, and first successful one, was John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert. It was written for the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, and transferred to the West End in the mid-Seventies. “I was 26 when I walked down London’s Shaftesbury Avenue and saw my name in lights. Success came very easily. Sadly, we cannot get it performed any more. Sony, who control the music, won’t allow us to license it.”
He has no intention of seeing Let It Be, the new West End musical featuring Beatles hits. “Apparently there is not a single word of dialogue in it. Why did they allow that to happen? The cast don’t look like the Beatles either, and they even had the arrogance to cast someone as Paul McCartney who doesn’t play the guitar left-handed.”
Russell is currently reworking an unfinished novel. “It is a fictional account of a playwright’s life and is instead of me writing a memoir,” he says. Earlier this month he performed a charity music gig at the Royal Albert Hall with Tim Firth, the co-writer of Calendar Girls. He has toured with a group of poets, is writing songs and studying painting and drawing.
“I don’t have anything like the ambition I once had. Having enjoyed so much success, I now feel able to explore and experiment with all sorts of other creative things. If I have a day when I haven’t done something new and creative, I feel really uneasy.”
Angela Levin – The Telegraph