The Rise Of A
Young Young Man
Interview for Lancashire Life
“I love the adrenalin. I love the ‘Oh, my God, it’s not going to work’ when the press comes in. But if a play’s well rehearsed it always works.”
There can’t be many dramatists as optimistic as that, but Willy Russell has hardly know failure. The highlight of the 1972/3 season at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre was his play about Anfield, When the Reds… This year he found both critics and audiences enthusiastic over his play about another Liverpool phenomenon: John Paul George Ringo … And Bert. Its impact, which included an accolade from The Sunday Times, has led to its return at Christmas and at the time of writing a national tour is being planned. “We’ve had so many offers: we just don’t know which to accept.” And to add to all this Willy has two BBC TV plays in the pipeline. One of them, Death of a Young Young Man, is being filmed around Kirby.
Willy Russell was born in Liverpool in 1947. “But you don’t really want his background stuff do you? Do people want to know what my granny did in the Boer War?” Perhaps not, but they will be interested to learn that he left school at fifteen with just one ‘O’ level. Significantly, it was for English.
A variety of jobs followed, including hair-dressing for some years. In the evenings he performed as a singer-songwriter in local folk clubs, eventually forming his own club and his own group, Steam Collection.
Realising he had left school too early Willy wanted to be a teacher. He studied hard and went to St. Katherines College in Childwall. Here he developed his writing and the college drama society staged is first play, Keep Your Eyes Down, in December 1971. It dealt with the problems surrounding a school-leaver in Liverpool.
Its success prompted the college to present the play on the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival the following August. It was performed alongside two new Russell plays, Playground and Sam O’Shanker. In Playground a group of schoolkids kidnap a teacher and eventually kill him, while Sam O’Shanker is about ‘booze and Liverpool’. It is loosely based on Robert Burns Tam O’Shanker, so it took more than courage to perform it in the heart of Scotland.
Another Merseysider, the playwright John McGrath was at one of the performances and he invited Everyman’s Artistic Director, Alan Dosser, to accompany him the following night. Dosser was so impressed with the way Russell handled local humour that he asked him to adapt Alan Plater’s The Tigers are Coming’, OK?, a play about Hull City Football Club.
Willy naturally agreed. “I rewrote it completely, although there’s still a lot of Alan’s work in it.” The play now described as “thirty tempestuous years in the life of a Liverpool FC fan” was very popular, and extracts still delight audiences when performed by Vanload, Everyman’s travelling theatre, which also has Sam O’Shanker in its repertoire.
Enthusiasm ran high throughout the rehearsals for John Paul George Ringo … and Bert, a nostalgic and often perceptive look at Liverpool’s fab four. The Beatle’s story is told through the eyes of Bert McGhee, a Liverpool stocking stacker, and this enables corny tales we all know to be shaped and given a definite viewpoint. The Beatle’s own music often underlines the ironies. For example, the underhand dismissal of Pete Best calls for 'With A Little Help From My Friends' and the lyrics of 'Yesterday' are taken as a tribute to Brian Epstein.
The Beatles’ music was splendidly interpreted by a small group fronted by Barbara Dickson, a singer known for traditional Scottish folksongs. This unusual and masterly touch stemmed from Willy himself and it meant the actors were not called upon to emulate their real-life counterparts – for which they must be eternally grateful. Even so it was an extraordinary achievement for the Everyman to find four actors in its regular company who could talk and look so like the Beatles.
It’s a clever play and there’s also something for the intellectuals. “One way of looking at the Beatles is to say they were the last great fling of a nation on its backside. You can take them as a metaphor for England. They’re as much as symbol as Elizabeth I or Alfred the Great. In fact I’d like to do a straight play about the Beatles, developing this theme.”
It’ll be some time before Willy gets round to that as he has television commitments for some moths ahead. This is a new medium for him and his first play, King Of The Castle, was screened last November. It was a tight well-written drama about how a man who had worked on a press for years could suddenly lose his nerve. “But they put it out in the week of the Royal Wedding and I don’t think it got a single review.”
Happily, there are no Royal weddings in the offing as the screening date for his new play, Death Of A Young Young Man approaches. It’s one of the BBC’s “Plays For Today” and so it’s certain to be noticed. “It’s about the conflict between city life and country dwellers, the difference between Liverpool and Lancashire. When Liverpudlians were evacuated during the war they could go somewhere and still retain their identity even though they were surrounded by Lancashire dialects. It’s more diffuse now, but the play’s about that sort of situation. It takes three lads who go spud-picking three miles away in rural Lancashire, and the violence comes out of the difference between quick Liverpool talk and slow Lancashire stuff.”
And after that there’s another television play about Liverpool. This time Willy collaborated with Alan Bleasedale to bring some of Bleasedale’s stories about Scully, a Liverpool youth to the screen. It’s tentatively titled Sculliver’s Travels but that may well be changed before we see it in 1975. It’s an account of how Scully and his friends trek to the Isle of Wight festival. “They think Widnes is the end of the world. They’re never been any further and they think they’ll fall off.”
One’s tempted to wonder if Willy Russell thinks the same himself. He loves his environment and he has no intention of leaving Liverpool. Why should he? All eight plays that I’ve mentioned have Liverpool as their setting. “But my plays are not parochial. They’re far more universal than Liverpool.” Like John Paul George Ringo …
SPENCER LEIGH – LANCASHIRE LIFE 1974