fri 12/04/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Writer Willy Russell | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Writer Willy Russell

theartsdesk Q&A: Writer Willy Russell

The Liverpudlian playwright on John, Paul, Rita, Shirley and Willy

Liverpudlian playwright Willy Russell: 'The first night I stood there and saw the Beatles, life was never going to be the same again'

No one understands escapism like Willy Russell. Either side of 1980, he wrote two plays about working-class Liverpool women in flight from a humdrum existence. In one a young hairdresser seeks fulfilment through a literary education with the Open University. In the other, a middle-aged housewife has an island-holiday romance. As films, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine earned Oscar nominations for, respectively, Julie Walters and Pauline Collins.

As plays, they have barely been off the stage in productions all over the world. The Menier Chocolate Factory shrewdly revived the pair of them in rep earlier this year. Now they are coming to the West End.

These are interesting times for Russell (b. 1947). Last November Melanie Chisholm, formerly known as Sporty Spice, joined the cast of Blood Brothers, the musical with words and tunes by Russell which has been parked in the West End for 20 years. The moving tale of brothers separated at birth reduced hardened critics to fresh pools of tears. His latest musical, Our Day Out, shortly returns to the Royal Court Liverpool. Expanding on the musical theme of his long career, in recent years he has also recorded his own CD of folky rock songs, Hoovering the Moon, and published a novel – The Wrong Boy – about an obsessive Morrissey fan.

Trimly bearded and dapper, he is a personable presence, and that is reflected in his heart-on-sleeve writing, principally about women. Compared with others from Liverpool’s outstanding generation of writers, his wit is much less caustic than Alan Bleasdale’s, while he doesn’t share Jimmy McGovern’s fascination for the darker crannies of human nature. Nor is he Catholic. Unlike other Liverpudlian scribes, he had the sheer gumption to write about the Beatles. As a child of Cavern, he was there at the beginning. Premiered at the Liverpool Everyman in 1974, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert (original cast recording pictured below) was Russell’s introductory hit. He talks to theartsdesk about John, Paul, Rita, Shirley and Willy.

bertJASPER REES: I want to ask you about your Beatles play.

WILLY RUSSELL: It’s very rarely revived. We certainly would have revived it in Liverpool if the music had still been available. We originally did it when ATV was controlling the music and Robert Stigwood was producing it and so was able to call in the right kind of favours to get the rights to the music. And then about 10 years after, someone tried to do a production in Sweden and couldn’t get the rights. It was around the time that Paul decided he wanted to have control over all that Beatles stuff. I didn’t feel sufficiently strongly about it to make an effort to get the music. For the time it was perfect. I only realised five years ago that it was the first jukebox musical. I’d not even been aware of that. In fact we had done other shows at the Everyman where we’d used catalogues. But because we didn’t do them as a disguised concert, because narrative was very important, we didn't think of it as a catalogue or jukebox musical. Somebody wanted to do it about 10 years ago and I looked it and yes it would hold up but I’d much rather come out to see a new show written by some punk kid who had the same kind of abrasive attitude that I had when I wrote it back in ‘74 that found its way into the work rather than present a museum piece.

How were the Beatles themselves about allowing you to do it? Did you have contact with them?

No, I had no contact with them whatsoever but I’d been 14 at the Cavern in the ‘62 period and spent most of my last year at school immersed in all that kind of thing. But I was 14, they were 18, 19. You know, I could never have mixed with them. The nearest I ever got was standing at a coffee bar and John Lennon was there ordering a coke and a hotdog - because there was no alcohol in the Cavern. And I remember he opened his coke and it spilled over me and I apologised. I had no personal contact with them until after I’d written John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert. About two years later I was in town with a play of mine called Breezeblock Park and as I then stupidly thought was off the record the journalist asked me about the Beatles play. What happened was it was about to be filmed by Stigwood and Paul had got wind of this and Paul had serious issues with Stigwood and said, “He won’t release it in the States,” where you had the rights to your own image. So it had fallen through. I could quite understand the way Paul would think about it. And so it just kind of died. The journalist then printed that story, Paul got upset about it, called me, I met him. And we kind of developed a relationship from there - very unlikely beginnings, I have to say.

What happened then?

A couple of years later I went up to the farm in Scotland to write a movie that would have incorporated Paul and Linda and the then band.

The film Band on the Run?

With Mike Ockrent. It was never filmed. The last time it was discussed between us was just before Paul went off to Tokyo and got canned for two weeks and then of course decided, which I thought was a very wise decision, to get rid of the whole Wings thing. I still think it was a probably necessary transition from Beatles to solo. I still see Paul because I am a companion at LIPA so I see him occasionally there. I know Paul’s brother Mike really really well. That’s the only connection I have. I didn’t have any connection with George Harrison or Ringo Starr. I wouldn’t expect to have really.

Now you couldn’t justify Educating Rita. Students all over the country have to virtually go on Jim'll Fix It to get an appointment to see a tutor once a term

It was always said – or at least I’ve heard it said - that, in terms of Liverpool’s playwrights who started in the 1970s, you are Paul to Alan Bleasdale’s Lennon. Does that stack up as a comparison?

I’ve never heard it said but if it was said I’d be immensely flattered given the regard I have for the melodic gifts of Paul McCartney. I think I would say what Alan and I both say which is that we are immensely different writers. We’re fairly tall men who once taught and have beards. I’m not remotely part of that Liverpool Catholic thing. I wasn’t brought up in any religious sense. I was brought up rurally, have a completely different take on things. Also Alan since Blackstuff has been principally a writer for the screen and I think my main pursuit has been theatre.

You were at one time both writing for the Liverpool theatre though.

He was determined to pursue the life of a novelist. He went to see John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert, absolutely fell in love with Bernard Hill who was playing Lennon, took a load of his kids to see the show, and then decided that he wanted to pursue drama as well as the novel.

You had a fantastic cast for that play - not only Hill but also Antony Sher and Trevor Eve.

But that was the Everyman in those days. As well as the people in that show there were people like Peter Postlethwaite, Julie Walters, Alison Steadman, Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly, George Costigan. I thought that was normal because it was my first professional theatre. That level of acting skill, I just thought that’s what you did.

meera_syalThese two plays, although Noreen Kershaw did originally play the part of Shirley Valentine, are thoroughly associated with two well-known and much loved actresses: how much are they a poisoned chalice for other actresses inheriting the roles? (Meera Syal as Shirley Valentine, pictured left.)

I can see that that might be some kind of fear that anybody playing the role would have. But you’ve got to remind yourself that Rita for 30 years has never been out of production. Same with Shirley Valentine. They somehow manage to make it their own whether it’s Korea, Australia, Tokyo, Canada, wherever. You can’t have those kinds of monkeys on your shoulder or none of us would go to work.

Have both of these plays had an equally full life since the film versions?

I’d say probably Rita has had more because to some extent here but certainly abroad in places like Germany and Greece it’s been very much on the academic syllabus. So as well as having its theatrical long life it’s had an academic long life. Shirley Valentine not as much. I remember Alan Ayckbourn saying, “There’s not really much point coming to see my plays unless you’ve been married, had kids and at least one divorce.” I remember in America stupidly they opened it wide and, you know, kids in Grand Rapids, Michigan on a Friday night are not going to see a tale concerning a housewife from Liverpool they consider to be older than their mother.

And yet Rita is about someone past the first flush of youth wanting to better herself through education. That’s not necessarily a message that will appeal more to the multiplex.

No, that’s true although in the case of Rita they opened it on the coast and let its reputation build. That’s not a kids’ movie either but the themes in Rita are themes which a lot of educationalists have found useful in the classroom in the way that I don't think the themes in Shirley Valentine have been as immediately attractive. Even though they both to some extent deal with a similar theme.

Laura_Dos_Santos_in_Educating_Rita_at_the_Menier_Chocolate_Factory_1.__Photo_by_Catherine_AshmoreWhat would you say are the themes of Educating Rita that are attractive on an educational level? Is it about demystifying education and the ivory tower of literature (Laura Dos Santos as Rita, pictured right)?

No, I don’t think it sets out to pull anything down or to demystify. One of the things that was attractive about it to the Rita audience was that I made a world that was not often open to people like my mother accessible. But not in any sense dumbing it down. It was celebrating that world which has sadly gone now. It was a bit of a stretch, this idea of a girl going week after week to see a tutor in a redbrick on the Open University scheme. You could just about justify it. Now you couldn’t justify it. Students all over the country have to virtually go on Jim'll Fix It to get an appointment to see a tutor once a term. Because the same tutor who back then was responsible for 30 students through a degree course has 300 now. It was celebrating that academic life and celebrating her enthusiasm and how the idea of expansion of oneself and fulfilment of oneself through education can be completely exhilarating but there are many potential pitfalls.

I wanted to learn and if you want to learn nothing can stop you

To what extent did Rita arise from your own experience of going back into education?

Massively, but I wasn’t aware of that when I wrote the play and had I been aware of it that would have prevented me from writing. I can’t write autobiographically. I have to write imaginatively. But after it had been playing for a long time I went to see one of the national tours in Birmingham one afternoon and I realised it’s just glaringly autobiographical, of someone who had to fight to get back into the education system, who had all that working-class stuff. Don't forget this was in the days before "mature student" was commonplace as a term. I had to go back and do O-levels at 21 with 16-year-olds for a year. I was a Martian. They thought I was a CIA plant. The thing that saved me was playing the guitar better than them. It took me two years to get back on that course. Because the attitude was "you fucked up at school, son, why should you have the chance again?"

And did you fuck up at school?

Spectacularly. But again much much later in life realised... All my teachers used to say is, “What galls me, Russell, is you’re not thick, lad.” It’s true, I wasn’t. But between five and six I went into hospital with something called nephritis which is treatable with antibiotics now but then seemed to require endless bed rest. And shortly after that we moved house and I moved to another school. I used to think that was an important factor. In maths if you miss a chunk it is so difficult to get back. But about 10 years later I had this revelation. My birthday is 23 August. I was always by a long chalk the youngest kid in the class. I was with kids almost a year older than me. So I started very very young, probably too young.

So you reversed the position by becoming the oldest kid in the class.

I wanted to learn and if you want to learn nothing can stop you.

'Educating Rita': when Rita meets Frank

I’m intrigued by the idea that you had no idea Rita was about you.

From a superficial point of view I would do things like I’m writing away, I have to refer to Rita’s outer life and world, what job? Oh, I’ll make her a ladies’ hairdresser because I’d been a ladies’ hairdresser for six years. I hate research. I hate having to stop to research. If I don’t know it in the belly there’s no point in going out to research it because I’m not a journalist. So I’d loot my own past for necessary references in the play.

Even then with Frank, I wrote Frank as a boozer, as a man who loves pub culture. Again, all gone now. The pub was a place where the world was put to rights. Where contacts were made, ideas were formed. Very different. Wherever you see the play referred to today Frank is now an alcoholic. I didn't write an alcoholic. I wrote a boozer. That was my life at the time. I loved pubs. I loved what I learned in pubs. I loved that boozy culture. So that side of the play is alcoholic.

I don't sit down ever to make money. But if you get it right a play will always make a writer far more money than a movie will

Is he a lush? He certainly seems to have one hand firmly gripped around the neck of the whisky bottle.

There are some who’d say he was an alcoholic. I’ve lived around a lot of alcoholics in the last 20 years and learnt a lot of the language of alcoholism. My thing is if you drink a drink and your personality significantly changes for the worse you’re an alcoholic. Jesus, did my great friend Adrian Henri drink. Never in a million years would I refer to Adrian as an alcoholic. George Melly - the last time I saw George 11 o'clock in the morning on the train he must have been into his fourth triple brandy. I’d never call George an alcoholic. He always went to work. He was always sharp as a button.

This idea that you wrote about the joys of second-chance education, mature studenthood, and yet you didn't twig that you were in any way mining your own experience...

Oh no, I think I must have known but because it was mediated through the life of a 26-year-old woman I was freed from the trap of autobiography. I’m not in any sense denying it or being coy about anything here. But what I mean is for me... I always say one’s really writing well when one starts to write things one did not know that one knew. I need the liberation of imagination through character in order to do that. If you asked me to describe all my feelings and what have you about returning to education it would not have had anything like the truth and, dare I say, the power of the play that I wrote.

Is that because it’s about a woman who forms what is in essence an unfulfilled romantic relationship with an older father figure?

I think it has to be a love story about two people who have that love/regard/care for each other. Again one has to say that slightly cautiously. When we made the movie and initially Columbia were going to make it, I remember a conversation with someone who said they should be in bed by page 45. I remember shooting the final scene and Lewis Gilbert saying to Michael Caine in at the airport, "Grab Rita and give her a real full kiss." I said, “No no!” It’s not about that. It’s about a deeper love than that. It’s about real human regard.

Did you intervene?

It was one of the few occasions when I was on location. What is there for a writer to do on location?

Lucky you were.

It was in that moment. I had been very involved with casting. I had certainly held out very hard for Julie in that movie. On that movie I learnt, don’t just have writer’s credit. Get yourself a producer’s credit. At least you get a place in the car park. That I was even listened to in that moment was a bit of a triumph.

'Educating Rita': Rita and Frank part at the airport

That’s a kind of victory, to be listened to.

Yes because I can see all kinds of things in movies that I’ve done where you’re not listened to because it’s not your vision. The movie is not, as theatre still is, about everybody coming together to realise the text. The text is part of what makes a movie.

And yet writers gravitate to the cinema on the assumption there’s a lot more money involved.

There’s not, you know. Whenever I go to writers’ groups I say, “If you want to make real money write for the theatre.”

It’s easy for you to say that with these two plays plus a musical parked in Charing Cross Road for 20 years. You’ve hit the jackpot.

I wrote Rita for £700 for 18 nights’ performances in the Warehouse, now the Donmar. I wrote Shirley Valentine for £1500 for a three-week run at the Everyman. I wrote Blood Brothers initially for Merseyside Young People’s Theatre Company for £500 to be played in schools in the Liverpool area. You get my point. I don't sit down ever to make money. But if you get it right a play will always make a writer far more money than a movie will. And I’ll continue to make the point even though it may be interpreted as vulgar to talk about money as being the reason you should sit down and write the play. But it’s been a noble enough reason for many writers down the years. Because so many writers are not coming into the theatre. They are either pursuing the screen or they’re pursuing stand-up. A lot of energy that used to go into theatre is going into stand-up or telly/film.

I want to go back to something you said before. What didn’t you know you knew when you were writing Blood Brothers?

Well, one of the things I didn't know when I wrote Blood Brothers is how terribly common the situation on which it hangs is. I thought I was taking a bit of leap in suggesting this mother gives away this child and the child is brought up secretly by another woman. After the play opened so many people contacted me to tell me similar stories.

I can’t do male company. It all becomes about the latest car. "Did you really come down the A6?" It’s about things. Put a group of women in a room, it’s about what’s in here

You discovered again that you were mining a seam inside yourself that you didn’t know was there.

Yes, and for example with something like Shirley Valentine she happens to be a character with quite a degree of wit. Now I’m not a witty man. I can write comedy and what have you but wit requires distance. You’re sitting back and focusing on how it’s said. That’s not me. And I won’t play with language in those punning ways. Shirley does. So when I was writing her and became her I became witty for quite a period. That’s what I mean about writing things you did not know you knew. I remember the sequence where she talks about Costas the Greek (Pauline Collins and Tom Conti pictured below right) and she goes, “He kissed me stretch marks,” and I’m writing this really seriously, really seriously, and then she suddenly said, “Aren’t men full of shit?” And I fell off the chair laughing. What I mean is it wasn’t as if I knew where I was going when I began that riff. That’s what I mean about not knowing what it is you know. Lots of songwriters will say the same thing. “I was just the conduit.”

More than any playwright I can think of, you are a male writer who has inhabited the minds of women. What is there in you as a bloke that has contrived this?

shirley-valentine_1602651cIt’s the question, and I’m not being at all disingenuous when I say I don't know the answer to the question. Something that has always intrigued me is why nobody ever asks why so much of my work takes place in the world of childhood, which it does. It’s assumed that it’s perfectly possible for an adult. All adults have been children, but not all male adults have been women. All I did was just dare to imagine or dare to believe that I knew the feelings of women.

But I can see there could be all sorts of influences on that. The fact that I was brought up in a large matriarchal family. There was lots of employment for working-class men who worked three shifts a day. My granny ran a mobile grocer’s on the estate we were on because there were no shops where my aunts and my mother would take their kids, and often women get together in a room and young kids get together and play under the table or whatever and women don't think that the kids are listening. And you’re not listening your ears but through your pores I think you might absorb a woman’s view of the world.

You have to have particularly receptive radar for that though.

I guess. I don’t understand why I should have and others not.

Surely it would appear that while you say it was a job you gave to Rita because you’d done it yourself, you’d spent six years doing women’s hair, and the one thing a hairdresser needs to be able to do is talk and listen.

Primarily listen. Because I was a very bad hairdresser. I think that the trade I managed to attract was because people could just talk at me. Thinking back now I was probably doing shampoos and sets for some older women who were at the first stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia. I can think of two or three. They would literally come in every week and tell me the same story about their husbands or distant past. To my credit, as bad a hairdresser as I was, I don’t think I ever gave the game away, I don’t think I ever showed irritation or boredom. I would listen as though the story was fresh. And yes, some of that must have had a bearing on me later, at least feeling confident and perfectly able to write about women.

And the other thing would be despite having been not terribly frightened by them but unable to get off with them when I was younger, I always liked women, I always liked women’s company. I can’t do male company. I can do one to one but put a group of men in a room, I can’t deal with it. Sport, gambling, nothing can I do. It all becomes about the latest car. "Did you really come down the A6?" It’s about things. It’s not about what’s in here. But put a group of women in a room, it’s about what’s in here. Now, the interesting thing is when I wrote Shirley Valentine I toyed with the idea – I thought it would be a very clever little thing – to write a companion play where her husband has his play. He walks in. She’s gone. And we have him. I couldn’t find a way to make him talk. I couldn’t find a language for him.

Was it just that particular man though?

No, she says about him at the end, it’s not the fault of men. “He had more life in him than he could use. That’s what kills us, carrying the weight of all this unused life.” She’s say it about him. It’s not that he’s a bad man. There’s moments where they talk about wonderful times they’ve had together. She’s says, “What happened? What became of him?” She’s not saying it’s all the fault of men and I would never say that. I’m not interested in saying that. But I know so many people and I see so many people who are carrying around this enormous burden of what never happened.

I wrote the line, "I like a glass of wine when I’m doing the cooking." Then she turned around and said, "Don't I, wall?" And at that moment the play was born

Rita was not overtly a product of your own life. What about Shirley? What were the preparatory influences or instincts that bubbled away to bring her into being?

I was coming up to my 40th year so obviously a lot of those feelings where running through me. Not consciously, not menopausal-whingingly, but obviously it was that period of my life. But with something like that I was facing a deadline. It was the desperation of facing a deadline. I’d not been able to write a bleeding thing. The Everyman had commissioned me in whatever year it was to write a new play. I said, “Yeah, fine, but don’t announce it till I come back from holidays so I don’t have to do any press.” Came back from holidays in September, I’m driving to my office in Canning Street and there’s a banner that runs the whole length of the theatre: “Opening 19 March, Willy Russell’s new play.” I drove past there for what felt like the longest three months of my life.

And Glen Welford who commissioned it expected a musical with a cast of 20. I was perfectly prepared to do that but I found just having written Blood Brothers I didn't want to write the expected. I’d had some notion a couple of years before about a woman -  and this was a slight reaction to the rather dominant strident feminism in the theatre at the time – who talks about the skill involved in properly wiping down a surface. That sounds absolutely ridiculous. But I do remember having this notion that it would be so radical at the Everyman. So that had been planted. And I remember watching a Billy Connolly - he had tried to write plays in the Seventies – and realising that if those anecdotes were linked and pursued as a single character that you could have a completely arching narrative. But that was almost a critic’s view of things. I suspect that both those things were what... but none of that would have happened if it had not been for the desperation of having to write a script. I can’t write without a deadline. And I wrote the line, “I like a glass of wine when I’m doing the cooking.” That wouldn’t have made a play. But this is what I mean by writing what you don’t know what you knew. She turned around and said, “Don't I, wall?” And in that moment the play was born, because you had a whole theatrical conceit of a woman literally talking to a wall and you knew immediately that’s how she survived. I didn't know what the play was going to be, didn’t know where it was going to go to, but I knew I had a play in that second line.

Pauline Collins as Shirley Valentine talks to the wall

Blood Brothers has been ticking along for all these years in London.

Don't forget that the tour has been on the road now for 12 years and the tour, unlike the West End - it's a weekend every night on the road. You turn up on Glasgow or Manchester or Bristol and the show is rammed.

What did you make of Sporty Spice/Melanie Chisholm (pictured below) joining the cast.

She acted in the play version in college. I think she may have done Our Day Out. I was so surprised as the critics also took it as an opportunity to re-review the show. I had just not expected that. It’s lovely. It’s a marvellous gift. When you’ve got a show that’s been running that long people kind of dismiss it. "It’s been ticking along" is the perception. It might be ticking along, but if you’d been in there and seen the way audiences react to it, it’s a show that’s still got masses of life in it. The fact of this casting suddenly alerted people to what the show is.

Melanie_C_Blood_BrothersWhose idea was bringing her in?

Oh not mine. I guess it was Bill Ken’s.

Even if the company of men is not something you enjoy, were you brought up in a Liverpool or an Everton household? Or could you not lift an eyelid for football?

From the age of about eight or nine I started to go to watch Everton and I watched them avidly until I must have been 13, 14, when I discovered the guitar, girls and the Beatles. I just turned away from football completely. I had only gone because I had a terrible twitch as a kid which sometimes returns if I’m very very stressed. After a visit to a number of doctors one doctor said to my mother, “Does the child ever see his father?"

What was wrong with those trips to Everton?

There was a bus stop across the road from us that we could go direct to Goodison. He wouldn’t do that. We had to walk two miles to a bus stop. That’s what my father was like. And he didn’t communicate. He was a moody man. He was an alcoholic.

To see these four geezers come on dressed in black not giving a stuff about anything, you knew that life had changed, that the world had changed

You say that now but would you have said that at the time?

I now know alcoholism is in the man and not the bottle. I remember walking along and there was an ice cream van and I said, “Dad, can I have an ice cream?” And he said, “Why?”

What did your father make of your work?

I think he loved taking pride in it if it served him but I think he was also jealous of it. I didn't do what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to get clever, do a clever job. But I realised later on that when he would talk about the achievements of other kids in the family, how many certificates he’s got, how many certificates she’s got, it was a pissing competition, it wasn’t about the quality of learning, it was about getting one over. I remember when I went back into teaching he didn't fully get it but I think he was probably proudest when I was teaching. But 12 months after that I became a full-time writer. I think he was able to see, but by then he was pissed every time we’d go somewhere, so it was just twisted.

Did he live to see your success?

Oh yeah, he only died in 2005.

Your mother was presumably prouder.

Very much. We shared a lot, and maybe this is the real truth of why I write about women. I share things with my mother. I don’t paint a rosy picture but as often happens, especially being an only child till I was 17, boy children can become appropriated by a mother and I was and I think my father was excluded in some way from that relationship. But my mother liked elegance. My father hated that. My father wanted to be in a spit and sawdust pub. My mother wanted linen. She’d take me to Samson and Barlow’s restaurant and she’d always embarrass me by saying to the waiter, “The peas are fresh?” “Yes, madam, this is Samson and Barlow’s.” It was that kind of classic Lawrentian situation. My father had been a coalminer as well.

wrongboyPresumably you could say of Sons and Lovers, "That’s my life."

Leapt off the page. And I was able to share things with my mother like music. She got me into Buddy Holly. She really liked Dylan.

It is less well known of you that you are also a songwriter/musicians/composer. Has there been a battle between those creative arms?

No, I think of myself principally as a playwright who has been very fortunate to write novels and compose music and do performances and what have you. But I still think that my major role is to try and write plays. Doing Odd Day Out the Musical, having over the last 12 months been able to write a lot of new music has been terrific. When I am able to use a lot of skills in the theatre that’s exciting. My novel (pictured left) is about a boy writing to Morrissey, so music is shot through that. And my play called One for the Road, not to be confused with the Pinter play which he titled after mine.

That does happen.

Listen, for Christ’s sake, it’s been much worse for me. The first time I ever had to put my name onto a script I put William Russell. And somebody said to me, “No, everyone will think it’s William Rushton,”  because that’s what he was known as back then. He was William Rushton. So I used the diminutive and sent it off. Four years later William Rushton has become Willie Rushton. And the confusion! The night he died people phoned my house talking to my wife thinking I’d died.

When did you start composing?

The first time I went to the Cavern, I went with a great mate of mine called Tom Evans and two weeks later we both had guitars. Tom went on to be part of Badfinger and to co-write "Without You" with Pete Ham, another member of Badfinger. Both of those hung themselves 10 years apart, and Tommy was working in factory in Suffolk when he hanged himself. Badfinger is the story of fucked-up rock'n'roll par excellence. It is just a nightmare.

Even indirectly, was the sheer smell of creative revolution in your home city fertile ground for the writer more than the musician that you became?

WillyGuitarThe first night I stood there and saw the Beatles... being in a stinking sweaty club with the smell of rotting fruit and perfume mixed together, that in itself was just... Life was never going to be the same again. Seeing Fender Strats with people like Shane Fenton and the Fentones and Faron's Flamingos – that was sexy, seeing a Strat up close. We’d only ever seen a Moss Empires. But to see these four geezers come on dressed in black not giving a stuff about anything, bring on Vox AC 30 amps and then going into something like “Some Other Guy”, you knew that life had changed, that the world had changed, that nothing could ever ever be the same. And it wasn’t, you know. Now, I didn't think this at the time, but here was me... the only thing I ever did at school was read and I had read a book and thought I want to create in people the feelings that this guy has created in me. I look at the cover on the back and it’s a guy in tweeds and he probably goes to Oxbridge. I couldn’t go home and say, "I want to be a writer", but there’s the Beatles. They talk in my accent. They are six miles from where I live, and they are writers as well as performers. The example was there. You could write with an accent. In fact it was advantage if you were writing music. So like many writers of my generation, I started writing songs. That was the way in for me.

The Beatles perform 'Some Other Guy' at the Cavern Club

How many times did you go to the Cavern?

It had to be somewhere between 60 and 80 times just to see the Beatles and I didn't go a great deal after they’d gone.

How big were they really in Liverpool before their first hit?

They were massive. There was a great magazine started by Bill Harry called Mersey Beat. They were all over that as well. Nems Record Store, even before Brian [Epstein] represented them, was the hub where you went to listen to all the new records and lust after guitars you couldn’t afford. But it was only an in-group who knew about them. I remember writing an O level English essay “A Group called the Beatles”. And my teacher had  look at it and said to me, “The Beatles? You’ve blown your chances.” And it was the only O level I got. And on the school bus I mentioned that I’d been to see the Beatles. I remember kids pissing themselves laughing that a group could be called the Beatles. And when you saw them for the first time with their hair forward - all the unfortunate kids at school whose dads cut their hair with pudding basin haircuts, that’s what the most unfortunate kids at school were doing. It was Martian time. Where did that come from?

I always say one’s really writing well when one starts to write things one did not know that one knew. I need the liberation of imagination through character in order to do that

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What a fantastic piece! HB x

please let me edit the first line, "No one understands willy russell"

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