Interested in music as a child, William Martin Russell left school with few qualifications and while training as a hairdresser and running a salon he wrote songs and sang with the Kirby Town Three as well as writing sketches which were performed on local radio. In his twenties he went to college and studied to be a teacher and eventually taught in a school in Liverpool's tough Toxteth area, although he was keen to pursue a career in drama. After his first play, Keep Your Eyes Down was produced in 1971 he went on to write Sam O'Shanker and Blind Scouse (both 1972) but it was only after his musical: John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert, which had enjoyed a successful run at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, transferred to the Lyric Theatre in London's West End in 1974 that his name became recognised. The show was extremely popular and was named Best Musical of 1974 and won both the London Evening Standard and the London Critic's Awards. The subsequent; King Of The Castle (a 1973 BBC TV play), When The Reds (1973), Death Of A Young Young Man (1974), Breezeblock Park (1975), Break In (1974), Cantril Tales (1974), the BBC TV play Our Day Out (1976), One For The Road (1976), the BBC Radio School Play - I Read The News Today (1976), Lies (1978), Daughters Of Albion (1978), Stags And Hens (1978) and Politics And Terror (1978) established him as an important British playwright.
Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company Russell's next work Educating Rita debuted in 1980 at The Warehouse in Camden, the two handed play starred Julie Walters and Mark Kingston and told the story of a relationship between a Liverpudlian hairdresser (Walters) and an Open University lecturer. With echoes of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion the play was turned into a movie in 1983 with Russell writing the screenplay, Walters reprising her stage role and Michael Caine taking the male lead. Hugely successful, the film went on to win three BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) awards for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Actress. The 80s were a busy period for Russell and also found him writing The Boy With The Transistor Radio (a 1980 ITV production for schools), the five part ITV drama series One Summer (1983) and what would become one of his most memorable plays – the extraordinary Blood Brothers (1983). Russell originally devised the show as a school musical that he later adapted into a popular stage production in Liverpool but when it transferred to London's West End (at the Lyric Theatre like John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert before it) it became a massive hit. The story of a struggling single mother who gives up one of her newly born twin boys and how the brothers lives intertwine with tragic results was highly acclaimed, winning two Olivier Awards for Best New Musical and Best Actress for Barbara Dickson. The show subsequently toured around the World and has been revived several times with many famous names in the lead female role including Petula Clark, Carole King, Kiki Dee, Melanie C, Helen Reddy, Stephanie Lawrence, Marti Webb, Lyn Paul, Clodagh Rogers, Christine Amphlett and four of the Nolan sisters (Maureen, Linda, Bernie and Denise). While never yielding any hit singles the musical contains such memorable songs as 'Marilyn Monroe', 'Easy Terms' and 'Tell Me It's Not True' which have all become extremely famous. Before his next stage production Russell composed the song 'The Show', theme tune to the ITV series Connie, which when released as a single was a UK No 22 hit for Rebecca Storm in 1985.
The following year the one woman play Shirley Valentine opened at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre starring Noreen Kershaw although when it transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre in London's West End two years later it featured well known actress Pauling Collins in the title role. The play (both the West End and Broadway productions) won several awards and Russell adapted it in 1989 for the big screen with a larger cast that was equally popular. The BBC TV film Terraces followed in 1993 and two years later Russell toured with the Liverpool Poets (Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten) under the banner of Words On The Run. In 2000 he published his first novel The Wrong Boy while 2003 saw the release of his debut solo album Hoovering The Moon. Russell subsequently made numerous live appearances; in 2001 as part of Willy Russell & Friends (with Paul McCartney and Adrian Mitchell), in 2003 with the charity show For One Night Only with fellow writer Alan Bleasdale, in 2004 with In Other Words and The Singing Playwrights with dramatist and songwriter Tim Firth plus two appearances as part of Liverpool University's Public Lecture Series in 2008.
Russell's most successful works had always been a manifestation of the maxim of 'write what you know' hairdressing, education and particularly Liverpool and his native English northeast have featured heavily in many of his plays. Our Day Out was the story of a Liverpool school trip, John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert was about his hometown heroes The Beatles, Stags And Hens was set in a Liverpool discotheque, Educating Rita focussed on a Liverpudlian hairdresser, Blood Brothers told the tale of Liverpool twins separated at birth and Shirley Valentine was about a bored Liverpool housewife on holiday in Greece. Willy Russell is a hugely talented and acclaimed playwright and songwriter whose stories and songs demonstrate his gift for tapping into both humour and heartbreak and accurately reflect the lives and loves of the British working class.
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