Skip to main content

Willy Russell – Educating Rita

Willy Russell was in the pub before the first preview of his play, Educating Rita. The Liverpool-born playwright’s seriously funny two-hander about a hairdresser who enrols on an Open University literature course was about to open at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rough and ready Warehouse space in what is now the Donmar, and he and director Mike Ockrent were seeking nervous refuge. They knew that the RSC had taken a chance on the play, and even though Russell had already had a west end hit a few years before with his Beatles-based musical, John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert, neither of them were sure what the response would be.

“The Warehouse was in what was then quite a seedy part of Covent Garden, a bit like what Mathew Street was like when the original Cavern was there,” a now 72-year-old Russell remembers. “Mike and I were in the Crown pub, and we didn’t know what to expect. Julie Walters was playing Rita, but she had yet to become the great and much revered Julie Walters that she rather wonderfully became. I’d done a few things as well, but none of us were what you’d call a draw. Then Mike nudged me, I looked out the window, and there was a queue. To this day I don’t know why that was, but there seemed to be something in the air.”

Forty years on, Educating Rita has become a modern classic. Ockrent’s original production, which also featured Mike Kingston as Rita’s jaded tutor Frank, saw Walters nominated for an Olivier Award for comedy performance of the year, while the play itself won the award for best comedy. Russell went on to write the screenplay for Lewis Gilbert’s big-screen version in 1983, which saw Walters reprise her role as Rita opposite Michael Caine as Frank.

Since then, numerous stage productions have made Educating Rita a perfect vehicle for actors who can bring depth to some of the play’s glorious one-liners. It currently falls to an already acclaimed Jessica Johnson to take up Rita’s mantle opposite Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in Theatre by the Lake’s fortieth anniversary touring production, which arrives in Glasgow next week prior to Edinburgh dates in May. If things had worked out differently, however, Russell’s play might never have happened at all.

“Back then, I didn’t think I was the sort of writer who would be associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company,” says Russell. “I’d started at the Everyman in Liverpool, and I wrote about things I didn’t think the RSC would be interested in. But their literary manager Walter Donohue had seen my play Breezeblock Park, with Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite, and he saw something. But even after I’d come up with Educating Rita, the response from the RSC wasn’t very enthusiastic, and unbeknownst to me, something I was only told years later, was that it had been sent to the Royal Court, who dismissed it as what they called a boulevard comedy.

“Eventually it was seen by Trevor Nunn, who had pretty much everybody in the RSC in Nicholas Nickleby, and even when it went on, they still didn’t know what they had until the reviews came in. Because of apathy and prejudice, it’s perfectly possible it might never have gone on, but that’s theatre. It’s not a science.”

Educating Rita struck a chord with audiences from the start. This had much to do with Russell’s desire to make his contemporary Pygmalion connect with the sort of people his play was about.

“I knew when I started on the play I didn’t just want it to appeal to the Franks of this world. I wanted it to be for women like my mother, who weren’t afraid of books and art. I wanted it to connect with the Ritas in the audience as well.”

Like Rita, Russell had become a hairdresser after leaving school when he was fifteen, and his story of the sort of social mobility that is less likely to happen these days was closer to home than even Russell recognised.

“It was pointed out to me I was writing about myself and my own return to education. That stopped me in my tracks, because when I’m writing, I have to feel like I’m drawing things from my own imagination. Only later was I made to realise that Educating Rita is actually autobiographical, even though it’s about a woman. I wanted it to be about a woman, and I wanted it to be a love story – not a romantic love story – but a story about two people who, if they’re not in love, then will love each other for the rest of their lives.

“Salvation for Rita came through education in a way that probably couldn’t happen now, with all those one-to-one tutorials between Rita and Frank. Today, Frank wouldn’t have the luxury of that, because he’d be responsible for 300 students, and wouldn’t have the time. But, despite the fact that we set it very much in the time it was written in, it’s just as relevant today as it was then. That’s because at the centre of the play is a human being striving for something better, and that is a basic and primal experience”

Russell quotes from Paul Simon’s song, Train in the Distance

“The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains,” he says.

Russell too is still striving. Inbetween directing students at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, he’s working on “something I’d vaguely describe as a memoirist piece. And I’m doing a lot of painting.”

Russell sounds both shy and surprised by the latter admission. This probably dates back to art classes at school.

“I was slapped round the head and told to get out of class, and that the only thing I was likely to draw was the dole. Then, in my fifties, I found myself picking up a brush, and now I’m taking lessons, so I’m a student again. There’s someone at the front of the class who knows more than me. I’m back to being Rita.”

Educating Rita, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 24-29; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, May 11-16.

The Herald, February 20th 2020



Popular posts from this blog

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1 1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77) 3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77) 4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77) 5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77) 6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77) 7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77) 8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78) 9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78) 10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79)  11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79) 12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79)  13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79) 14. JOLT See Saw (6/79) 15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79) 16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79) 17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79) 18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79) 19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79) 20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79) 21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79) 22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79) 23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79) 24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80) 25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980) 1. THE REZILL

Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990

DISC 1 1. THE STONE ROSES   -  Don’t Stop 2. SPACEMEN 3   -  Losing Touch With My Mind (Demo) 3. THE MODERN ART   -  Mind Train 4. 14 ICED BEARS   -  Mother Sleep 5. RED CHAIR FADEAWAY  -  Myra 6. BIFF BANG POW!   -  Five Minutes In The Life Of Greenwood Goulding 7. THE STAIRS  -  I Remember A Day 8. THE PRISONERS  -  In From The Cold 9. THE TELESCOPES   -  Everso 10. THE SEERS   -  Psych Out 11. MAGIC MUSHROOM BAND  -  You Can Be My L-S-D 12. THE HONEY SMUGGLERS  - Smokey Ice-Cream 13. THE MOONFLOWERS  -  We Dig Your Earth 14. THE SUGAR BATTLE   -  Colliding Minds 15. GOL GAPPAS   -  Albert Parker 16. PAUL ROLAND  -  In The Opium Den 17. THE THANES  -  Days Go Slowly By 18. THEE HYPNOTICS   -  Justice In Freedom (12" Version) 1. THE STONE ROSES    Don’t Stop ( Silvertone   ORE   1989) The trip didn’t quite start here for what sounds like Waterfall played backwards on The Stone Roses’ era-defining eponymous debut album, but it sounds

Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all. But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath broug