Willy Russell: “writers have to be mavericks”
In an exclusive interview, Northern Soul’s Cathy Crabb chats to playwright, musician and novelist Willy Russell.
When me and my sister and brothers were wee Crabblings we had a big scouse Dad who would do anything for us. He was a rock-hard socialist pipefitter turned pub landlord who had once been the hired muscle for a debt collector (my Grandad).
Once, when my sister Vicky brought a lad home, she said to him: “Look, my Dad can be really scary, but you’ll be alright, don’t worry.” When they walked in, he was knitting in front of the telly. He did tie-dye stuff as well, sub aqua diving, collected fossils, and painted with oils. I also saw him pick a man up by the roof of his mouth and throw him out of the pub, then go upstairs and read a book about painting landscapes in watercolours. That’s how it is with the Crabbs: you do stuff, anything you like, and no one dares make fun of you.
Anything you wanted to do, Dad would give you the opportunity. I told him I wanted to be an actress on stage so he kept his ear to the ground, asked around the pub and the next minute we were driving to Derker so I could audition for Oldham Theatre Workshop. I was scared of going but my Dad said I’d be alright, that there’d be loads of other nervous kids, that I either went or stopped saying I wanted to do it.
I can still remember the first rehearsal for Willy Russell’s Our Day Out, storming on with the other kids and belting out “we’re going out, just for the day”, turning to face the rows of plush velvet seats “going off somewhere – far away,” smiling and singing our hearts out to the circle at the Coliseum, under the beautiful lights. “I’m never ever leaving here”, I thought, “I am at the place I need to be, and I’m never leaving”. And I never did, Dad.
I interviewed Willy Russell. Me. That kid mugging in Our Day Out because she didn’t have any lines. I talked to him about plays, about writing, and…hamsters as well I think. Here’s our conversation.
Cathy Crabb: My Editor wants you to know that she really loves Dancin’ thru the Dark, that she was obsessed with it in the 90s and watched it over and over and over again, so she’ll be dead chuffed that I told you that.
Willy Russell: And she’ll be dead sick of it by now?
CC: No she loves it! I asked people what questions they’d like me to ask and a lot of them were about other pieces of yours, but no-one else mentioned Dancin’ thru the Dark, and she was like ‘why is no one as obsessed with it as I am’. So I thought I’d mention it anyway.
WR: Yeah. I was saying a couple of weeks ago ‘Why does it never get a showing on telly?’. You just never see it these days.
CC: I was looking for it last night online because I wanted to watch it. I’ve seen Con O’Neill before, he was in A View from the Bridge at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. He’s such a cracking actor.
WR: Well, he’s working with us at the moment. He’s doing Frank in Educating Rita here at the Liverpool Playhouse. We’re in rehearsals at the minute.
CC: I’m really looking forward to that. I think he’s great, he’s like a scouse Al Pacino…is he a scouse? Cos he has done a lot in Liverpool hasn’t he?
WR: Ha! Yeah, he came from Skelmersdale.
CC: So I want to ask you about ‘Words’ (Russell was asked to choose a word for the fourth annual BBC Radio 4’s Front Row’s neon artwork, which will be illuminated for a year at MediaCity. He chose ‘Words’. It was unveiled during a recent special live edition of the programme from the BBC studios in Salford.) I actually went to that event.
WR: Oh did you? You were there?
CC: It was really nice wasn’t it?
WR: It was a lovely evening. But I was dreading it a bit because when you try to mix live radio and an event it can all be a bit open to technical cock-ups and all that kind of thing. But it was lovely, I really enjoyed meself, everyone was so sweet.
CC: We felt a bit awkward really because you were like a hamster in a cage in that bit in the studio and we didn’t want to stand at the sides ogling you too much.
CC: As soon as the BBC got in touch, did you have ‘Words’ in mind or did you narrow it down?
WR: The first thing that came to mind was ‘Word’ but then immediately I thought I can’t do it because that word has been appropriated by Microsoft. If you say ‘word’ now, if you saw that in the sky above Salford, you’d think ‘oh shit it’s another advert for them’, you know? And it was only when Jane, who set up this interview from my office here in Liverpool, said to me a few days later have you thought of ‘Words’? And I thought ‘of course!’ because it takes the curse of Microsoft off it. And it’s actually a better word to have as a sculpture because it ripples.
CC: I wanted to ask about your first play (John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert) and it being the 40th anniversary. How do you feel about that? Does it feel like it’s just flown by? Are you surprised that you’ve been 40 years in one job?
WR: I got up this morning to see that there was a big article in The Times and in it I am described as a ‘svelte 67-year-old’. Well svelte was very nice thank you very much but 67! Seeing that in print it just nearly made me fall over with shock of seeing 67. I thought, how did I notch up all those years? And then I spent two hours over at the Liverpool John Moores archive, they’ve got my archive over there, going through a process of identifying the photographic archive for them. So I’ve just been going through a pictorial trip of my own life. It’s incredible. I got a complete recall of the exact moment of the picture that I’m looking at and it feels like yesterday, that’s the only way I can say it.
CC: It’s amazing isn’t it? I was looking at a review for John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert and it said ‘some great young new actors Anthony Sher, Bernard Hill’.
WR: Trevor Eve, Barbara Dickson.
CC: I heard you saying that it was the first jukebox musical. But people think they just happened last year.
WR: That’s right, but I wasn’t aware that it was a jukebox musical. That phrase only came into being fairly recently. It was the Performing Rights Society’s magazine I think that identified and named it as the first jukebox musical. I was kind of pleased about that but I do make the point that, unlike the majority of jukebox musicals, it’s not something that relied only on the tracks in it. If you took all the songs out of it, it would still work as a play.
CC: Me and my friend Lindsay Williams who writes for EastEnders have done the same with a play written for the Oldham Coliseum. It’s called Dreamers and we’ve got 90s music but we’ve got original songs too. We wanted it to stand alone as a play because, like you say, the jukebox musicals now, if they didn’t have the songs in them, they wouldn’t be anything would they?
WR: There’d be nothing there. Some are better than others but, by and large, I see people try and do this kind of thing with very flimsy plots, just going from hit, to hit, to hit. I demand more of theatre than that, there’s a place for it but I don’t want to go and see it particularly.
CC: What was the most recent play that you went to see that you loved?
WR: It would probably be Slava’s Snow Show. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen it either, it’s just such a stunning piece of theatre.
CC: Isn’t it amazing? Apparently it does change quite often as well.
WR: Oh it does, it’s changed massively since I first saw it. I mean I was doing a show in the 90s with Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten called Words on the Run and we shared a dressing room in Edinburgh with Slava. It was just him in those days and now of course he’s got this large troupe. It’s just exquisite and what’s brilliant for me is the last time I saw it I was able to take my two granddaughters to see it so it’s spread right across the whole family.
CC: I’m so glad you said that because Sue McArdle asked me to say hello and to say that she’s really excited about you going.
WR: Ah fantastic, well, I’m really really looking forward to it, because it’s had great success in Manchester hasn’t it? It started off as a JB Shorts as two pieces didn’t it? And opened in Bolton last month but I couldn’t get to the opening then so I’m looking forward to seeing it down there.
This actually came up through doing ‘Words’ for Salford. I was saying that one of the things I absolutely loathe is this apparent hostility and rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester. Because when I was a kid writer, people like me and Alan Bleasdale would go back and forth. We’d do a play for the Everyman in Liverpool and we’d do a play at Contact theatre in Manchester and we’d be back and forth between the two cities. I was chairing creative writing for 18 months at the polytechnic in Manchester. And that’s how I met Dave all those years ago. And we’ve remained like great mates throughout all of this kind of stuff you know. So what’s all that about? I’m assuming it comes out of football?
CC: I think it’s the organisations. In the fringe we’re not like that.
WR: No they’re not, you’re right.
CC: Like you I was a mature student and went back to study. I got a grant for that. I had children at the time and because of that grant I’m a writer now. I feel that, pretty soon, working class writers are going to be few and far between because their parents won’t encourage them to go into it because of all the debt involved. I worry that they are going to be eradicated. How do you feel about that?
WR: I don’t share that because I don’t think writers need to be trained in writing by any kind of academic institution. In fact, I partly lament any kind of move to the corporate writing school. Writers by their nature have to be mavericks and have to bite the hand that feeds them, you know. I think we have to remain firmly on the outside. I’ve seen too many potentially great writers get stiffed by a corporate notion of what writing should be.
The writers are just a cog in the machinery of it [the play]. I am blessed to have come from that generation that looked to the writer first, that everything starts with the writer’s vision, the writer’s dream, the writer’s passion to say what he or she wanted to say. Go look at Dennis Potter‘s The Singing Detective. I looked at it again recently because one of my kids was studying it. It’s a stunning piece of work. I’m not saying everything that he wrote was stunning, it wasn’t, but The Singing Detective was a stunning piece of work. Now you show me the committee, the group of creatives – and I hate that phrase as well – that could dream up and execute that kind of work. It has to come out of one human being’s passionate belief in something.
CC: Yeah, and not a million people telling them to cut this and do that.
WR: It’s bollocks. With John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert, it was four and a quarter hours long on the first night and Alan Dossor took me by the scruff of the neck at the end and he said ‘Don’t you like people?’ I said ‘What do you mean? Of course!’ And he said ‘In that case why the fuck did you stop them all having a pint, and it’s meant that they can’t even get buses home?’ What a great note! I’d cut an hour out by the next night. But that’s learning from people who want to pass on the wisdom of the job, who don’t want you to force and shoe horn what was originally a good idea into some pap that ticks the right boxes.
CC: If I watch something on film or TV, I can tell you in five minutes if it’s been written by a playwright. It’s just the musicality, the poetics of the piece that are completely different.
WR: Yeah, of course.
CC: I wanted to talk you about you saying you were more comfortable with female company.
WR: It’s true actually. It’s true.
CC: And that you feel that’s why your female characters are so well written. But I wanted to let you know that I feel that Blood Brothers and The Wrong Boy are very much male stories and that they really speak to men.
WR: Well I’m so glad because one of the things that surprises me is that wherever I go to do any kind of public speaking, the question about why do you write about women so much will always come up, nobody ever ever ever asks me ‘Why is so much of your work set in childhood?’
CC: I think it’s just that people find it surprising sometimes that a male writer writes women so well.
WR: It’s the job of the writer to imagine! Every character that I’ve come up with in my life, if I had to be who they are, it could completely negate what I do. I’d be a documentary maker, or a journalist or something. Writing is daring to know.
CC: What is happening with your book The Wrong Boy? You have mentioned that there is something going on.
WR: Well it was supposed to have been done as a TV series back in 2001/02 with Red Productions and it was all set up to go. Matt Greenhalgh wanted to write it and at that time I felt far too close to it to be able to see it through myself as a TV series. I’d just written the book, and the book was such a labour of love and it was such a long book to write because there were another three amounts that I cut from the manuscript. So I was still so immersed in Raymond [the book’s narrator] that I allowed Matt to write a first script and it was all set up to go and the then gatekeeper at the BBC pulled the plug on it. So that was it, it was gone you know? So I just thought, fair enough, television was in such a state they’ll never ever want to do this. Then towards the middle of last year I got approached by a company who said they loved the book. I suddenly realised that I now had a distance on Raymond, and I feel that I now want to write it myself.
CC: You’ve got to!
WR: Subject to one more meeting where I’m just looking to establish a few definite kind of elements before I commit to it, because it’s a long commitment, it’s a long job, you know? And if I can get those right I’ll sit down and I’ll try to do it. But of course I realise immediately that I’m on a route to nothing because people like you who’ve read the book, you’ve already produced it in your head and your production is a production I’ll never be able to realise on TV.
CC: That’s just a credit to the book.
WR: It’s a credit to the imagination of the reader and the book.
CC: But these days that it won’t be such a huge leap, there have been so many books done so well.
WR: Yes, and I have to say that if the experience I’ve had talking to the people who I’ve been talking to is anything to go by, and to the BBC people I’ve talked to, thank god we are now in a climate where there seems to be a prevailing wind of ‘let’s trust the writer’. I think they’ve been hammered by what’s been happening in American television. I think British television has had to put its hand up and say ‘shit, we were getting it wrong, look what the Americans are doing by having great writers write the bloody series’.
CC: Your lines, your phrases, your dialogue, they stick with people. Is there a line in particular from a play or from a film that’s stuck with you?
WR: This is an unexpected source from me but I’ve never forgot some lines from a David Hare play way back in the 70s. The lead was taken by Bill Nighy and I think it was the first time he ever worked with David Hare. It was a film called Dreams of Leaving and it ended with these words ‘Our lives dismay us, we know no comfort, we have dreams of leaving, everyone I know.’
WR: Now how could you not remember that?
And how could I not remember this? I came off the phone and I looked at things with fresh eyes. I thought about the compromises I have made as a writer just to get work on, and how that process had made me doubt my own vision. And I thought about the times I have come home crying because I hadn’t had the nerve to speak up about being unhappy with how my work was changed because I was afraid it would mean I was unemployable because I was difficult. And I thought about that day when I was terrified of going into Oldham Theatre Workshop’s Higginshaw building to audition for Our Day Out and how different my life would have been if I hadn’t gone in. And I thought, I’m going to write how I feel from now on because I am a Crabb and we do what we like, and I dare anyone to make fun of me.
By Cathy Crabb
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.