It has been said that before one can become a worthy writer, one should have "life experience". If that be so, Willy Russell did what it takes to become a writer. Not unlike the character of Rita (nee Susan) in "Educating Rita", his hit comedy play which became a film, Russell came from decidedly "working class" roots. His father and mother sold fish-and-chips, and Russell left school at age 15 becoming a ladies' hairdresser (as "Rita" was) and warehouse laborer. Although he was also performing and composing folk music with a group called the Kirbytown Three, it was not until 1969 that Russell began to attend college. He had his first play, "Keep Your Eyes Down" produced in Liverpool in 1971 while he was still a student. Upon receiving an education degree in 1973, he taught school. But the theatre still had an allure, and Russell had several other plays produced in Liverpool until his Beatles send-up, "John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert" was moved from Liverpool to the West End of London in 1974 and won the London Theatre Critics Award. Russell left teaching school behind and became the writer-in-residence at C.F. Mott College of Education in Liverpool and then at Manchester Polytechnic.
In 1980, Russell scored a hit with "Educating Rita", the story of a married hairdresser from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to get an education rather than have a baby. Through an open university program, she is enrolled in the local college where she forges a relationship with her advisor--a burnt-out, drunken poet-professor--which changes them both. Julie Walters originated the role on stage and later recreated it opposite Michael Caine in the 1983 film version. Both leads and Russell earned Oscar nominations for their efforts.
Russell returned to the stage for his next project, the musical "Blood Brothers" (1981), for which he also wrote the score. The story followed twins who were separated at birth and whose lives later intertwine and their mother, a woman fixated on Marilyn Monroe. While the initial production was not a long-running success, a 1983 revival caught the attention of the theatergoing public. Russell's script was fairly simplistic, almost fable-like and his score was infectious. British stage star Stephanie Lawrence earned high praise and a number of awards for her portrayal of the mother. A 1993 Broadway production was greatly helped by the stunt casting of former teen idols and half-brothers David and Shaun Cassidy and Petula Clark as replacements for the original performers.
Russell followed with the one-woman "Shirley Valentine" (1986), a gentle comedy about a working-class woman who finds romance while on holiday in Greece. "Shirley Valentine" won a Laurence Olivier Award for its London production, was a hit on Broadway in 1989, and was released as a film with Russell's screenplay the same year. Its success was due in no small part to Pauline Collins' tour-de-force in the title role.
Russell has also composed songs beginning with "I Will Be Your Love" in 1974, and also including the film scores for "Mr. Love" (1986), "Shirley Valentine" (1989), and "Dancin' Thru the Dark" (1990). The latter film was also based on one of his plays. His work in British TV has been sporadic, dating from the 1973 teleplay "King of the Castle" and includes the series "One Summer" (1983).