‘I was terrified,’ says Willy Russell of the night he found himself way out of his depth, like one of his famous characters. The highly acclaimed playwright – creator of Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine – had been persuaded to go along to a university art class, although he barely knew how to paint. ‘God, was I terrified!’
Russell had started painting as a kind of therapy during a family crisis, but he wanted to learn more. So he joined the course led by a professor at Hope University in Liverpool, near his home, but it was very awkward. Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. Russell felt their eyes on him as a result of his fame and was scared they would laugh at his efforts.
Educating Rita was made into an award-winning movie starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine
‘It’s about being open enough to make a complete and utter fool of yourself. You’ve got to accept you’re in a room with other painters, everyone will paint differently, and nobody can paint your picture – like no one can write your play, no one can write your song. But it can take time getting there.’
Hang on, isn’t this just like Educating Rita? The play – and movie starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine – tells the story of a working-class hairdresser who arrives at a university for evening classes with a professor of literature and feels way out of her depth.
‘Isn’t it just? You know I’ve never thought of it before but that is absolutely right. And there’s that famous line. He says, “What do you want to know?” She says, “Everything.” That’s what I wanted when I went to that class.’
That was ten years ago. Russell still goes to the class, which is called Teaching The Eye To See. But he is now an accomplished painter about to surprise the art world with the first exhibition of his work in London, a show called Seeing Better. Thirty paintings on paper and canvas reveal his rich, colourful style and love of landscape, particularly the rolling hills and big skies of Lancashire, where his father used to take him fishing as a boy.
It’s a surprising turn for a playwright to take relatively late in life, as Russell turns 70 this year. We meet at his office in a tall Victorian terraced house near Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral, where he is dressed in painterly jeans and a dark-blue shirt, his white fringe spilling out from under a beanie hat.
Studio Tuesday – Willy, Den and Fiona, 2015, by Willy Russell
Os Pescadores (The Fishermen), 2013, by Willy Russell
What was he so scared of, joining that class as a very successful man at his age? ‘Well, the fact I didn’t have a shred of talent. The first night, the teacher, Peter Moore, did a still life, a glass vase with some lilies in, and he asked us to do the same. I’ve still got my painting: a vase that’s crippled, wilting more than the flowers, an obscenity on paper. I must frame it, actually.’
You’d think someone as celebrated as Russell would have no lack of confidence. He made his name at the age of 26 in 1974 with a hit show about The Beatles called John, Paul, George, Ringo… And Bert. Russell moved on to create three of the best-loved stories of recent times. Blood Brothers – a musical about two lads separated at birth, one raised rich and the other poor – ran in the West End for two decades, was a hit on Broadway and is still performed all over the world.
Educating Rita became a modern stage classic as well as an Oscar-nominated movie in 1983. Next was Shirley Valentine, about a frustrated housewife who goes off to Greece and has an affair with a fisherman (as played memorably on screen by Pauline Collins and Tom Conti).
Playwright Willy Russell painting in his studio
Russell is also a very good musician, songwriter and novelist who first picked up a paintbrush at a moment of crisis. ‘I was at my place in Portugal in 1999. My mother had been dead for about six years. My father had issues with booze and pills.
‘I got a phone call from a member of the family who said in an accusatory way that he’d been round to my father’s house and seen him passed out, seriously ill. I said, “He’s not seriously ill, go find the bottles.”
‘Then my father came round to see this family member in his house and became very angry because he’d been discovered. I was trying to solve the situation from 1,500 miles away. But I’d learnt that you can’t save a person who’s addicted to something. In the end you’ll be dragged down with it. I wasn’t going to uproot my kids and go home to this mess.’ Russell and his wife Annie have three children: Rob, Ruth and Rachel.
‘I couldn’t sleep after the call, I was getting more and more strung out. One afternoon I sat at the table outside and there was a little palette of paints and paper. I just started doodling. Half an hour later I realised this was the first respite I’d had, the only time I’d not been thinking about the horrendous situation back home. The next day was Annie’s birthday and I didn’t have a birthday card, so I painted a little scene of the ocean in front of me and gave it to her.’
His love affair with painting had begun. What happened with his father? ‘When I got back from Portugal I phoned him and he kicked off on me. That was the end of it, I didn’t speak to him again for six years – until he died – and it was a nightmare of a time. Because it’s so primal. No matter what your relationship, it’s one of the human beings who gave you life.’
By then Russell was drawing and painting enthusiastically, until it was suggested he join a university class. Then he had what he now realises was his Educating Rita moment. But he says the story he wrote for Rita just couldn’t happen these days.
‘We did a terrific production of Educating Rita two years ago at the Liverpool Playhouse but we made a decision very early on that this was a history play. The equivalent set-up is not there today. The idea of “return to learn” has gone. The Open University is a shadow of what it was in Rita’s time.’
Universities also no longer provide the broad kind of life education Rita was after, he says. Social mobility has gone and there is no guarantee of a better life through learning.
His art professor in real life is retired, not a lazy, drunken university don with a huge private office and all the time in the world to take Rita under his wing, like Frank in the play. ‘Perhaps if he was a fellow of Oxford or Cambridge, a lecturer like Frank would have that kind of room and that kind of time, but not in the real world of universities today.’
Antony Costa and Mark Hutchinson in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theatre, London
So he was deeply unimpressed when a Cabinet minister started quoting Educating Rita as an example of how learning could raise people out of poverty. ‘Michael Gove was always touting Educating Rita as a great example of what can be achieved, but he never once acknowledged that under his control as Education Secretary, Frank wouldn’t even exist,’ says Russell. ‘He wouldn’t have the time to spend on one Open University student. He would be responsible for 300 students, which is why so many kids go to university and barely see a lecturer. It’s an appalling situation now.’
His eyes flicker to his pictures, all stacked up. ‘I’m a student of art. I will always be an amateur. Not an enthusiastic one, by the way. A bleedin’ seriously determined amateur. I do love what I do,’ says Russell, the playwright, songwriter and novelist who has also become a very good painter indeed.
‘Seeing Better: Willy Russell Paintings 2008-2017’ is at the Coningsby Gallery, London W1, until November 18