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Willy Russell


Willy Russell is a celebrated playwright, screenwriter and television dramatist whose work includes: Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, Our Day Out, One Summer and the musical Blood Brothers. His first success was a play about The Beatles called John, Paul, George, Ringo ... and Bert that was commissioned for the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, before it transferred to the West End in London, in 1974. His play Educating Rita won the 1980 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and which he later adapted into a film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters in 1983, and which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984 for Best Adapted Screenplay.  


Shirley Valentine, another of his plays, was also a success, winning a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 1988, and a Tony Award for Best Play in 1989. It was also adapted into a film by Russell, earning him an Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Screenplay in 1990, and a BAFTA nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay the same year.


His musical Blood Brothers debuted in 1983, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical that year, and the book of the musical won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 1993. A West End revival opened in 1988 and ran for more than 24 years and more than 10,000 performances, becoming the third longest-running musical production in West End history, and closing in November 2012. The musical has been produced with success on tour, on Broadway and elsewhere.


In 2009, Russell adapted his 1977 television play, Our Day Out, into a stage musical for which he wrote co-wrote the songs with director Bob Eaton.


Alongside with his playwriting career Russell has also been a songwriter and musician. He wrote the melodies and lyrics for the songs in Blood Brothers, and provided the scores for the films, Shirley Valentine, Dancin' Thru the Dark and Mr Love; and in 1985 co-wrote ‘The Show’, the theme song to the 1985 British drama television series Connie, which became a top 30 hit for vocalist Rebecca Storm.


His 2003 album, Hoovering the Moon, received favourable reviews and featured contributions from a range of musicians including: Andy Roberts, Herbie Flowers, Iain Mathews, Rohan Kriwaczek, Louis Borenius, Mark Griffiths, John McCusker, Dave Holdsworth, Andy Cutting, Tim Firth, Loretto Murray, Kate Rusby, Paul Allen, Bernard O'Neill, and Barbara Dickson who sings alongside Russell on it.


His first novel, The Wrong Boy, published in 2000, is written in epistolary form, where the main character a 19-year old boy from Manchester, tells the story of his life in letters to his hero Morrissey.




Q: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?


A: No I think that poetry and lyric writing are quite different things, a poem being something complete in itself and a lyric is something which combines with a melody to form something that we know as song. I think I have some kind of understanding of what constitutes a lyric and how to go about creating one.  In truth, though, I don't think I have the first idea about what it is that makes a poem. I've certainly written stand-alone verse—but that's how I'd describe it, verse, not poetry.


Q: Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?


A: I don't think it's important that all songs rhyme. It really depends on the kind of song you're making. There's certainly been a strong tradition of using highly sophisticated and elaborate rhyme in, say, the Broadway musical where the likes of Sondheim, Porter, Lerner, Hart et al have revelled in demonstrating the kind of dazzling brilliance of rhyme to an audience which appreciates and even expects this level of dextrous word play. If we look at opera, on the other hand, then it's noticeable that so little of it is written to rhyme—the reason largely being that unlike in the musical where even the most elaborate songs consist of repetitive bar songs, the music in opera rarely uses the kind of 16 or 32 bar repetition that is associated with rhyme.


In pop song, it's usually a given that there will be rhyme whether it's the tritest piece of bubble gum pop or hardcore gangster rap but there are those writers who explored the non-rhyming, blank verse form, notably Paul Simon (‘America’), Bob Dylan (‘A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall’), Sting (‘Fields of Gold’) etc.


Q: Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can also be like free verse?


A: As indicated in the previous answer, I don't think there are any rules that can't effectively be broken. The ultimate test of a song is whether it works or not. We all know examples of appalling songs that have been written with an adherence to a supposed set of rules and which end up being formulaic, unoriginal and, ultimately, unsuccessful in that they don't engage the heart and mind of the listener. I think that anyone, though, who practices a craft can only benefit from having some understanding of the elements of that craft. The difficulty is getting the balance right so that knowledge of song structure aids the imagination without impairing that imagination.


Q: When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any connection to the music you enjoyed?


A: At Rainford County Secondary, in 1959, poetry was not a big feature. In the D stream—where I resided—subjects such as English Literature were not even on the curriculum. We thickos had to make do with woodwork, metalwork, PE, domestic science and gardening—yes, gardening! We did study English Language and one teacher, I recall, introduced us to Alfred Noyes's narrative ballad, ‘The Highwayman’, (later set to music by Phil Ochs). Although I loved ‘The Highwayman’, it wasn't something that related in any way to the music I was listening to at the time. Obviously, there were links between this first poem and, say, the narrative element in some of the Chuck Berry stuff to which I was addicted—‘Memphis Tennessee’, ‘Johnny B Goode’ etc., but, Chuck Berry and Alfred Noyes seemed to me to be so culturally apart—ancient/contemporary, British/American, spoken/sung—that I was simply blind to  any link.


Q: Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?


A: I only really came to poetry in my late teens and by that time I was already writing songs. As most of my songwriting was, broadly speaking, in the folk tradition, I tended to look towards more traditional verse as my example, and in this particular way I became very influenced for a while by the work of Robert Burns. I saw this form of poetry as being quite separate from the more contemporary poetry that I was now accessing, e.g., the Beats, the Liverpool poets, Christopher Logue, Dylan Thomas, Adrian Mitchell etc., etc. Had my songwriting not been in this folk tradition, then I may well have taken more inspiration and found more example from the work of such contemporary or near contemporary poets but, as it was, I seemed to read these writers with no idea of them affecting the kind of work I was trying to achieve.


Q: Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?


A: Melody. Music, the most visceral of all the arts, touches us in a way and at a level that nothing else can. Add to this, the fact that song has never been appropriated and canonised by a self-serving elite in the way that poetry has. Song still belongs to everyone and has no stigma of class or supposed intellectualism about it. Nobody is made afraid by a song.