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Brief Encounter With ... Willy Russell

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It’s over 20 years since Willy Russell’s hugely popular TV series – Our Day Out – was first adapted into a musical for the stage. Now, just two weeks away, the play is being transformed into a musical again.

Our Day Out tells the funny and heartwarming story about Mrs Kay’s Progress Class. They’re all on board and bound for Alton Towers, until Mr Briggs gets on board. The destination changes to a zoo in North Wales but there is no stopping the fun on a trip for the class that always gets left behind.

Russell, who celebrated his 62nd birthday on Sunday, is three weeks into rehearsals and took time out of his hectic schedule to talk to Whatsonstage.com about how Our Day Out – The Musical is progressing.

The man behind much-loved plays including Educating Rita, Stags and Hens, Shirley Valentine, and Breezeblock Park, has been working on his latest project alongside Bob Eaton, which appears at the Royal Court Liverpool in September, since the start of last year.

Do you still have the same enthusiasm towards work like you had in seventies?
I still have the same enthusiasm, but I don’t think I have the same energy as before. I don’t think I have the youthful urgency as before, which I think is inevitable, but I still have the same passion behind my work. I’m not as needy at getting work out as fast as before either, but I am able to find time now to do other things. For example, I’m drawing and painting at the moment, which I would have never have done before, although I’m still at the novice student stage.

What made you take the path into writing?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer really; it was the only thing I wanted to do. Being a spectacular failure at school, I always thought you had to be academically good and had to gain qualifications in Oxfordshire, wear tweed, and smoke rather long cigarettes. So, I headed to a bottle factory in St Helens and worked there, before my mother said, ‘Why don’t you become a ladies hairdresser?’ I thought, ‘ok, that’s quite arty and creative, I’ll try it’.

What happened to your career in hairdressing?
I was a sublimely bad hairdresser and never naturally gifted at it. When I was following my apprenticeship I realised I wasn’t as good as those around me, who you could just tell were born to do it. You measure yourself against those around you and when you realise you’re not as good, then it’s time to move on.

Do you have fond memories of Whiston?
I left Whiston when I was five years old and moved to the Knowsley Maple estate into a pre-fabricated bungalow where it was an all-Liverpool speaking area situated within rural Lancashire. Men who had been in the war were working on shift in the factories, woodlands surrounded us, and it was great place to grow up. I’m often considered as an urban writer but I grew up in an idyllic rural area which is now owned by Lord Derby.

Could you have imagined Our Day Out to be a TV hit in 1976?
No. Never, ever. I don’t think anyone ever thinks in those terms. I never write and think, ‘how is it going to be critically received? Will people like it?’ If I did, I would never get anything written. I remember Our Day Out getting a rave review when I was staying in London with the then producer of Breezeblock Park and it didn’t get any attention prior to that which was the start of an inkling it was worth something.

Why have you decided to turn Our Day Out into a musical again?
It was what we always wanted to do. It was first performed in 1983 at the Everyman as a musical when I was working on Blood Brothers. Bob Eaton, at that point, was the director of the Everyman and wanted to do a musical in conjunction with the youth theatre as a workshop and they put together a great show. It wasn’t a big show, but it worked out ok, so, I got together with Bob and Glen Walford in Coventry a bit later, when Bob was the director of the Belgrade Theatre, but we didn’t take it as far as we could in Coventry. Despite having a great cast of young actors from the Coventry area, the local accent lost the authentic idiom of the play I suppose. I mentioned doing it again to Bob, who was now working at the Royal Court Liverpool, and now, three weeks into rehearsals, I’m thinking, ‘Why did I open my big mouth!’ It’s been a lot of hard work.

When did you start discussing the project?
It was the beginning of last year when Stags and Hens was being shown at the Royal Court. It was on, then off, then on, then off, and eventually on. We needed to heavily workshop it to make it work. For a musical to evolve it takes months, more than the usual four-week rehearsal period, and we needed to try different ideas. Once Kevin Fearon, chief executive of Royal Court Liverpool, could assure us it would be ok to work in this way, we got started. We began rehearsing three weeks ago, but actually started working on it in January this year. Through the fantastic work of Beverley Norris-Edmunds, I’ve been flawed by the dance sequences shown by the kids, who all have no fear at dancing. We’ve got one lot of 25 kids and another 25 kids – because, for legal reasons, I can’t have the same kids for whole time it’s on – and all of them can dance really well.

What’s your advice to those people who have written scripts but still can’t get them onto the stage?
Although I’m someone who would suggest the best advice is not to take advice, the one bit of advice to this would be to not always pin your hopes on sending your script to theatre organisations or playwrights. The best thing is to go around to your mates and ask them if they would like to play a part, before finding a room above a pub, and putting the bloody thing on! Even if nothing comes from it, at least you’ve then had the pleasure of staging your work. It’s what I did. When I was at St. Katharine's College I approached some people who were doing drama, and some who weren’t, and managed to get my script performed in Childwall. Then we managed to raise some money and took it to Edinburgh where Alan Dossor and John McGrath saw it. Carol Cullington gets scripts onto the stage. She wrote Da Boyz and managed to get that staged earlier this year.

Are you still determined to get Blood Brothers made into a film?
It would be very expensive to make and Alan Parker doesn’t want to make a British film he wants to do an American film. Parker and I were delighted to have worked together and if we get a film out of it then it would be the icing on the cake.

What’s the last production you went to see and enjoyed?
It would have been the other week with Tim Firth, when were running a five-day foundation course and 15 writers did a performance of a production called Britain in Bloom. The Arvon Foundation staged it in the John Osborne Centre. It was absolutely thrilling and not a piece of scenery was in sight. It was great.

Willy Russell was talking to Michael Hunt

Our Day Out – The Musical opens at Royal Court Liverpool and runs from Friday 11 September to Saturday 17 October 2009. For more details, click here

*Photograph taken by Dave Evans


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