Biography of Willy Russell

Willy Russell is an English dramatist best known for Educating Rita (1986). He was born in Whiston, near Liverpool in 1947 to a working class family; his father worked in a factory and his mother was a nurse and then in a warehouse. After he left school he became a hairdresser and took other odd jobs, such as a warehouseman. Being a hairdresser was, in his own admittance, “a job I didn’t understand and didn’t like,” and he began to write songs and sketches for the media because writing was the “only thing I felt I understood, felt that I could do.”  

At age twenty he returned to college, and upon graduating, became a teacher in Toxteth. He paid for his schooling by working a contract job cleaning oil from girders above machinery. It was dangerous and he stayed only long enough to make his money.  

Keep Your Eyes Down, his first play, which he wrote while training to become a teacher, was produced in 1971. John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert was incredibly popular, running for eight straight weeks at the Liverpool Everyman Theater; it won the Evening Standard and London Theatre Critic Award for best musical in 1974.  

Educating Rita was first staged in 1980 and published in 1981. Shirley Valentine was staged in 1988, and both that play and Educating Rita were made into popular films that were nominated for Academy Awards.  

Russell also writes for television and composes songs, such as the lyrics and score for Blood Brothers, (1986), a musical about twins separated at birth. His screenplays for film and his writing for television are quite prolific and diverse.  

Russell published his first novel, The Wrong Boy, in 2000. He currently lives and works in Liverpool. In 1969 he married Anne (“Annie”) Seagroatt; they have three children.                   


Study Guides on Works by Willy Russell

Educating Rita is one of playwright Willy Russell’s most well regarded works, as well as one of the most popular works for the theater of the late 20th century. Russell based the play on his own experience of growing up in a working class...