‘Hello darling, do you want some dough?’
A successful career in the West End never went to Willy Russell’s head, he tells John Wright
Willy Russell, 70, is a playwright, screenwriter, songwriter, author and artist who found fame in the Seventies and Eighties with plays such as Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine (both also worldwide hits as films, winning many nominations and awards at the Oscars, Golden Globes and Baftas), Stags and Hens, Breezeblock Park and Our Day Out. His musical Blood Brothers ran for almost 25 years in the West End and has toured non-stop ever since. Today he lives in Liverpool with his wife, Annie.
How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?
I was brought up in post-war rationing years in a close-knit working class estate outside Liverpool, poor but not starving. I never longed for things.
My mother was an assistant in a (then called) mental institution. My father was a miner, an insurance man who one day found two suitcases of second-hand books, strapped them to his bike and became a roving librarian.
When he found it wasn’t going to make him a fortune he worked in an ICI factory. After working as chargehand he saved and bought a draper’s shop for my mother, left the factory and opened a fish and chip shop.
His firm belief was, “What you can’t pay for, you don’t get,” while other members of the family were dancing in the streets the day HP came in. I remember, at nine, going to the match with my father, seeing this ice cream van and saying: “Dad, can I have an ice cream?” He said: “What for?”.
What was your first job?
I was a ladies’ hairdresser at 17 in 1964, working in a salon in Bromborough on the Wirral for £5 19s 6d a week. I went back to do A-levels, aged 21, and became a teacher.
How did you make the transition from the security of teaching to earning a living as a writer?
Incrementally. In those days it was much easier for young writers because the Arts Council funded regional theatre much more generously than today. Television was full of producers producing single-slot dramas so you could get two theatre play commissions a year with a couple of tellys and three episodes of Crown Court.
When my John, Paul, George, Ringo...
and Bert play opened in the West End, I had two television commissions. So I knew I could keep us going for 18 months even if everything dried up.
Are you a saver or a spender?
Both. I learnt early on when I suddenly went from being a teacher earning £24 take-home pay to having a big success in the West End and much larger royalty cheques coming in.
My agent, Peggy Ramsay, said: “Put that away for the tax man, darling. Open two accounts.” In 1974 I sometimes paid up to 80pc in tax, but it didn’t bother me. I was still earning a phenomenal amount of money compared with what I’d seen before.
Do you use cash, debit cards or credit cards?
All. In the Eighties I tried acquiring something, but they wouldn’t let me because I didn’t have a credit rating. When I tried to get one, I couldn’t because I’d never had credit.
Do you have Isas?
I buy them for my kids every year and take advice as to which ones to get.
Have you invested in property?
I’ve bought property but never as an investment. I have a place in Portugal, a pied-à-terre in London and live in Liverpool where my office is.
Have you ever had trouble paying your bills?
No. I’ve always paid bills as soon as they come in. I don’t wait for 30 days despite people trying to persuade me to forego that lifetime’s habit.
Do you invest in the stock market?
I think so, but through a unit trust. I try to make my investments ethical. A friend once persuaded me to buy some ethical health food products. When he died and new financial advisers took over, they sneered at them, then saw them performing sensationally.
Does money make you happy?
No. I’ve never done a job for money but it has allowed me pleasures. I’ve never had the pressure of having to worry, as I see other people have, about not having enough money. I always had basic wheels, a guitar, a pint or bottle of wine, somewhere to live, and I can afford more expensive versions.
Have you saved for retirement?
Deciding to be a writer after I’d only been teaching for 18 months, I didn’t leave teaching until I’d had a play running in the West End for six months, in 1974-75, because I knew how notorious life as a writer could be.
I took out insurance policies to cover the mortgage in case I fell ill and couldn’t generate income and life insurance because I had the beginnings of a family. On my accountant’s advice I took out annuities as an investment which I think we rolled forward into the general pension pot.
What are the best and worst things you’ve bought?
The best would be my Guild guitar, 1974 vintage. At the moment if I buy a good tube of Hooker’s Green paint because I’m doing a lot of painting, or a nice sable brush for a watercolour, that’s lovely because I’m doing something with it.
I like nice wine but I don’t buy ridiculous collecting vintage wines. A £50 gobful would be lost on me whereas a good £10-£15 bottle of Portuguese wine goes down very well. The worst is hiring builders. They see me coming, take the first tranche of money and head for the hills.
What’s the oddest thing that happened to you with money?
Once I was in a supermarket packed with Christmas shoppers. I had my mum in tow, who wasn’t well, and two of the kids who were young.
The woman in front of me, after she’d got everything out of her trolley and bagged it, discovered she didn’t have a nickel on her or a card. When I asked the checkout girl what the problem was she said: “This woman can’t pay.” I said: “How much is it?” She said £78. I said: “I’ll pay. There’s my address. Drop it round when you can.” Word went round that this lunatic was paying for someone’s shopping, but it wasn’t altruism. It was the easiest way to get us home.
I got home and was upstairs with the kids on bath duty that night when the doorbell goes. Downstairs, with my wife at my shoulder saying, “Who is it?”, there’s a guy stood there saying, “Is this him?” The woman I’d helped came into the light. When she’d got home and told her husband what happened, he’d decided it was some elaborate scam for me to lure a woman to my den of inequity. Although he now realised and was apologetic, beware your generosity!
What example are you setting for children by becoming a writer after leaving school at 15 with a D in O-level English language?
Do your own thing. I think we should question the entire set-up of education. The way schools are run is still based upon a model designed to suit the needs of a post-industrial revolution society.
Society would have to start again because you wouldn’t teach kids on the basis that they’re going out to perform jobs. You’d emphasise not material wealth but the wealth within.
In my D-stream there were kids as talented as myself who were crushed by that system. At the same time, to be fair to schools, we expect them to sort everything out while constantly devaluing teachers.
How have you protected your writing money?
I was very fortunate being taken on by the most formidable play agent in Britain at an early age, Peggy Ramsay, who negotiated fiercely on my behalf.
She said: “Darling, never be grateful. They’re buying it because you wrote it and if you don’t write it nobody else goes to work.” Another thing she instilled in me is that I’ve never sought a large advance. I take a very small advance and gamble on my work, and that means I can negotiate a higher royalty.
How did you find her?
I was shortlisted for a Radio Times-funded fellowship; I think £4,000, which to me would have meant so much. My wife was pregnant; I was trying to teach and write. Four of us were shortlisted. They said they’d decided on the winner and they were going to pay (I think) £500 to two outstanding candidates.
As my script was the only one that had been taken up for production I thought at least I’d get £500. Mine was the only name not announced! They brought in the drinks trolley, saying: “We didn’t give you anything because we know you’re going to make it.” I was so furious I trousered a bottle of Scotch and left.
As the lift doors closed this guy shouted: “My name’s Hugh Whitemore and I..!” I closed the lift. He followed me outside, saying: “It’s a travesty what happened. I want to take your script to Peggy Ramsay.”
The next day someone came into my classroom saying I had a phone call, and this woman on the phone said: “Hello darling, do you want some dough?!”
Willy Russell credits his agent, Peggy Ramsay, with helping him to value his work and manage his money wisely
Award winners: Mr Russell with Pauline Collins, star of Shirley Valentine, in 1988