‘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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Money -

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

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