Photo credit: Paul Cox Photography


Willy Russell’s career spans more than five decades; born in Liverpool in 1947, he left school at 15, became a women’s hairdresser, and part-time singer/songwriter performing on the folk scene, before returning to education and becoming a teacher.

Whilst at St Katharine’s College, Willy began writing drama and, in 1972, took a programme of three one-act plays to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where they were seen by  John McGrath. McGrath recommended Russell to the Liverpool Everyman who commissioned the adaptation, When The Reds…, which was Willy Russell’s first professional work for theatre.

Russell’s breakthrough work, commissioned by Liverpool Everyman, was John Paul George Ringo… and Bert which transferred to the West End winning ‘Best Musical’  – Evening Standard and London Theatre Critics Awards.

Alongside further stage works, Breezeblock Park (1975), One For The Road (1976), Stags and Hens (1978), Russell proved himself a gifted and accomplished screenwriter with television films, Death of A Young, Young Man, Daughters of Albion, Our Day Out and One Summer, all consolidating his reputation as a writer whose work could reach a wide audience without ever compromising the seriousness that lies at the heart of all his work.

Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Educating Rita is now a modern classic. Since its 1980 premiere and long West End run, the play has been translated and produced in almost every part of the globe, garnering awards both for its author and for many of the actors who have played the roles of Rita and Frank.

Returning to the Liverpool Everyman in 1986, Willy Russell created the iconic Shirley Valentine which went on to an acclaimed West End run, earning Olivier awards for both its author and star, Pauline Collins, before transferring to New York for a Broadway run and a Tony Best Actress award for Pauline Collins.  Like the earlier Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine became an international hit with productions being mounted throughout the world.

Both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine became enormously successful  feature films with Michael Caine, Julie Walters and Pauline Collins all winning Oscar Nominations for their respective roles, as did Russell for his Educating Rita screenplay.

Willy Russell’s other worldwide theatrical success has been Blood Brothers, ‘a Liverpudlian folk opera’. Blood Brothers (1983) won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and its 1987 revival saw over 10,000 consecutive performances during its 24-year West End run becoming one of the longest running musicals in West End history. Simultaneously, there were UK touring and major international productions, including a 2-year run on Broadway where Blood Brothers garnered a Drama Desk Award and multiple Tony nominations.

Originally a celebrated TV film, Willy Russell’s Our Day Out was first adapted for the stage in 1983 and rapidly went on to become one of the most widely produced plays of all time, its popularity still as strong as ever amongst professionals, amateurs, schools and youth theatres across the UK.

As well as writing for theatre and screen, Willy Russell published his critically acclaimed debut novel The Wrong Boy (2000), which was subsequently translated worldwide.

Returning to his singer/songwriter roots, in 2002/03 Russell wrote, recorded and co-produced the album Hoovering The Moon, also co-producing fellow playwright/songwriter Tim Firth’s album Harmless Flirting. Further collaboration between the pair resulted in a live concert tour which became known as The Singing Playwrights, a unique brew of song, music and spoken word, presented at Edinburgh during the 2004 Fringe Festival.

In 2010, Willy Russell developed Our Day Out The Musical with updated text, a new score and lyrics. Productions in 2010 and 2011 at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre drew huge audiences and rave reviews.

In 2013, Liverpool John Moores University established the Willy Russell Archive, an invaluable repository of Willy Russell’s papers, files, correspondence, manuscripts, contracts, photographs, posters and other material relating to the creation and production of the author’s work across all media  from 1964 to the present.

Major UK and international productions of Blood Brothers, Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita are staged every year. January 2023 was the 40th anniversary of Blood Brothers opening at The Liverpool Playhouse and the production of Shirley Valentine starring Sheridan Smith completed a sell out West End run in June 2023 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London.  It was nominated for two Olivier Awards – Best Revival and Best Actress for Sheridan Smith

For the last few years, Willy has been developing his skill as a painter, with his artwork being exhibited in Liverpool and London. He continues to explore the various forms of fine art and print making.

Willy Russell continues to be one of the most celebrated and widely produced writers of his generation with works regularly being produced throughout the world.