William Russell shared many similarities to his most famous character, Rita. He was born in 1947 to a working class family in Merseyside. He was not academically talented at school, coming away at the age of fifteen with a solitary O-level.
He initially went on to follow Rita's choice of career - a women's hairdresser - at the suggestion of his mother. Unfortunately, unlike Rita, he turned out to be abysmal at that job, preferring instead to sit in the back room writing away. At first, he wrote entertaining songs to amuse himself, one of which ("Kirkby Estate") he was persuaded to sing at a pub.
During adulthood he furthered his interest by going to night-school and learning the intricacies of drama. Here, he started writing stage plays. Educating Rita was inspired by Willy's own return to education. Much of the comedy arises from her unschooled reaction to the classics of English Literature with such honest exclamations as: "Howard's End by Mr E.M Forster, is one really crap book!".
His first play was "Keep your eyes down" which he finished in 1972. It premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As a result of that, he was put in touch with the Everyman Theatre Company. This eventually led to the writing of his first major hit - "John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert", a play about the Beatles, which got taken to the West End. This allowed him work full-time as a playwright.
During his time writing, Willy has had several huge successes which are frequently performed worldwide to this day to critically acclaimed success. Perhaps the most famous production is Educating Rita, the play about the relationship between a working class woman and her bored alcoholic tutor, which The Company will be performing in Sheffield between 11th and 14th October 2006. Other than Educating Rita, Willy is best known for a musical called Blood Brothers (about a single mother who, in financial desperation, feels forced to give one of her sons away) and Shirley Valentine (which, like Educating Rita has a female scouse protagonist).
It is clear that Willy Russell likes to write on a theme. Much of his writing has focussed on women and the effects of societal class. It has been proposed that this is a result of his own experience, having been brought up by his female relatives and his transition from an unacademic unambitious working-class youth to one of the UK's most renowned playwrights.