The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers is based upon the premise that the class you belong to will, to a large extent, determine your life chances.

Blood Brothers was first performed in a secondary school in Fazakerley, a suburb of Liverpool in 1982. It was a memorable first night, even though it took place on a November afternoon before an audience of 400 children. There were minimal props, a minimal set, no scenery, nor was there any music. Willy Russell recalls:

The Merseyside Young People's Theatre Company used to bring plays to the schools in order to give the kids an experience of theatre without any hidden or overt agenda and they asked me to write a play for them. I'd had the idea of Blood Brothers for years but had never got around to writing it so I took this chance. We had no trickery or theatre technology to hide behind. We had a good story and we had to tell it and grab the most difficult audience in the world. Kids like that believe that if you've been arrogant enough to stand up in front of them and perform a play it had better be good. If it isn't they’ll switch off.

From that beginning the play developed. It has been translated into at least ten languages and is performed regularly all over the world.

The story sounds as if it is a Greek myth but there is no existing story as far as I know about twins secretly parted who then end up killed on the day they learn the truth about themselves. It feels as if it's a story that's always existed and that's what I wanted to create. But in fact I was walking along one day and didn't have an idea of the story. Then I took the next step and I had it. It just came out of the blue. The whole story was there. It was one of those moments that make you want to put your hands together and thank whoever it is you believe in for sending it to you.

Years before Blood Brothers Willy Russell had performed as a singer-songwriter in clubs and pubs while he was working during the day as a ladies' hairdresser.

I left school with two things: English Language O-level and the conviction that I would never work in a factory. At the back of my mind was the notion that I could be a writer. The performing started one night in the Spinners Club where they used to have a floor spot for anyone to perform their own songs. Unbeknownst to me, my mate had put me down and the next thing I knew I was up on the stage singing a song I had written about the Kirby Estate. It was an out-of-the-body experience. On one level I could feel my knees knocking and on another level I could hear gales of laughter. So the comic song I had written was working. I loved it - not the fact that I had performed well but that the song I had written was a success. The next week I was there with seven more songs.

Willy Russell carried on like this for a number of years writing in the hairdressing shop when things were slack and gradually becoming aware of other influences. He read more widely and mixed with students until Annie, a student friend who later became his wife, suggested that he should take English Literature O-level. Willy realised that at one subject a year he would never make it so he left the hair dressing and spent a year studying for O-levels and A-levels so that he could go to college.

I really had no idea about student life. I just thought college was like school and then I found the students sitting on beautiful green lawns in summer and I couldn't believe young people could live like this. It's a life that allows you to stay younger longer and I wanted some of it. So I worked at it and made it.

Willy Russell is not a reticent person but he does not see why personal details about his life should be relevant to an understanding of his plays. He is, however, prepared to explore some of his early influences. Why, for example, should a man who grew up in working-class Liverpool, notorious as a male-dominated society, write so effectively about women who have the dignity, strength and resilience to fight off the sexism of a male-dominated society?

For one thing it is a dramatist's job to convince an audience and if I desire to write about Shirley Valentine or Rita or Mrs. Johnson it is my job to make it convincing. But I will be deluding myself if I thought it was only that. I have never wanted to write autobiography in my plays yet, when I look at Educating Rita I see that it is glaringly autobiographical. Maybe I chose to work through women because I want to get to the truth about myself rather than the facts of the matter. Remember I wrote Shirley Valentine when I was approaching forty. If you look at some of the things Shirley Valentine addresses they were the things I was concerned with. My head was going grey, certain joints were starting to ache and the ageing process was starting to bother me, but men don't have the language to discuss these matters and women do. Perhaps it was easy for me to tell about these things using a woman's voice. Having said all that, I think it cannot be denied that as a child I was deeply influenced by women. I was brought up on an estate of 350 houses that had been put up during war to house munitions workers. Both my aunts and my grandmother lived within 500 yards of my mother. And since all the men were on shift-work, the women - my mother, Dolly and Edna - would gather at my grandmother's and I would be there, playing unnoticed in the kitchen. I think that when you’re a toddler women tend to be unguarded. They will talk about things they don't think a four-year-old will take in. They’ll undress in front of a child and talk about intimate things that they would never mention to men. So it may well be that the woman's view of the world seeped into my pores from a very early age. And it could be significant that I was a ladies' hairdresser for six years.

Blood Brothers is based upon the premise that the class you belong to will, to a large extent, determine your life chances. Willy Russell accepts that belonging to the working-class does not inevitably lead to socialism - otherwise how do you explain working-class Tories or racists - but he is clear about the pressures on members of his class and the influence of his parents.

I was brought up as a member of the class whose members were treated like second-class citizens. I was aware from a very early age of the injustice of it. We were the ones who went into the mines and factories, who did the manual labour, whose sensitivities were blunted, whose intelligence was never acknowledged. I lived in an environment where we were told every day of our lives that we were thick, daft, stupid and unworthy. My father had been a miner and then worked for ICI. He was not a party member or a tub-thumping socialist but he was very firmly on the side of the underdog. He’d often bring home people who were not waifs and strays exactly but people who had suffered some kind of misfortune. My dad gravitated towards interesting talkers and he liked nothing better on a Saturday night than to have a heated discussion with three or four people on politics or religion. He was part of that socialist tradition. At eighteen he went to night school because he knew he'd never learned much at school and in fact he became a very good mathematician. Like many people in his generation his life would have been fantastically different if he’d been born into my generation or into a different class, which is what Blood Brothers is about. In his situation you knew that people of lesser intelligence, humanity and sensitivity would be controlling your life. My mother was slightly different. She had a great natural sympathy and aspirations. She like nice things, delicate things, which my father distrusted. She realised that refinement and taste had nothing to do with class whereas my father thought they were posh or bourgeois. Both my parents were passionately opposed to mob culture or mob thought. They could never stand unquestioning groups of people and I was brought up to see both sides of the question.

In 1969 Willy Russell left hairdressing to work for a year in the warehouse of a factory to raise money for college. Here he saw the class divide at its most pernicious. He worked a forty-hour week in a room with the windows painted black so that the workers would not be distracted. He recalls that every day, as the workers took a ten-minute break, the managing director and his associates would be served champagne in crystal glasses on a silver tray.

I didn't object to them having champagne, but I did object to the insensitivity of them having it served by waiters who walked past us every afternoon. And back in the factory we would treat each other brutally. The foreman, himself a member of the working class, behaved like an animal because he had a little bit of power, and he wanted to satisfy the people over there with the champagne. And we taunted each other in a vicious way. I thought I'd left animalistic behaviour behind me in the playground, but it was there lurking in us.

Willy Russell was not an aggressive child, but he liked rough and tumble in the playground and team games. He recalls only once playing with a gun when he was about four and even then he got into trouble because he'd 'robbed' it from the kid next door. In view of the many references to guns in Blood Brothers and the bloody fatal outcome it is interesting to note Willy Russell's attitude to toy guns. Could he be suggesting that Sammy's fascination with toy guns led in some way to his use of a real gun later on?

All right, there are a lot of guns in Blood Brothers, but they are only make-believe except for the gun Sammy brings in or the guns of the police at the end. And remember there is a fantasy where the whole thing escalates from a cowboy drawing a bead on a rival to a professor letting off an atom bomb. Personally, I detest guns and the dreadful things that people do with them. But that doesn't mean I believe children should be prevented from playing with them. I wouldn't deny children that right. I don't celebrate it or share their enjoyment, but I allow them the space to play in this way. I will go further and say that this mimetic acting out of aggression with symbolic weaponry has a beneficial effect on society. At least I would need hard evidence that banning toy guns would serve a useful purpose. I accept that children are capable of extreme violence and are potentially brutal, but it is how society deals with this that is crucial. I am just not convinced that banning toy guns will do anything towards curbing this aggression in children.

Willy Russell has used words like torture, agony, terror and sleepless nights when describing the writing process, but he is careful not to overdo what he sees as irrelevant to an audience. It is of no interest to them that he may have struggled to create an effect.

You do have sleepless nights, but you don't go on about it. In fact, there's nothing better when you put a play on the stage than for the audience to think that anybody could do it, that the process is effortless.

I work in a systematic way. When I’ve dropped off the children to school or college I go to the office, a Georgian house a little distance from the centre of Liverpool. Jane will make a cup of tea, and we will go over the outstanding phone calls and have a look through the mail. We deal with urgent letters, then I'll ask her to fillet all the phone calls, leaving only those from my immediate family or my agent, and then I go to the attic where I work, switch on the word processor and pick up where I left off the previous evening.

Sometimes I spend days without adding a new syllable and sometimes I'm re-doing previous work. If it's a good day I’ll work steadily until I have a break for lunch and then it's on till five or six o'clock. If there's nothing I need to do at home I go back upstairs and work till about ten and then I switch off. I never drink alcohol or listen to music when I'm working because I think both those things seduce you into thinking that the feelings engendered by the wine or music are present in your work. I will keep this routine up until I've finished a piece of work. This might last for six months, but once the work is done then I can relax and go on holiday. I get terribly frustrated if I have to take a break with something unfinished.

Blood Brothers evolved for about eight years before Willy Russell was ready to commit himself to it. Plays like Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita start with the character and the plot follows. But with Blood Brothers, the whole story was there, and the characters had to be invented to inhabit the story.

The story itself sent shivers up my spine so I worried about getting it wrong but, after the shortened version without music, I knew I was ready for the full-length musical version. I never deliver a script unless it’s complete and playable, I may then get heavily involved in rewriting, but I don't expect actors and directors to do my job for me. I always envisaged the children being played by adults. I'd seen plays by John McGrath and Peter Terson in the sixties, when 20-year-old men played five-year old boys with totally acceptable realism. And this was a long time before Dennis Potter used the technique so well in Blue Remembered Hills. I also wanted this to have a fairytale quality and to achieve this I gave the narrator the rhythms and patterns of the traditional ballads I had sung in the clubs. Bob Swash produced the play for the Liverpool Playhouse with Chris Bond, himself a writer, as director. Chris tended to be over-reverential with the text. He didn't want to cut anything so the play opened in Liverpool with fifteen minutes at the end of Act Two that I felt should be cut. It was dotting the i’s when the audience didn't need it. So after three months in Liverpool I took the scissors to that bit before it opened in London. I haven't rewritten anything since apart from a small change in the North American production to make a little point clear about what re-housing in council property means.

Willy Russell is clear that show business is a business and that he has a superb agent in Tom Erhardt.

These things have to be managed. There's a lot of tacky stuff that has to be dealt with to make the make-believe work. I feel very honoured and slightly awed by the success of Blood Brothers. It's a bit like that first song I sang in The Spinners. I'm delighted the audience accepts what I've written. I'm also, it must be said, slightly bored by the play. I get lots of invitations from directors who want me to see their production and although that is very flattering I'm conscious that I've watched the play thousands of times, so it is difficult for me to be captivated by it. The last time I saw it in New York I kept looking for flaws and ways to improve it. Then I thought - don't start trying to rewrite this one. It's fine. Leave it alone. Perhaps it's time to write another musical. I will do, if I'm walking along and another idea comes out of the blue into my head. Till then I will do plays without music, and keep on working at the novel, which is occupying me at the moment.

Meanwhile all over the world audiences are being asked the question:

And do we blame superstition for what came to pass? Or could it be what we, the English, have come to know as class?