ESL – Educating Rita

19 August

Educating Rita

Willy Russell

This was born of desperation. It was 1979 and the RSC had asked me to write something for a season of experimental work. …

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I set aside four months, from September to December. The rehearsal period was one of the best I’ve ever had, but it must have been a nightmare for the actors. I was rewriting the ending right up to the wire.  The Press night was on the 19 August 1981.

I didn’t set out to write an autobiographical play, but the parallels between Rita and me seem glaring now. I was a ladies’ hairdresser. I left school with one O-level and went back to get the education I’d not had. It was in writing Educating Rita that I realised the power of political theatre with a small p. So many people, particularly women, have told me down the years that it was seeing this play that made them set about achieving their own education. I always say to them: “You would have done it anyway.”

I was terrified on opening night. Mark Kingston and I held hands backstage and took Valium. I identified with Rita the moment I read the play. I’d come from a working-class background and, in going to college to become an actor, had moved into a middle-class situation, so I understood all that. But rehearsals were challenging: I just didn’t feel I was finding her. By the time we opened, I still had no idea if the play was going to work.

I did remember being shocked when I said my first lines and people laughed. In the interval, the director rushed round shouting “Prima!” and kissing his fingers, Italian-style. So obviously there was a feeling that people loved it. Afterwards, we all crammed into the pub opposite the theatre and got drunk.

Rita was a great part for me. She attaches herself, to begin with, to all the superficialities of class: cheese, wine, all that. That kind of thing was unusual for me, too. I had a middle-class boyfriend in college and I remember going to his house, smelling freshly ground coffee and seeing his washing-up machine – this was before dishwashers – and thinking: “My God!” I too felt I was in a place where I could neither go back nor forward, neither working-class nor middle-class. The play voiced, I guess, an anger about lack of opportunity and privilege – and it said a lot about the choices women were suddenly enjoying. It was just a great woman’s voice.

Making the film was utterly different. I made Rita a bit rougher round the edges and toned my performance down. The director, Lewis Gilbert, wanted me but I’d never done a feature before, only a bit of telly, and they needed a star. There was talk of doing it with Paul Newman and Dolly Parton. But then Michael Caine came on board as Frank and I was in. I remember his wife saying: “You are very lucky it’s Michael.” She was thinking of other people of that ilk, who were starry and not that easy. But Michael was lovely, so generous to me.

Women have moved on since it was written. Today, they know they have choices but that was only dawning on people like Rita back then. But there’s still work to be done. The basic premise – that education means choice – still matters today, the world over. And not just for women, but for all of us.

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