English dramatist and screenwriter. His plays usually address social class divisions and are set in his native Liverpool. His best-known plays include Educating Rita (1979) and Shirley Valentine (1986), both of which were made into successful films. He also wrote the musical Blood Brothers (1983).
Many of Russell's works have gained international acclaim, particularly through their film adaptations. Stags and Hens (1978) was filmed under the title Dancin' thru' the Dark (1990). Educating Rita tells the story of a middle-class lecturer who encounters a working-class mature female student who challenges his presuppositions about life. This play was made into a film in 1981 starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters; the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Blood Brothers, a musical, is a Liverpudlian West Side Story, about twins who are separated and brought up in diverse social backgrounds. Shirley Valentine is a monologue given by a Liverpudlian woman having a mid-life crisis. The play won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy of the Year in 1989, and the film version, starring Pauline Collins, was also a critically acclaimed success.
Russell was born in Whiston and left school at 15 to become a ladies' hairdresser; he later returned to education as a mature student. He was raised on a housing estate, with strong working class values and surrounded by the matriarchal influences of a mother, aunts, and grandmothers. This may account for his ability to describe strong, dignified women such as Rita and Shirley and his use of key themes such as class divide, injustice, and mob culture in plays such as Blood Brothers and Terraces (1993).
His first professional production, held at the Everyman Theatre, was a musical about the Beatles entitled John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Bert (1974) for which he won the Evening Standard and London Theatre Critics' Award for Best Musical. Several plays were written in close succession and their television exposure confirmed Russell as a popular playwright. Other plays include Our Day Out (1976), The Daughters of Albion (1978), and Lies (1979).