The Open University is marking its 50th anniversary, so no surprise that the BBC screened a programme in celebration. Rather disappointing, though, that the programme made no mention of that popular play and film which was such a great advertisement for the OU, ie Educating Rita.
I first saw Willy Russell’s play during its first run in 1980 and on my first ever visit to London. Russell’s name meant little to me: what attracted me to Educating Rita was that it starred Julie Walters who I had liked in her first couple of TV plays by Victoria Wood . It was staged in the Warehouse, which was then the smaller of two London theatres run by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since 1992, it has been the ever-more starry and successful Donmar Warehouse.
I remember that in general I enjoyed Educating Rita, and its story of working-class Open University student Rita and middle-class middle-aged alcohol-soaked academic Frank. Clearly, many others shared my opinion because the play transferred to the West End and later toured the UK. In its original cast, Julie Walters was, at least to me, better known than the actor who played Frank, one Mark Kingston. In fact Kingston, although not a star, was an established theatre and TV name, and it’s perfectly possible that he was chosen to reduce the pressure on the new play and the younger actress. On other occasions, though, the person who played Frank was usually better-known than the one who played Rita. When I saw the play in Glasgow during its tour in 1982, Frank was played by Tom Baker, well-known from Doctor Who on television, while Kate Fitzgerald was Rita. And of course, in the film directed by Lewis Gilbert in 1983, although Julie Walter’s stock was rising fast enough that she was chosen to reprise her stage role, she had a far lower status than did Michael Caine. That practice has continued when the play has been revived in recent years.
The film was rated highly enough at the time of its release to earn three Oscar nominations. It certainly seemed to reinvigorate Michael Caine’s career into some more varied roles and eventually into two Oscars. The original play with its two characters and one set was “opened out”, to use the popular term, with additional characters and additional scenes.
One of Willy Russell’s jokes which I didn’t grasp the first time was where Frank asks Rita, “Do you know Yeats?” and she responds in puzzlement, “You mean the wine lodge?” At that time that chain of pubs was not known in Scotland. So my artistic appreciation was definitely enhanced a day or two later when, exploring further the centre of London, I saw a sign for – Yates Wine Lodge. Nevertheless I was surprised that the joke remained in the film script: would other audiences outside England not have been equally mystified? Especially when the film chose not to use what I feel is a better word-play joke with a wider reach – “an educated woman is the sort of woman who can tell the difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin”. Austin’s tennis playing career continued for ten more years after the film’s release, and she still appears on TV as a commentator and pundit.
There is one place where the film is immeasurably better than the play. Rita is a hairdresser, and the play ends with a scene of comic innuendo where she takes off her jacket as she says suggestively to Frank, “I’m going to take years off you!” – before revealing she plans only to cut his hair. In the film, this scene is the second last and the final one shows the neatly coiffured Frank revealing Rita’s successful examination results. A much more suitable conclusion to a drama about personal progress and empowerment through education.