Educating Rita by Willy Russell

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BBC Radio 4 Extra, 9 November 2013
First performed in 1980, Willy Russell's Pygmalionesque tale of Rita (aka Susan) and her Open University tutor Frank has been performed all over the world, as well as being successfully filmed with Julie Walters - who originated the part on stage - and Michael Caine.
In Kirsty Williams' radio production from 2009 Laura dos Santos came across as a feisty Rita - someone with an insatiable desire for knowledge for its own sake as a way of escaping her humble social origins and her sterile marriage to Denny. To pursue an OU course in English Literature seemed like the best way to do this; not only does she read canonical texts, but she learned how to debate their merits with her fellow-students, as well as undergraduates studying at Frank's university. Eventually she became well-versed in the ways of literary, passed the exam and returned delightedly to Frank's office to inform him of the news. Although she learns that literature is not the be-all and end-all of life, her experience of the course has given her the power to make choices - something she never had while working as a hair stylist and going down the pub each night with her husband and family.
In Bill Nighy's performance Frank came across as a sardonic person (Nighy is very good at this - witness his Archie Rice in The Entertainer) who, although starting out as a would-be poet and critic, has long since sacrificed his aspirations for the whisky-bottle (cunningly concealed behind the D-section on his office bookshelves). However this proves nothing more than a facade: Frank adopts this pose because he is too frightened to engage with life - more precisely, to acknowledge that success and failure should be approached on equal terms. If nothing else, Rita/Susan helped him overcome his stand-offishness and go out and fight once again - symbolized by his willingness to have a haircut and thereby look less down-at-heel.
And yet as I listened to this entertaining two-hander, I couldn't help feeling how its sentiments were redolent of the early 1980s - a time when universities allowed their staff to indulge themselves, and the idea of the dilettante-academic was still highly popular. Educating Rita portrays academics as emotionally and professionally inadequate, possessing minimal abilities to teach and even less research skill. However in these days of RAE (Research Assessment Exercises), these people are a dying breed; they have either been fired or given early retirement. More importantly, English Literature have had to rethink their missions; studying literature for its own sake is not sufficient justification for keeping them open. Learners have to acquire real-world skills while studying classic texts - a task which still proves difficult for many academics. Educating Rita is certainly amusing, but maybe a period-piece, even though it is only thirty years old.