Russell comes from a working class background. As an adolescent he was a hairdresser's apprentice and later ran his own salon. Only as an adult did his interest in learning grow, and he attended night classes specialising in drama. This is when he began writing plays.
His first success was a play about the Beatles. However, two of his plays became outstanding successes. One was Educating Rita, about a female hairdresser trying to get some education (semi-autobiographical); and a musical, Blood Brothers, for which Russell also composed the music.
Other plays by Russell include Breezeblock Park, Stags and Hens, One for the Road and Shirley Valentine, which was also turned into a successful film.