Morrison, Bill (William McKay) (1940–2011), dramatist, was born on 22 January 1940 in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, the son of Hugh Morrison, principal of Ballymoney Model School, and his wife Annie (née McKay). Receiving primary education at Ballymoney Model, and secondary education locally at the Dalriada School, at age 11 he was inspired with a love of drama and Shakespeare after playing a moth in 'A midsummer night's dream'. While studying law at QUB (1958–62) – graduating with an honours degree – he acted amongst a literary cohort that included Stephen Rea, Simon Callow and Seamus Heaney (1939–2013). Morrison directed 'The way it had to be' (co-written with his QUB contemporary Stewart Parker (qv), with whom he founded the New Stage Club (1963)), which was premiered by QUB's drama society in March 1963. After spending some time in London (c.1964–5), he acted with the Ulster Theatre Company in regional theatre (1965–6), and in drama productions for the BBC's Northern Ireland radio service (1966–7). He was favourably reviewed, alongside T. P. McKenna (qv), in the Dublin premiere of 'Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?' at the Olympia Theatre (1966), and had a minor role in the film Sinful Davey (1969; dir. John Huston (qv)). With Michael Ruggins, Morrison adapted 'Love and a bottle' by George Farquhar (qv), his first professionally performed play, which premiered at the 1966 Dublin Theatre Festival.
Morrison became resident playwright (1969–71) at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, where his 1971 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles premiered (it was published by Macmillan Education in 1980). He was awarded a bursary from the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1971, and a Ford Foundation grant in 1972; the latter led to 'Patrick's Day', staged at the Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut, that summer. His play 'Conn and the conquerors of space', commissioned by the Sussex Youth Theatre, Brighton, combined science fiction and Irish mythology, and transferred to the Unicorn, London (1971), and the Peacock, Dublin (1977–8). Morrison was critical of the lack of support for writing for youth theatre, arguing it was too important to be left to market forces, which he claimed delivered little more than pantomime.
Having grown up on a diet of BBC radio, especially the Third Programme, Morrison wrote prolifically for radio, and imbibed the avant-garde and Mittel-European programming of Martin Esslin (head of BBC radio drama (1963–77)). Esslin commissioned Morrison as a writer and radio producer through the 1970s, and Morrison regarded him as his greatest professional influence. Notable works from this period were 'The love of Lady Margaret' (1971) and 'The great gun-running episode' (1974), a dramatisation of the landing of UVF arms at Larne in 1914. The musical radio play 'Ellen Cassidy' (1974) was his first major attempt to address the Northern Ireland troubles, and drew on songs by Terry Canning, set to poetic lyrics by Bill Nighy. Writing and presenting a radio documentary about Raymond Chandler (a writer he loved) presaged Morrison's adaptations of the complete Philip Marlowe novels for BBC Radio 4 (1977–8). Other BBC radio work included the autobiographical 'Simpson and son' (1978), a bleak family drama portraying Northern Ireland life as a domestic prison, and addressing his own paternal relationship. Although living in Great Britain, Morrison kept a close eye on events in Northern Ireland, and surrendered his British passport after 'Bloody Sunday' (30 January 1972), assuming Irish citizenship. An atheist, he was resistant to seeing the troubles as a 'tragedy', construing the situation instead as 'tragic', a deliberate creation of its participants.
Through the mid to late 1970s, Morrison worked with Willy Russell and Chris Bond at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, where he was resident dramatist (1977–9). At the same time, he was fellow in creative writing at the Liverpool College of Further Education, and a founding board member (1978) and chair (1979–89) of the Merseyside Young People's Theatre. His play 'Flying blind' (1977) was a black comedy about a Northern Ireland medical rep who tried to drown out the troubles by listening to Charlie Parker on headphones. It was his greatest critical and popular success to date, premiering at the Everyman (1977), before transferring to the Royal Court, London (1978), and was published by Faber & Faber in 1978, translated into six languages, and produced off Broadway (1979) and in nine other countries. Alan Bleasdale described it as 'one of the great plays of the twentieth century' (Telegraph, 8 December 2011).
Morrison was committed to bringing theatre to as wide an audience as possible. He collaborated with Stephen Rea and the Playzone Theatre Company in Belfast to produce 'Time on our hands', a community drama about urban deprivation and unemployment in Ulster, which toured Irish colleges and community halls in December 1978. His BBC radio play 'The spring of memory' (1978), documenting twelve hypnosis sessions he undertook with a psychotherapist, was indicative of his widening experimental bent; it won programme of the year at the Pye Radio Awards. The Chandleresque radio play 'Maguire', written for BBC Northern Ireland (1980), cemented his status as one of the great radio dramatists. Morrison maintained that radio allowed him to get 'inside a person's head' and do things that were not possible in other media (Guardian, 27 April 1979).
At the Liverpool Everyman, Morrison and Bond mentored emerging playwrights Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, and the four were appointed joint artistic directors of the Liverpool Playhouse in February 1981. Their intention to run a 'writers' theatre' saw them named the 'Gang of Four' by the press as Liverpool municipal politics were being dramatically radicalised. Morrison also commissioned radio drama for the independent Liverpool Radio City station from Beryl Bainbridge, Bleasdale, Russell and others. Morrison's 'Joggers', produced in conjunction with the Everyman, was filmed and broadcast by BBC television (1981), as was 'Potatohead blues' (1982), a domestic comedy set in Belfast.
Morrison and Chris Bond concentrated on management and administration, though both directed, produced and wrote for the Playhouse, while Bleasdale and Russell focused on writing and directing; Morrison became sole artistic director (1983–5). Their first production, Morrison's 'Scrap!' (1982), was set in a Liverpool nightclub in which Northern Irish paramilitaries faced wily Scousers as an English policeman attempted to solve the problems of Northern Ireland. Morrison commissioned and directed numerous plays for the Playhouse, including the musical 'Cavern of dreams' (1984), about Liverpool's famous music venue, which he co-wrote with the poet Carol Ann Duffy. He also nurtured the early careers of promising writers such as Jimmy McGovern, Anne Devlin and Debbie Horsfield. Running a 'writers' theatre' in a struggling regional economy proved daunting, but the Playhouse had many artistic triumphs during this period and staged the world premier of Russell's internationally successful musical 'Blood brothers' (1983). After his resignation in 1985, Morrison remained on the board until 1991.
Working for television, he produced notable dramas such as 'Shergar' (1986), based on the disappearance of the eponymous racehorse; 'The Guiseppe Conlon [(qv)] story' (1990); 'A safe house' (1990), examining the domestic life of the Maguire family amid their wrongful conviction for the 1974 Guilford pub bombings; and, with Chris Ryder, 'Force of duty' (1992), a police drama set in Ulster.
For the stage Morrison wrote 'A love song for Ulster', a trilogy produced in 1993 at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London, a multi-generational allegory covering the years 1922–93, and inspired by John Hume's observation that catholics and protestants, forced to live together, endured an 'arranged marriage'. Carrying through on the play's advocacy of the necessity for reconciliation, Morrison worked with youth theatres in Enniskillen and Warrington. His production of 'Stand by me' with the Warrington Youth Theatre (summer 1994) toured Northern Ireland later that year. 'Drive on', about facing the future from a contested past, was produced at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast (1996). In May 2006 Morrison presented 'Fringe' with the Keyhole Theatre Company, an offshoot of a drama course for ex-prisoners, at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool. His last play, the musical 'O'Brien's dream', about an Irish famine émigré in Liverpool, premiered there in 2009.
Morrison was a founding member and first chairman of the Theatre Writers' Union, which, together with the Writers' Guild, helped negotiate the first minimum-terms agreements for writers in British theatre. He was a key figure in the merger of the two bodies in 1997, and chaired the guild (2001–03). An innovative, energetic and immensely versatile writer, he revelled in collaboration across a range of media, and was a lifelong advocate of the power of drama to bind communities together. After a sudden illness, he died on 7 December 2011 at his Liverpool home.
Morrison married (1968) Valerie Lillie (b. 1939), a Northern Ireland actress who appeared in productions of many of his plays; they later divorced. He had a son and a daughter with Linda Sheridan, and was survived by his partner Ann Bates, a drama teacher with whom he collaborated in youth and community theatre.