BBC RADIO 4
“LIVING OUT LOUD”
BBC RADIO 4
“LIVING OUT LOUD”
SONG: “I Want To Be Free”
HOST: Toyah Willcox burst into the punk scene all orange hair and outrageous make-up at the end of the 70’s but unlike many of her rebellious contemporaries she’s proved to have considerable staying power. One shrewd career move after another she has moved effortlessly from pop to film to stage, TV presenting - often all at the same time.
Toyah was born in posh Birmingham suburb. Her father owned three factories and fell for her mother, a beautiful dancer with “Flanagan and Allen” after seeing her on stage in Weston-super-Mare. They sent their daughter to a private girls school where she was noted for absence from the class room and setting of a series of alarm clocks during a speech by a visiting MP, one Margaret Thatcher.
Leaving with one decent O level in music Toyah was determined to make her mark as a singer and an actor. Well since then she’s had 13 Top 40 singles and worked with the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier and Derek Jarman. Most recently she’s was at the Edinburgh Festival with "Picasso’s Women”. But perhaps the most famous lines she’s ever uttered are : “Over the hills and far away, Teletubbies come to play.”
Now at the age of 42 Toyah’s written her autobiography “Living Out Loud” and she joins me. Toyah, 42 and writing your life story. It’s a bit soon isn’t?
TOYAH: I know, I do have another 40 years actually but I’m glad I did because I’d have forgotten if I was to write it at 80, I wouldn’t have the memories. And the time was right. It’s extraordinary when asked to do something, apart from the flattery, if the time isn’t right, the energy doesn’t flow. And I was asked a year ago to write this and I sat down and couldn’t stop writing for a year. Memories came back to me I’ve never even thought about. Memories of my mother putting my nappy on -
HOST: I can’t believe you remember having a nappy change!
TOYAH: I remember it so clearly because of the size of the safety pin! And how I could control my mother by controlling my bowels or by not controlling them as soon as that nappy went on.
HOST: I mean the impression I got was that you have packed an enormous amount into those 42 years and the bit that we just heard there, y’know the songs from the punk period - what do you think when you hear that now? Is that like another person?
TOYAH: It’s totally another person, it’s another time, another culture. I was playing some music to a friend the other day and I don’t often do this and he said “Gosh it’s very dramatic isn’t it?” And it was back then, the punk era and going into the New Romantic movement it was very melodramatic. High drama, high expression. Almost Brechtian taken from that sort of German culture of extremism and it’s another person because I just wouldn’t do that now.
HOST: But the anger that was there in the punk movement. I personally think you were one of the more polite punks at the time - you didn’t seem quite as threatening as the others. But some of that anger and in the book you say you are an angry person, you would be lost without-
TOYAH: Oh anger’s so important, as long as the anger doesn’t control you. I just didn’t think you could be creative without anger. Passivity and happiness, probably the worst things a creative person could have. Conflict is bliss. I hate to say. I mean it does keep you awake at night but it does earn you an income.
HOST: But the way you describe your childhood it sounds like you had a lot to be angry about because you has a lisp, you were dyslexic at school, you had a slight disability although you say it wasn’t until you started school that you realised -
TOYAH: I was not aware of my disability till I started school-
HOST: Which was ... one leg was -
TOYAH:Yeah I’ve got one longer than the other so as a child I had quite a bad limp and I had twisted spine as well. But it wasn’t till I got to school I realised I had a lisp and children are quick to point that out. They create a pecking order and I went straight to the bottom of that pecking order.
HOST: Was it a miserable time?
TOYAH: Psychologically it was a very difficult time, I had a lot to work out. They say the building blocks of your life happen from the day you’re born till your about five. There was a lot to make me angry in that period. But it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be who I am today so I’m very grateful for all that bullying because it just made me tough.
HOST: You also say that your parents were over protective and say their attitude left you lacking in confidence. But just listening to the description of yourself, it sounded like the NEEDED to protect you?
TOYAH: Yes, they didn’t let me go out much at night, ummm, and this is warning to all parents: how far to do take that protection? If you stop a child being confident and independent - so that happened with me a lot. There was an episode where someone tried to abduct my sister, a man, and they just would not let me out of their sight after that happened. Which is understandable but I was still being kept in at the age of 14. And I think people have to spread their wings, they have to make mistakes, they have to learn by those mistakes. You can’t do that in your bedroom.
HOST: And you did have huge battle with your mother which you go into in the book. And the two of you were often sparring with each other but if you look at her life and the way you describe it: she gave up this successful career, she was married terribly young - what 19?
HOST: And she ended up with three kids in the suburbs.
HOST: - but still managed to drive around in a pink Triumph convertible (laughs) with leopard skin seats. Do you think she must’ve been kicking the walls sometimes with frustration?
TOYAH: Totally! Totally. But I think also that - I say in the book I sipped her frustrations while I was in the womb. My mother is a wonderful mother, she’s the one that taught me how to walk, she was one that was trained to give me the physio therapy to straighten my own spine so twice a day we would go through this routine. So she was disciplinarian in my life from a very - well right from when I can remember. So it was natural she was the first person I should rebel against. And I regret that our relationship was very often violent. Very uncivil, very cruel and unkind -
HOST: What’s it like now?
TOYAH: It’s good, it’s good now. I mean we learned to compromise with each other. We’re still opposites, we’re still polarised but I would go to war to protect my parents. I have such love and loyalty towards them that that incompatibility has nothing to do with it, the bond is beyond that. And I feel very strongly towards my mum that she sacrificed everything to give me the freedom I have today.
HOST: Now you also talk a lot about your battles with your weight, this pressure on you. In fact you starved yourself and you popped pills to try to conform to the ideal body -
HOST: But I remember seeing you play “Trafford Tanzi” on stage and you were very small, very muscular and strong and it was such a joy to see another body shape for women. Did you actually feel confident at the time or did you still feel you had to be thinner?
TOYAH: At the time of “Trafford Tanzi” I felt great because that show was like doing a 4 hour workout every day. I felt fantastic during that show but I am a muscular person by nature and I still tend to starve myself because I - there’s a difference between anorexic starvation and not over eating. If you over eat you’re encouraging the body to age quicker and you just not suppose to over eat. I’ve had to learn over the years to only eat enough to stop feeling hungry.
HOST: It’s denial?
TOYAH: Well it is slightly but I do think as a society we gorge ourselves. But back in the rock days I would starve myself, I mean it was wrong. I would go without food for three days and that’s ludicrous. The pressure was to be a young sexual creature. How many overweight people get to the top the chart? They just don’t.
TOYAH: Well women especially, yes.
HOST: One of the nice episodes in the book you talk about is the unlikely friendship you struck up with Katherine Hepburn when you were working on one of your very first film roles “The Corn Is Green”
HOST: That seemed an unlikely partnership?
TOYAH: It was … well it was her brilliant agent that managed to convince the casting director that I had to be seen for this film and Katherine said she fell in love with me as soon I walked into the room. She loved my eyes, she said they were full of fire. She explained to be while we were filming that she was ridiculed so badly for being different in the beginning of her career. She said she looked and sounded like a man, she was masculine, she had no grace and ironically that is what we remember and love her for. And she had a terrible time with the critics and someone asked what’s the best thing Katherine could be remembered for and I’d say she proved her critics wrong. Stunning woman. A true feminist in every way.
HOST: You’ve taken some tough decisions in your career and in your life and one of them you talk about openly in the book is the decision not to have children. The fact that you said there was pressure on you but you had no maternal instincts whatsoever and in fact you were sterilised while still in your twenties. Is that a decision you’ve ever had any regrets about?
TOYAH: No. The morning I woke up from the operation I was in tears, I felt I’d interfered with my femininity but since then no. You don’t have a child just because a woman, you have a child because you have calling and I did not want to be put in a position of terminating a birth when I felt so strongly that actually psychologically being pregnant would damage me . It was something that I really really thought about and I perhaps suffered for six weeks after but since then it's been a liberation.
HOST: And briefly y’know 42, middle-aged (laughs) you call yourself -
TOYAH: Am I middle aged? I’m going to live to a hundred, I’m approaching middle age!
HOST: Well we look forward to the next 40 years. Toyah, thank you very much for joining us and that biography, “Living Out Loud" is published today.”
You can also listen to the interview HERE