NICHOLA GILROY: Singer and actress Toyah Willcox has enjoyed a hugely varied career. She's had 8 Top 40 singles, released 20 albums, written two books, appeared in more than 40 stage plays, ten films and presented various different TV shows. I managed to catch up with her and I started by asking her about her rebellious nature …
TOYAH: (On the phone) Well, we're looking back thirty forty years and the world was a very different world back then. There was none of the forms of communication we have now – everything was word of mouth and for me it felt, looking back, a lot more powerful than the word of mouth today because if we wanted to find something out we really had to go out into the world and find it.
And back then women were suppose to be incredibly feminine and if you didn't suit that ideal by birth, if you weren't tall and elegant and slim you just had it! You were invisible and no-one wanted to employ you - I mean it was tough. When I started working at the age of 17 I really had to make my mark. I did it the only way I could by exploiting my individuality and I've kept going ever since really.
NICHOLA: Yes, and inspiring many others in your wake I'm glad to say. But I didn't realise that you had such a difficult start with the disability that you had! I had absolutely no idea!
TOYAH: Well, the thing is I think a lot of children are born with pretty minor disabilities and you grow out of them and that's my case but I had problems with walking and talking and I was also severely dyslexic – I didn't learn to read until I was a bout 12. So my mother had a lot on her hands because back then only time would cure what I had. My mother had to give me physio twice a day, I had to have extra lessons to learn to read and I had to have elocution lessons.
And I think because of that I just became very rebellious because I was always having to learn and re-learn how to do something. I felt the natural person I was was being eradicated. So I really really rebelled against it all. I just felt they were trying to mold me into something I wasn't. In hindsight now I realise that everyone was just trying to help me but it made me just super rebellious.
NICHOLA: Obviously in that situation you were susceptible to bullying?
TOYAH: Ah! I mean all the time! It's funny, I'm watching Big Brother at the moment and it just reminds me of what it was like at school. Just permanent nastiness! Sadly if you're different you're treated differently. I don't have very happy memories of school at all and if anything it just toughened me up and made me very very independent.
NICHOLA: Well, I was going to say that … I mean I was reading in parts of your autobiography you were a loner – you felt very very alone but I mean out of that do you think that did help you on your career both in acting and the music you created and the videos that accompanied - they were so full of energy and colour. They were a joy both to listen but also to watch! Do you think that helped in that creativity?
TOYAH: It helps and hinders. I work a lot what I call ensemble work, I'm part of a team so if I'm acting I'm part of that team and being a loner isn't a very good thing then. And when I'm with my band I have to have empathy with my band so OK - in my personal life I'm a bit of loner but when it comes to work I very much appreciate the people I work with and how much I need them. So it's a bit of both really and as I've grown up and I've become more independent and my success has meant that I'm more independent I'm a lot happier. I'm just not very good at dancing to someone else's tune.
NICHOLA: But it seems like – even when the acting started, you were already somebody fixed that they didn't even know … does that make sense? Kind of in this boldness and how unique you were? They kind of went “have you heard of this girl from Birmingham? She would be brilliant for that!”
TOYAH: Absolutely but it was a different world back then and people needed people that were different. TV - you just had so much live drama being made and you actually had films being made for TV, it's so different now – we live in a such a corporate world. I think today people actually need what I call vanilla types – types that fit the mold even more which is ironic but back then I think everything was generally more exciting and people just took more of a gamble on the oddballs and I was definitely an oddball. But I just don't think the world today works that way.
NICHOLA: Do you think the punk era as well – it came at the right time for you?
TOYAH: Oh, yeah! I mean it was an revolution and an evolution. I think my generation just came to the world, we made things acceptable. We fought racism, we bought homophobia, we fought to give disabled people disability. We went for everything! I think punk was absolutely fantastic like that. You've got to remember punk embraced people who had minimum knowledge and I don't mean that insultingly or patronisingly but the whole ethos of punk was that if you knew three cords you had a career!
NICHOLA: (laughs) So where did – the music and the acting kind of … it was the acting first wasn't it for you?
TOYAH: Yeah, I left Birmingham when I was I think 18 and I joined the National Theatre. I was working with fabulous people – I was working with Warren Clark, Maximilian Schell, Kate Milligan, Elizabeth Spriggs and I was at the National Theatre for nine months and I met Derek Jarman while there and made a film called “Jubilee” which was a punk movie. So I just – in the first five years of my career I just got to meet and work with the most fantastic people! It was an incredibly exciting period in my life.
So yeah, the acting did come first but I always knew I wanted to act and sing so while at the National Theatre I started to develop my lyric writing skills and I started to meet young musicians and we put bands together and we went out and played pubs all over the UK. And back then you could play pubs and build a career, the pub circuit was incredibly exciting. It was the rock circuit and certainly all that's changed again with corporationalising. You know - you don't exactly go out and do a tour of Wetherspoons (Nicola laughs) but then there was so many outlets for live music.
NICOLA: So where did “Quadrophenia” come in because that was huge - is huge!
TOYAH: Well, it wasn't huge when it came out, it was critically panned. But I think it's a brilliant film and it's grown and grown and grown and every generation has seen it as a rite of passage. That came in – we filmed it in I think 1979 and it came out in 1980. By that time I was signed to a record label, I'd already made about five feature films and was quite established as a cult actress. At the time it was pretty hellish because there were so many of us in it – it was very hard to get heard and I just remember all of us were so ambitious. We all kind of wanted to be lead actors in this story.
It was quite an eye opener because up to that point I'd always been a lead actress and always the centre of attention and here we were in “Quadrophenia” - all major talents, all breaking as performers and Sting was in and he was about to become a worldwide mega star. So it was a very interesting time and the air was charged with electricity because there were many of us on one film with so much to say.
NICHOLA: Was it really competitive then?
TOYAH: I think it was very competitive. But also the film works because we captured what it was like to be in a young gang of people. People embarking on their future, going out into the world – that was the story of “Quadrophenia” and “Jimmy” and his rite of passage. In real life we were all doing the same.
NICHOLA: I watched an interview - I think it was with “Lorraine”, was it last year might've been?
TOYAH: Might've been about September or something?
NICHOLA: You were talking about working with Katherine Hepburn?
NICHOLA: When did you meet her?
TOYAH: I met her really early on, I was 19 when I met Katherine Hepburn. When I was in “Quadrophenia” I was 21 so I'd already got a lot of water under the bridge. I'd just finished working at the National Theatre and my agent managed to secure me an audition for a film called “The Corn Is Green” and Katherine just loved the fact I was so individual. She loved the fact that wasn't really scared of anything and I had a lot of bravado.
For her that fitted into the character I was playing, a young 14-year old woman called Bettie Watty (above) who became pregnant by a protégée (of Katherine's character). So I got the role and I adored Katherine Hepburn, she was really remarkable. In fact everyone I've met of legendary status have been great humans beings. I never met anyone who's a true star who hasn't been a remarkable person.
NICHOLA: You were saying in the interview - which I didn't realise, just how groundbreaking Katherine Hepburn was. She was the first to wear trousers?
TOYAH: Yeah. She was incredibly ground breaking. I don't think she intended to be a feminist, just a strong woman at the beginning of the Hollywood era. So she had to make her mark and she had to be ever present and she's quite unusual. She had an unusual voice, unusual face to the camera, incredible diction. Where Katherine made her mark – she was an astonishing comic actress. But she wanted wear trousers, she wanted strong roles.
If you watch her earlier films, it's all about the empowerment of women and women becoming on board, executives, leaders in their employment. All her films are about that – they're about leading ladies in the workplace. It just caused a furore! People just found her manly and they felt that a woman being a strong executive type wasn't being a woman but was being manly but she just lead the field for women to kind of come forward and have a voice in the workplace.
NICHOLA: It must've been absolutely incredible to have met her. Were you aware just – I mean were you a fan of hers when you went to that audition?
TOYAH: I knew who she was because I'd spent many a Saturday afternoon watching black and white movies with my dad back home. But I didn't realise what she's been through, to be where she was by the time I worked with her. I don't think until you go through it yourself you realise how hard these people work and how intelligent they are to be where they are. I mean Katherine didn't get where she was because she was super glamorous and wore the latest clothes. She got where she was because she had a brain and she had conviction. You don't realise that until you've been there yourself.
NICHOLA: So you're coming to Butlins for the 80's weekend?
NICHOLA: What can be expect from you, Toyah? I suppose all the classics - “It's A Mystery” and -
TOYAH: Well, the whole thing about the 80's weekend at any Butlins is that you get the classics. People are there because they want to dress up like their 80's icons, they want to hear the hits and have fun. So I'm part of the roster of many many names and it's going to be a fun lively weekend. With my show - we are a rock band, we do all the hits : “Thunder In The Mountains”, “Good Morning Universe”, “Brave New World”, “It's A Mystery”, “I Want To Be Free” - I mean I'm on for an hour and I only do my singles. I do at least 15 singles. It's lively. And then after Butlins I come back and do the Yardbirds in Grimsby on …
NICHOLA: Is that March?
TOYAH: 6th of March, yes! So I'm going to be in the area a lot of this half of the year.
NICHOLA: Fantastic. Do you enjoy singing the greats from the 80's and dressing up and ... ?
TOYAH: Yeah, I do. I don't dress up as much as I used to because I'm 56 and I just thought it would look ridiculous (Nichola laughs) but I do enjoy it. The audience brings something new every time you perform a song and I always say to the audience “this song isn't about me – it's about you. It's what it means to you”. So I love it. I've never felt trapped by my history at all - I'm very grateful for it.
NICHOLA: What's the reaction?
TOYAH: Mad! I mean Skegness you can have 6000 people. It's utterly mad. It's the only time really that I have to have security because it's that lively. Yardbirds in Grimsby will be a lot tamer! (laughs) Butlins is a success, it's a success story. They get these weekends right, people have a fantastic time. They're safe and looked after and they get a great show.
NICHOLA: It's incredible really that the only time Toyah needs security is when she comes to Skegness! (laughs) Who knew you (people of Skegness) were that rowdy!