ALICE: I'm Alice Lowe. I'm a writer, actor, director and I'm going to meet Toyah Willcox. Toyah is someone who I feel has always been there. I remember singing her song “It's A Mystery" in the playground and as I got older I followed her career and was astonished at someone who managed to be so creative and inventive in several different fields. So she's always held a massive fascination for me, and now I'm going to meet her.

ALICE: (talking about theatre) When I go to see something when nothing really happens, I'm like . . . I can't give up an evening for this. I need some spectacles.

TOYAH: I always hit the theatres that have the most fantastic sets. Because I just want that rush when it starts changing shape.

ALICE: I feel that a lot of my work comes from the power of the individual. It's about one person and their kind of struggle to assert their individual power or beliefs or will. That's what astonishes me about your career. How you sort of went "Oh, I've got to get myself into a band" and it was like that just happened and you must have had such clarity of focus?

TOYAH: The first five years of my career was as if my guardian angel’s in the room with me the whole time. Just blessing after blessing, it was extraordinary. I knew I had to get out of Birmingham at that particular time, which is where I was born and get to London, which is where you had to be to make things happen at that particular time.

I followed David Bowie so religiously, who was around in the 70’s obviously, which is when I was a teenager and I observed how he changed. He was a chameleon and I saw that as a really ideal way of reinventing myself. I didn't like who and what I was. I didn't feel that I was born as a particular beauty where beauty would get me through the open door. I knew I had obstacles and I also realised I had to be different, so I made myself different.

But I think the irony there is I actually was different. It was going to happen anyway. I got spotted walking down the street in Birmingham when I was at drama school. That ended up me being auditioned for half an hour play on BBC Two. I got the job. Then that was watched by Kate Nelligan and Maximilian Schell on TV when it went out on BBC Two. I was invited to join the National Theatre where Maximilian Schell was making his directorial debut. And that led to me forming the band. It was just a chain reaction.

ALICE: But you're talking about it almost like it happened by itself. It had to be something coming out of you that people saw that they just knew that you were right for the part or that you had this focus about you?

TOYAH: No one had any faith I was capable of doing anything. I was not academic at school. I didn't fit in at school. I didn't want to be there. I did not feel I belonged in my family or at the school. I felt completely different generational attitudes, so everything I did I kind of did to prove myself I could do it. But also to prove to others I could do it.

Every success I had took everyone by surprise and no one ever gave me any encouragement whatsoever. No encouragement, no support. (Alice laughs) They just wanted to know how much was I earning. It was as simple as that.

ALICE: Well, I think I have a slightly similar thing because I think my mum and dad would have liked it if I'd been an RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) actress. To me it's incredibly freeing when you do something in your own way, and it’s successful and people are like . . .  "oh . . . ".

I remember at school playing badminton and I was quite good at badminton and I won a little mini tournament and then the sports teacher came to me and sort of went “you holding the racket all wrong. You need to do it like this”. Suddenly I was rubbish at badminton and they took that away from me!

Your way works.

ALICE: I don't know why it works, it's not the right way.

Also I believe our instinctive voice, that very first voice that comes into your head, is the one that's right. Especially when I'm writing a song or I'm approaching the scene. The first voice in my head is the right choice, and if you over intellectualise or even over introduce technique into something - you've taken away your ability to play the badminton, as it were

Yeah. I don't know why it works or why it doesn't work. It's like if you say "pull it apart" . . . I can't put it back together again. Sometimes I'm in the middle of rewrites now and it is a constant negotiation because when you do rewrites it is a cerebral task. You are fixing stuff that doesn't work. Whereas the writing of it initially is an instinctive thing, and so it's a constant negotiation of how not to kill that beautiful little flower that blossomed but still have it working as a script. So I always find that really painful, the rewrites, because I never quite know whether I'm throwing the baby out with the bath water . . .

When I'm writing, mainly songs, I have to dance and if the track doesn't make me dance or cry, I know I'm not in the right area.

ALICE: That’s interesting, yeah …

Sometimes I cry out of the pure joy of discovering something. And you start to kind of have an adrenaline rush, but if I can dance then . . . I don't know . . . The lyrics are more interesting that come from movement.

ALICE: Similarly, when I'm writing screenplays, I listen to music. Then if I feel I've lost a bit of the soul of the meaning of the script, I go back to the song I need for that scene and that helps me to access that emotion

That’s fantastic. I’ve never thought of doing that.

It helps me to write in a more intuitive way. Actually reminds me of a clip that I watched with you and Sir Laurence Olivier (below with Toyah) and what I thought was amazing is obviously he is incredibly charismatic, but when you spoke you had this freshness to you that was so real that you were like a real person meeting the actor Laurence Olivier. And I like naive fresh performances. Is that something that you had a grip on even at that age?

TOYAH: It's what I had when I worked with Olivier on the “Ebony Tower”. I've just come out of a London run of “Trafford Tanzi”, which was a huge critical and commercial success. It kept the Mermaid Theatre open for six months, and the nature of that performance was very northern theatre. Very real, very gritty, just throwing lines, throwing improvisations.

And then I go into the “Ebony Tower”. Written by John Fowles, which is quite a sturdy script. With Olivier - who was very poorly at the time, he was only about four years away from passing away when I worked with him - but utterly adorable and totally committed.

He was only allowed to work three hours a day, which meant that our work with him was very focused. We would rehearse on camera without him being there, and then we'd bring him in. So a lot of that pace was the pace of Olivier, where he was at that time in his life, but also the pace of an actor who had always savoured every line as an actor.

And here I was a kind of performer that's always been thrown in the deep end and was waving not drowning. So it was like a meeting of two different energies. And I think my freshness with him was not wanting to overstep the mark

ALICE: And you actually said something in an interview with Terry Wogan or somebody, they said “what did you learn from him?” and you said, “well, I didn't really learn from him because we're both from completely different schools of acting”.

TOYAH: I couldn't learn anything of him, but what I did learn is that spirit of adventure never dies. He was the same spirit that he was when he was forming the National Theatre or starring in “Hamlet” as he was as a dying man. That spirit was just as vital and just as powerful, the flame was just as bright and that kind of taught me never to give up and never to stop pushing against the resistance you constantly feel when you want to be different.

ALICE: I remember in the playground people singing “It’s A Mystery” and doing impressions. You've just been there my whole life basically. And it was only later, maybe when I was a teenager, and when mum and dad said “you should watch this Derek Jarman thing”.

TOYAH: Oh, cool!

ALICE: And then I’m like how is this person the same person?! They’ve done this and they've done this and I think probably you're one of those people that for me made me go it is possible to invent yourself. He must have been a mentor figure for you, Derek Jarman, because you worked with him on more than one occasion?

TOYAH: He was great. I didn't know what I was dealing with. I was a complete innocent. I was 18 years old at the National Theatre. Ian Charleson was in another production. Lovely man and he grabbed my hand one day and he said "you have to meet this friend of mine, Derek Jarman. You've got a lot in common".

So we went along to Derek Jarman's flat to have tea. And Jarman just pointed to a script, which at the time I think was called “Down With The Queen” and he said “this is a film I’m making. Choose a part” and it's about a girl gang who rape and murder men and it's a punk movie. The first ever punk movie to be ever made. So I looked through the script and was instantly attracted to “Mad”, the pyromaniac. And he said “yeah, the role is yours”.

I almost didn't get to make the film because Derek had the budget cut a few weeks later and he had to lose characters and he was going to cut “Mad” out of the story. He realised when he told me this that I was just broken, I was so looking forward to doing this but he forsook his fee so that I could go back in the film. It was the first movie I ever made and it is influential and it's a bonkers film.

It's a collage of madness and now, today, 40 years on, it's quite interesting taking something that was my very first movie into the theatre. I’m are not playing “Mad” obviously. I'm playing Queen Elizabeth I (below), who is transported into the present day to see the results and the consequences of her law.

And here I am, this grand old woman playing Elizabeth I in the punk play with the most fantastic, brilliant activist actors and again, I'm finding myself being re-educated into the present. And it's a pattern I found all my life that my best work has come out of having to learn everything I thought I knew. To relearn and learn again with a new attitude.

ALICE: You actually have to never really just go “you can have a glass of champagne, maybe at the premiere. Back to work” (laughs)

TOYAH: Yes, there’s always a price to pay.

ALICE: This is why I'm here Toyah, to ask your advice. How do you juggle these things?

TOYAH: You've got a child. How old is your . . . ?


TOYAH: So the dreadful two’s . . . You cannot give yourself any time at this moment, but it's possible you put away that extra hour in the morning if you can bear it. If you've had a good night sleep and you make sure you do 1000 – 3000 thousand words a day. Here am I telling you what to do - I have exactly the same problem as you.

It’s interesting. It’s that thing isn't it, because I had a friend recently ask “how do I write with a baby?” and I said “Della has a 2 hour nap in the afternoon and that's how I've got my screenplay done” and I had so many people going “you've written a screenplay in two hours in an afternoon?!" I was like “well, it's all I've got!” When else am I going to do it? I mean to me work isn't work to me. It's just me. I'm happy when I'm making stuff. But I think people find that stranger from a woman than they would from a man sometimes.

TOYAH: Why do you think that is?

ALICE: I don't know. Is it just gender? I think it's interesting that people often say “do you love your work?” or whatever, and you wouldn't be asked that question if you're a man. The other thing that people can easily think is that it's a vanity project for you if you're a woman. That somehow you want more attention for yourself

I find that extraordinary that people think you do what you do for attention. It's a vocabulary. It's a language. It's a need. My husband and I - he's a musician so we have a lot in common. We think like creatives, and when we're not allowed to be part of that process, we feel as though we're dying inside

And I think any creative differences that I've had in the past is because people have not understood that that's the way that I feel, where they're like “why are you giving an opinion about this? Why do you care about this? Are you worried about your hair? Are you worried about this? Are you worried about that?” and you go I just care about the word. I'm like you. You know how you want this to be good? I also want it to be good and it's quite incredible how people can misplace your agenda. And I do think that it would be very unusual for someone to say to your husband “why do you play the guitar? Do you like the attention?”

TOYAH: It just wouldn't happen.

ALICE: "What do you want from it? Is it because you want fame?"

TOYAH: I find it quite extraordinary and it fascinates me because what I specialise is ideas. But I want those ideas to have a life, they're nothing to do with me needing attention or being needy or expectation that I'm going to be glorified and awarded for it. It's the way I live. I have an idea. Therefore, I believe that idea has a place somewhere in this world.

ALICE: I think we are similar in that I have ideas and they torture me at night and I don't know how I'm going to make the idea because it might be an opera. I'm not an opera singer and or an opera director but you know what I mean? I suddenly have this idea and I have to find an outlet for it. Do you feel like you're torn about how to express that idea? How do you get it out there? What medium are you going to use? Because you do so many different things

TOYAH: Well, initially I'm torn because of lack of technical ability. I’m very instinctive. I'm dyslexic, but my ideas are very clear and very sharp and I surround myself with people who understand what I'm trying to say. It is frustrating, but I have limitations and I think one of the reasons I do so much as I work within my limitations. I can only go so far as a musician.

I'd love to go further as an actress, but I think part of my problem as an actress - and they’re good problems to have because I'm doing at least five movies a year and “Jubilee” the stage play at the moment - is I’m very small. (Alice laughs) I have a very distinct sound and I have a very distinct energy which is related to Toyah and that limits how people -

ALICE: I think it limits you, but it's a good limit. As you say, you can't do everything. I had that when I was younger “why am I not getting more roles and stuff?” And then I realised actually I'm a niche. I'm a character actress so the roles I get are the ones that are right for me and again that some of the actors that I admire, someone like Bill Murray or Donald Sutherland . . .  they're always themselves.

The older I've got I've sort of gone actually, it's important to give yourself as an actor. You might be playing lots of different roles, wearing lots of different wigs or whatever but essentially, it's a generous act to give yourself and the more you give yourself the more it touches the audience and the more powerful it is, and that vulnerability is key really

TOYAH: That's a unique thing about film though, isn't it, it knows that truth?

ALICE: Yeah, the camera is very sensitive, so it's going to pick up anything. And I think this is when I realised that I was going to go more into film acting as well. My facial expressions are very tiny, but sometimes people say “you're dead pan”. I find that I am but I am doing stuff as well.

TOYAH: You don't want an animated face like my mine. Mine’s pogoing all over the screen (Alice laughs) 

ALICE: I also think this is another thing with men and women as well. We're used to seeing women like emotional geysers so the value that we give to screen sometimes is like “she’s going to cry!”. It's going to be brilliant. That's the money shot. We need tears from this woman. She's going to pull faces and look upset.”

And then you've got Clint Eastwood just twitching his eye. And apparently that's an amazing performance, you know? Well, it is, but there is room for women to internalise everything, everything they're feeling, everything they're trying to hide, which is actually what most people are doing in their day to day life all the time. We want to hide our emotions and our feelings.

TOYAH: About eight years ago I was cast as Billy Piper's mother in “Diary Of A Call Girl” and I'm used to bravado acting. Billie Piper on camera gives very little when you're in the room with her. And yet she is telling you everything you need to know when you see it on camera and that is something I am desperate to learn. Out of every performer I've ever worked with she's the one person that could teach me something. And it was how to take it right down. Internalise it but allow the audience to see enough.

There are people that can do that. I've worked with a lot of men where you just say “are they doing anything at all? Are they doing anything?" You see them on screen and you’re like . . . oh my God - they’re a genius (laughs)

TOYAH: I did “Cluedo” (1990) (below, Toyah with co-star Kate O'Mara) with Sean Pertwee and (in a nasal 50’s movie voice) there I was acting away being this tart Miss Scarlett and Sean was giving me nothing back and when I saw the edited version he was fabulous! Charismatic! Brilliant.

ALICE: But some people they know when their close-up is basically technically . . . “I’m going to do it at this level and then I know this is where I’m going to really deliver”. I think I'm guilty of that myself because I get scared. I'm going to be one of those people and say that. I can be quite shy. I can be a complete mixture. I can be like, yeah, I'm really confident! And then the next minute . . . oh no, I'm scared. I don’t want to do it. I’m gone.

So sometimes, like in the rehearsal, I am holding back. I remember a director in a comedy saying to me after we shot this scene “that’s the best you've ever done it" and I was a bit like “well, I wasn't going to do it the best I've ever done in rehearsal”.

I totally agree

ALICE: For me, and when it's an organic thing, you know someone like Sir Laurence Olivier, I think because of his training in theatre and also the way that film stock was, you had to be spot on with every single take. I'm not like that. I don't know what I'm going to really do and that's the joy of working with digital as you can just do it in 20 different ways. That's going to come out and just film it, and if it's awful, it doesn't matter. We'll go again. If it's really scary and weird, that might be the tape, but I might not be able to do that again.

TOYAH: I agree. And also talking about improvisation because it's something very important when creating new songs. When I've hit something, I've hit the right note, I've hit the right theme - you go into a state of superconsciousness and you feel that's why I'm born. That's why I'm here because it's a level of consciousness you can't get in the normal daily day routine.

And some songs can take weeks to finish, but the ones that have the most success take two minutes to write. And you're just in this state and you don't know where the energy is coming from and you're so alert. If you were being chased by a bear, you'd outrun the bear because of the energy. You're going to explode!

ALICE: (laughs) Just fly through the air.

TOYAH: Yeah!

ALICE: I know exactly what you mean. I kind of think that's what happened with “Prevenge” (film, 2016) that I was in the middle of. To me it was a really strange experience which was pregnancy - 

TOYAH: Probably not the best time to make a film!

You say that, but actually I felt this kind of incredible creativity, and I also felt an out of body experience like something is happening to me that I don't have any control over and in a way that narrative is taking control of me. So it's writing itself. It felt very obvious, all the choices, just easy and you long to be in that state. But the thing is, I think you kind of need the six weeks writing the other songs to get to that point.

Yeah, definitely agree. When I wrote “Anthem”, which is the first platinum album we had as a band - I was 23 going on 24. That took all those years of experience to write that album and then I had to write the next album within 12 months and I've been touring and doing 14 interviews a day and the ideas haven't had time to percolate. That said, the next album was “The Changeling”, which I now think is probably one of the most important albums of my whole career, but it's bleak and it's bleak because I felt so trapped and under pressure

ALICE: There is one amazing image that I love. I've got it on my bookshelf with you with sort of seagulls painted across your head

TOYAH: “Brave New World”

ALICE: Oh, I love that. And the dark contact lenses. I mean, who was really doing that kind of thing?

TOYAH: I kind of nicked that off Steve Strange (they both laugh) (below with Toyah) I think he had those in for Bowie's “Ashes To Ashes” video and I just thought they were so cool and so fantastic.

But how many women were really playing with that kind of imagery? I mean, it was a maybe a particular point in time, like the early 80’s where there was a lot of influx. Wasn't there? Punk had happened but everyone knew something huge was going to come

Every year I'd say, not only every year, but possibly every three months the movement developed it, evolved it, it moved on, and everyone went with it. And I think singers like myself, Siouxsie Sioux, Hazel O'Connor, Kate Bush, Kim Wilde - we really persevered and we were pushing the glass ceiling up. But each year of the 1980’s is defined so much by a different fashion, a different sound in music . . . It's not one decade. It's 10 years.

ALICE: Yeah, hopefully that stuff is coming back. I think that because people do want spectacle and they do want creativity and they do want to be snapped out of the mundanity of existence. And the loss of Bowie and Prince, really like magical beings in our own realm, basically

TOYAH: I’m optimistic that it will happen because when you look at ticket prices across the board they’re really expensive for a family to go out, it's almost impossible. And I think that these creatives will come forward that will start in the small clubs again. Even in the pub circuit, because I was successful because I toured pubs.

My band were drawing 2000 people per night into a pub and the town would shut down wherever I played. And the ticket price I think was probably 6 shillings or something ridiculous. I think if show business keeps pricing the audience out of the experience, then something will happen that will allow the creatives kind of back in.

ALICE: It's almost like we need to have some sort of apocalyptic event so that we're all just sitting in tents with hand puppets and telling each other . . . (cracks up laughing)

TOYAH: Passing the news on by storytelling again. Simple.

ALICE: The innocence of being easily impressed by something

TOYAH: I've experienced that watching shows myself. Watching ballet, even watching “The Nutcracker” every Christmas. It transforms you. It changes your own self perception. And I think that's what creativity and performance is about and I think when you create something, it's like a light bulb going off. When I first really listened to David Bowie's “Life On Mars" - it was after I'd heard “Star Man” and fallen in love with a man. But “Life On Mars” transformed my identity. My idea of what I should be doing with my own life and what was possible out of the creative act of songwriting.

ALICE: It’s interesting becauce that's my favourite David Bowie song, “Life On Mars”. There’s something so incredible about that as a piece of music.

TOYAH: It's almost about the hopelessness of the violence of life for me. “It's a God awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair”. Well, the girl is tragic. She's got mousy hair, apparently, and then there’s a fight in the dancehall, and it's all about the hopelessness of us needing Saturday night celebration to let off steam. But really, all we end up doing is kicking the shit out of each other. But it's so beautifully observed, and it's so real, and it's so Hollywood glamour and yet gutter level violent and it is a clever song.

ALICE: Do you think we listen to it and think it's our life story? You were talking about the lyrics - I was that girl with the mousy hair. Me looking at the screen and going that would be nice. I mean it's not even about fame, it's about escapism. So people would say to me, especially when I was younger “why do you want to be an actress? You want to be famous?” and I was like “no. I want to be a mermaid. I actually want to be a mermaid”.

Yeah, that's the thing. I don't want the in between but the acting bit - that's just a means to an end. I actually want to be something else. That element of fantasy is really what I tried to get on camera and I get to that point where the lack of self consciousness . . . don't cerebralise. Just be.

You can listen to the discussion HERE

Alice with Toyah at her Chiswick flat


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