Without A Pause
THE CHANGING FACE OF TOYAH
By Bill Black
The last time something newsworthy happened here
was in the Fourteenth Century.
Then a small army of Englishmen rode into the
courtyard of this isolated chateau deep in the rural heart of France and
ransacked the place.
Six hundred years later and the Brits are back,
but this time with more peaceable intentions. Granada TV have chosen this
timeless spot a few miles outside Limoges as the setting for their dramatisation
of John Fowles' The Ebony Tower.
Revolving around the relationship enjoyed by an
elderly exiled painter with two young artistic 'groupies' who share his
retreat as seen by a visiting writer, the 90 minute play features just
four actors and one location.
But what a location! As chickens and guinea fowl
scamper across the courtyard, an elderly woman dressed all in black peers
with a child-like grin of thrilled bemusement at the lorries and lights,
the foreigners who have temporarily invaded her existence.
Rumour has it she has left the chateau only
once in her 56 years of domestic service here, and then only to travel
the few miles to Limoges.
No wonder she looks at us all as if we have somehow
arrive from outer space. Looking around, it's not such an illogical conclusion
to draw - especially when you come face to face with the flame-haired Toyah
"I'm nicknamed the Red Devil around here because
they think I'm a devil or else a comedienne, which to them doesn't mean
a stand-up comic but a travelling performer.
Toyah laughs at the thought of being a devil,
but not at the thought of being a travelling performer. She takes her acting
very seriously - and you can't get much more serious than a John Mortimer
(Brideshead) adaptation of a Fowles tome starring
Lord Olivier as the painter Breasley.
Toyah takes the part of one of the groupies, nicknamed
The Freak for her outlandish behaviour.
So what's she like, this freak?
"Oh, she's an absolute bitch! I like acting bitches,
the only problem with this bitch is that she keeps stripping off and we've
had to handle that with extreme taste or else people wouldn't see me acting,
they'd just see me as a slag stripping off.
"We've made her slightly psychic and a slight
witch and it's great fun. Monkey in Quadrophenia I played as a speed freak,
whereas this character is one minute silent and psyching people out with
her eyes, the next minute she's screaming at somebody.
"It's very hard. It's taken a lot of time and
a lot of nagging from the director to get me to do it properly, but it's
stretching me and that's what I like. It's pushing me in a direction I've
never been before.
"Also I'm learning a hell of a lot from just doing
a film again after three years. This is the first I've done since The Tempest,
and I've actually forgotten a lot. The thing with doing a stage play is
that your actions become very big and descriptive for all the people at
the back of the theatre. With a film you've got to bring it all back down
into yourself. That's the hard bit, plus having to act with someone who
insists on being called 'sir'."
The 'sir' if you haven't already guessed, is Laurence
Olivier. Variously known as England's greatest living actor and the biggest
shakes since Garrick, he commands respect.
So much so that after each day's filming the tiny
cast take it in turns to have dinner with the fellow. But even if this
rota system has earned the nightly engagement the nickname 'the chore',
Toyah for one enjoys the job.
"I dine with him quite often and he's very into
the music side - it's great. And he's surprisingly up on it all. We were
talking about the Fairlight (computer) the other night and he was fascinated
by it's possibilities. We had a very interesting conversation because he
can't understand how something you can use like the Fairlight can still
show your emotions through the technology. He thinks it's
become very clone-like, he thinks we're heading
towards a Metropolis
society where everyone has lost their human instincts.
"I say no, because not every human can twiddle
those knobs and get the right noise. It's still very much a question of
I'd almost forgotten. Relaxing in the Dordogne
countryside for a few brief hours, occasionally meeting the eyes of the
little lady in black who can know nothing of this Red Devil,
the notion of Toyah as Pop Star had deserted me.
Despite the prestigious acting roles, music is
still central to Toyah's creative drive. Why else would she risk physical
and mental exhaustion by combining a punishing six month stint in the London
stage production of Trafford Tanzi (in which she played a female wrestler)
with the writing and recording of her new album 'The Law of Love'?
But Toyah makes light of the impossibly demanding
had her being thrown around for three hours a
night ("I broke most of the bones in my right foot, fractured a rib and
fractured an elbow") before shooting off to recording sessions that lasted
"The only problem was coming down. After Tanzi
my body was in such physical pain it was always about three hours before
I could talk to anyone."
"The biggest challenge for me was to go to the
theatre on my own and walk from the car to the stage door on my own. Before
I'd always had bodyguards with me but I decided that this was a barrier
I was going to break down.
"As a result I got to know a lot of the kids that
waited outside for me. About 20 or 30 of them were waiting every night
for five months and although I'd tell them what time I'd be arriving each
night 'cos I couldn't stand the thought of them waiting, they'd always
turn up two hours early.
"When the show started the majority would come
in and see it every night but after a while they couldn't afford it so
I'd go and chat with them outside during the intervals. But there was always
a barrier there, I was always a star to them, I never became a normal
person. I started to base my lyrics around them and because I'd go straight
from the theatre to recrd the album, it is based on infatuations with kids
ten years younger than me.
Toyah, the honourary teenager, worried about age?
"When you're in an egotistical business the battle
understanding that it is inevitable you are going to grow old is something
you start to fight very early on. I'm 25 now but I'd say when I was 23
I started to battle with the fact I was getting old."
Doing Tanzi might have brought Toyah up against
the paradoxical problem of a pop star's age (ie. how do you become one
of the kids when you are old enough to be their auntie?) but it also gave
her a new approach to her live shows.
"For Trafford Tanzi I was onstage doing something
that a lot of men find a very sexual act, which is an aspect of my life
work as a singer I've found very difficult to cope with. It's taught me
a lot about human emotions and how misguided I've been up till now.
"Y'see, on past tours I've been presenting myself
as a sex object, in future I'm going to concentrate on getting on with
the show as energetically as I can and stop thinking about being a woman,
stop thinking about men in the audience and start thinking about my performance."
With nearly a year's absence from the chart limelight
only just broken by the success of her single 'Rebel Run', it's not surprising
that Toyah should have given a lot of thought to the nature and meaning
of her success.
"When I lived in my warehouse in Battersea, I
lent it to Iggy Pop for a while and it's where he and Bowie wrote 'China
Girl' - my own claim to fame! I was in Wales at the time filming The Corn
Is Green with Katherine Hepburn and when I heard Bowie had been at my place
I nearly tore my hair out!
"Anyway, Iggy had just been dragged out of Berlin
by Bowie to start his musical career again. He was such a beautiful, insecure
little creature. He'd been going out with a girl called Mitsu who had died
long after finishing the affair with him and I think that's what they based
'China Girl' on. John Cale came over to work with Iggy too and I remember
just sitting there in awe of them all, all these insecure people who thought
their careers were over.
"They didn't understand how strong their cult
followings were in England. We were turning kids away at the door who were
trying to get in to see them. Iggy never once understood his importance
within our rock culture.
"And it isn't until now that I understand what
Iggy was feeling. You go through a period when you doubt yourself, and
I hit that period about a year and a half ago. I'm now coming out of that
doubt and respecting myself as a person. I've decided to do everything
to the best of my ability rather than worrying all the time about being
Ah, from the top of the commercial ladder there's
only one place to go, and coming second to Yazoo's Alf at this year's Rock
& Pop Awards obviously brought it home to Toyah.
But cosseted by the isolation and comforted by
her satisfaction with the part of The Freak, the red haired lady is finding
it easier to contemplate an acting career when her energetic job in music
becomes too much.
"I think my priority and what I'll be remembered
for is my acting because unless people have seen me live they can never
understand what I'm doing as a singer and there'll come a time
when I can't carry on with the singing anymore.
There's nothing sadder than seeing an ageing singer onstage."
But can a pop star ever make the sideways jump
to credible actor?
The promotional type hype surrounding Bowie's
would suggest not, and Toyah has a handicap -
her strong image.
"Yeah, the problem with what I'm doing here in
France is that I do look very much like 'me' within the film because of
my red hair.
"But there will come a time when I shave my head
and start growing my natural colour back. I tried it last year but I chickened
out because I couldn't bear to see this black mass every morning ''cos
I hate my natural colour.
"But there will come a time with my acting roles
when they don't want red hair, and I hope that happens very soon because
I need that excuse to get rid of it."
Toyah without her colourful barnet? Could this
be the end of striking pop visuals as we know them? It certainly looks
that way - especially now Toyah has started talking about being an
album artist. So what's to become of the equally impressive videos that
cast Toyah as some post-apocalypse queen of the Little People?
"Well, rather than present myself as a voluptuous
little sex symbol, I've always enjoyed working in more masculine areas.
That's why Tanzi was so much fun to do. Although it was outrageously sexual
to do I found it very masculine and that's how I played it.
"Similarly, with my videos, the images I see and
the images I get off on are warrior images. I know it will go one day and
I'll start wishing I'd behaved a little more femininely but at the moment
I love those images. If I was a foot taller I suppose I'd parade around
like a model but I'm not and that might explain my obsession with elves.
I've been studying them religiously and within the elf kingdom the females
are the warriors and the men stay at court. The men are very tall and elegant
and the women are the robust ones."
Which makes a lot of sense when you see the elfin
yet powerful figure of Toyah Willcox act the pop star for a few hours in
between acting the Freak. In the nicest possible way, you understand, but
the role playing becomes inevitable when the public image gets divorced
from the private identity.
"Toyah four years ago was blatantly obnoxious
and trying to get everyone's attention, but now I've got it I don't
want it. If someone left me a castle I'd lock myself away in it and just
send tapes out to my friends saying 'hello'.
15th Oct 1983