Rebel Without A Pause

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 Willcox. 

"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 individual interpretation." 

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 schedule that 
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 till dawn. 

"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 desperately popular. 

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 recent flicks 
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