Toyah's Triumph Of The Will

Toyah Willcox, whose career as an actress moves up another notch this Sunday when she appears in a TV adaptation of 'The Ebony Tower' with Lord Olivier, has got where she is by extraordinary willpower, which even overcame a physical deformity in childhood. 

Her hair is the real giveaway. Suddenly the colour is straight Monroe rather than marmalade. Toyah Willcox, the young singer and actress once called 'the priestess of punk', has just dyed her famous flamethrower orange locks a fairly restrained shade of blonde. It is one sure sign she is going straight. Punk looks like being a thing of the past. 

Even though she will still have her red hair when she stars opposite Lord Olivier in Granada Television's version of John Fowle's short story 'The Ebony Tower' on ITV next Sunday, it rather conceals the truth about her now. 

'Being blonde is more enigmatic, it gives you a sense of charisma,' she says. It may also make you look more like a star. 

For, as she puts it herself, 'The girl I play in "The Ebony Tower" may be called The Freak , and she may even look like a freak, but deep down she is the sanest person in the story.' Very much the same could be said for Miss Willcox. 

No matter how bizarre or outrageous a face she has presented to the world since she first emerged in 1977, at the age of 18, she has always held surprisingly conventional views. She neither drinks nor smokes, does not take drugs, and disapproves of promiscuity. Toyah Willcox may have ridden the crest of the wave of punk rebellion, but she has never been taken in by the more destructive elements of its nihilism. 

She was even apprehensive about appearing nude in a scene with Olivier in the 90-minute television play. 'You see I have this very immature attitude to nudity and sex,' she explains softly, a distinctive though slight lisp in her voice. 'I think it should be kept for just one man.' She has had only two serious boyfriends, and insists she did not discover sex until she was 20. 

'So when I did the picnic scene I kept thinking "This is me naked, not The Freak naked", and I had this awful image of people stopping their videos to look at me. But I wanted to work with Laurence Olivier so badly that I thought that should come first.' It is not exactly the remark most people would associate with a member of punk's aristocracy. 

But this 4ft 11in tall Birmingham born girl, whose real name actually is Toyah Pepita Willcox, has always defied classification. She declines to fit into the stereotypes. She may have struggled up through the raunchy world of one night gigs in small rock clubs, but she says, 'Some men used to think that just because I was in a rock band and wore sexually attractive clothes, I was available. I wasn't.' It led to her being nicknamed Miss Prim by some in the music business. 

Toyah Willcox did not mind that in the least. It meant someone was taking notice, and she has always taken her career very seriously indeed. 'It's my religion,' she says. 'It keeps me sane.' 

It is a single-mindedness which also led her to establish a seperate career as an actress alongside her rock singing. So in the past six years she has not only released six LPs and had a series of Top Five singles in Britain - her records bring a turnover of more than 1m a year - but she also has appeared in films, including The Corn Is Green with Katherine Hepburn; starred in Clare Luckham's stage comedy Trafford Tanzi as the female wrestler; and made many excursions into television, including the BBC2 series Dear Heart. As a result she has not only been voted Top Female Vocalist for her records, but also Most Promising Newcomer for her acting. 

Brisk and businesslike, she says, 'Keeping two audiences means I can be a different person for each one. The audience for my acting wouldn't dream of buying my records, and the rock audience only watches me act because they can't see me on tour.' She does not like to leave things to chance. 

Nevertheless she has begun to realise, as the playwright John Mortimer puts it 'that she can't stay trapped in a glaring hair-do'. He believes she has to 'provide for her future by acting' and calls her talent 'phenomenal' in 'The Ebony Tower', which he adapted for Granada Television, just as he did for Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited

Toyah Willcox's achievements are all the more remarkable, however, when you realise that she was born with a deformity which meant she spent her childhood 'walking almost doubled up, with my bum sticking out the back'. She was forced to wear a two-inch built-up shoe on her left foot. 

'All I wanted in the world was to walk normally,' she recalls. 

So for the first 11 years of her life she was sent to hospital every six months for agonising traction. But the deformity and its treatment fostered the indomitable fighting spirit that has driven her career ever since. 

Born in May 1958, the youngest daughter of the owner of three prosperous joinery businesses, she fought the world, and her family. 'I wanted to be the centre of attention, and to be that I had to fight my elder brother and sister all the time. I can even remember pushing my mum into the pantry one day and locking the door when I was nine. And I wouldn't kiss and make up. I stopped kissing my mum and dad when I was seven, and I haven't kissed them since'.

By the age of 11 she was refusing to wear the built-up shoe, and to go to hospital, and she was forcing herself to walk normally. Although she still admits, 'When I see myself on screen now all I see is this thing which limps and lisps, and I cringe, I really cringe.' 

With some of her father's carefree characteristics - 'he could go out for a paper and not come back for two days' - at 14 she had started drinking ('nicked sherry') and going round with a group of bikers. By 18 she had left her Church of England School for Girls in Birmingham with just one O level, in music. 'I would have slit my mother's throat to get what I wanted then,' she says, 'and I would have slit other people's too'. 

She got a place at Birmingham Old Rep Drama School - 'although I didn't realise being in a play was a chance with harmony with other actors, I thought it was just a chance for Toyah to show off.' Two months later she was offered a part in the television play Glitter opposite Noel Edmonds, after the director had spotted her in the street. On the strength of her performance she was invited to join the National Theatre in London, to play Emma in Tales From The Vienna Woods in 1977. She never went back to drama school. 

'The National was my training,' she says confidently. 'You can't learn other than by experience. You can be taught technique but the magic of the work has to come from you.' 

The National also lead to her first film, Derek Jarman's Jubilee, and allowed her to form her first professional rock band, Toyah, which one critic memorably described as 'heavy metal without the moustache' . Precocious and well organised, she was unstoppable. For the next six years she could do nothing wrong. Not only did 'everybody want a punk girl in their plays', in the words of one producer, but her recording career went from strength to strength. 

In 1984 she called a temporary halt to both careers, and decided to concentrate on acting, making two television films - Murder, The Ultimate Grounds For Divorce with Roger Daltrey, and Movie Queen with Annie Ross - both of which are to be shown shortly. She had taken the typically self-concious decision to step back from rock music. 'I was worried that I'd had too much exposure and that a backlash might start against me.' She plans to launch herself back into rock and roll next year with four singles and an album recorded for CBS. 

The comparative inactivity has done nothing to still the demons that have patently always pursued her. 'You see, the only way I can communicate with people is through performing. I don't give very easily in personal relationships, and in social relationships I'm hopeless. I just get bored very very easily.' 

She is unfailingly honest and direct and admits: 'Anybody in this business really wants to rule the world. I want my name on every tongue.' 

Then she pauses, and goes on, 'Giving people that kind of pleasure is wanting to be loved.' 

So Toyah Willcox can explain her gradual trip away from the extremes of punk with characteristic matter-of-factness. 'To me punk was about freedom of opinion,' she says, 'not being stuck in other people's worlds, with other people's ideas. But I think you've got to fit in with the society you live in. I didn't choose to live in England, I was just born here, but I've decided to fit in with it. If I went around saying, "destroy this" or "destroy that", I'd be intimidating people.' 

She has settled into a comfortable London house, complete with its own gym - 'I'm worried that one day I'm going to be stricken with arthritis' - and has given up smoking and drinking: 'They're just excuses for not having willpower and concentration.' Three years ago she explains, the strain of her career was making her want to drink all the time. She has also become a vegetarian. 'I also don't believe in any form of execution now, or any form of murder, and I don't believe in killing animals.' 

For the past four years she has lived with her boyfriend, Tom, who also acts as her bodyguard - 'I've never been unfaithful' - but she is not contemplating getting married or having children. 'I actually have a phobia about having children, I just couldn't go through all that agony.' 

Then she adds; 'But if a woman hasn't had children then her sexual drive comes first, and I think that's very destructive. I spend my sexual energy on stage.' The words are so measured, so controlled, they are almost eerie, as if she sees herself as a performing puppet. 

Yet beneath the careful, self possessed phrases, a chirpy, cheerful young woman is trying to get out. Tempting though it may have been to see Miss Willcox as no more than the 'neurotic golliwog from the wilder end of the Kings Road' that John Fowles described in his story, she is not, and never has been, a freak. Under all that hair, of whatever colour, there is a conventional and ambitious brain. Punk was never exactly what it seemed. 

Geoffrey Wansell.

Outlook Magazine
December 1984
Thanks to Paul Lomas