Toyah Willcox Loves Chiswick To Death

No longer turning suburbia upside down former punk rocker now praises W4's community spirit 

“I’m not one of these actors who’s very good at waiting for the phone to ring,” Toyah tells me in her dressing room at the Shaftesbury Theatre, where she is having a whip–cracking success as Calamity Jane (see picture right), that legendary, gun-toting, whisky-drinking gal of the wild west. “I love to work, so if there are no good scripts offered to me, I’ll just go off and find something else to do.” 

This must explain why she has had such a varied career. In the past twenty five years in the business (and she’s still only forty five!), she has headed a punk rock band, been a TV presenter, done voice-overs for children’s programmes (a whole generation of tots know her voice as that calming goodbye in Teletubbies), done Shakespeare at the National Theatre, starred in movies such as Quadrophenia and Jubilee, flown through the air as Peter Pan – and made guest appearances in TV series such as Kavanagh QC, Maigret, Tales of the Unexpected and Doctors. And that’s not to mention the many live concerts and sell-out albums she has done simply as Toyah, singer. Yes, it’s obvious she doesn’t like to wait by the phone. 

“I think of myself as an actor, really,” she says. “I mean, I don’t consider myself a singer. I’ve always thought an actor can tackle anything, so that’s the banner I stand under.” 

Does she feel she is following in the footsteps of Doris Day, with the coveted role of Calamity? “No, I don’t. This is a completely separate production. It’s a great movie and Doris Day was marvellous in the role, but we are telling the story of the real Calamity Jane, not the Hollywood version. She was born around 1857 and she was a pioneer and a scout for the army. She was often arrested for being drunk and for prostitution – and she was probably the most unattractive woman you could imagine as a romantic heroine. She and Wild Bill Hickock were in quite a wild bunch – they toured together in the circus. He was married, but rumour has it that Calamity had a baby by him. She died quite soon after him, at about age 37. I mean, she was a legend during her own life and very liberated in many ways, when you consider she was touring in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, when women’s lives were so prim and proper. For me, she is far more interesting in reality than the Calamity in the movie. Of course, what we have inherited from the movie are the fantastic songs, a wonderful storyline, some really funny lines – and a feelgood love story, where love overcomes people’s foibles. We are very grateful for that. But our production is less glitzy than the movie.”  

Toyah lives in Chiswick but doesn’t feel her roots are there, or anywhere else for that matter. “I feel I’m a touring actress,” she says with a smile. “I get home once a week. At the moment, I happen to be in the West End, so I go home to Chiswick. But I’m out of the country for the whole of next year – and that’s pretty much been the pattern for the past 25 years. I’m very much a suitcase person, and I don’t carry much with me. The same is true of my homes – here in Chiswick and in Worcestershire – they are very low maintenance. I don’t want to be weighed down by possessions.” So, home is inside her own head? She laughs. “Yes, and in the boot of my car.” 

Her marriage to Nashville musician Robert Fripp is equally low maintenance, though very committed and happy. “We both share this work ethic,” Toyah explains. “We work in different fields and we often live in different places. We understand each other’s needs and ambitions and our lifestyles seem to suit the marriage – and I think that’s why we’ve remained married for 17 years.” I point out that the press never seem to write about Toyah, married woman. “Well, we’re both so work-oriented, so we don’t do parties. There isn’t that much gossip about us. I think the columnists are remarkably bored with us. No-one shows any interest in our private life at all, which is rather a blessing.” They don’t have any children, nor a marital home – none of the traditional things that supposedly hold marriages together. “I think we’re together because we really want to be. We are bound by a shared knowledge of what we don’t want!” 

Perhaps because of this laid-back, non-materialistic lifestyle, some magazines refer to Toyah as a hippie, which intrigues her. “I don’t know how I’ve managed to be a punk and a hippie,” she laughs. “But there are worse things they could call me. Actually, I do love living in Chiswick, because it is filled with the most wonderful people. The community and the spirit of Chiswick prevent me from moving anywhere else, closer to town or whatever. You can sit in a café on the High Road and just watch people go by – I love it to death. I really think a place is the people in it. My neighbours are so good to me – they come and tell me if any strangers have been hanging around, looking suspicious. If an alarm goes off in the street, people do something about it – they don’t just ignore it. I think that’s pretty rare these days.”

Chswick W4
October 2003