Looking For Toyah

Next Thursday Derek Jarman's film of 'The Tempest' opens. Toyah Willcox, late of 'Jubilee' and 'Quadrophenia' plays Miranda. Chris Auty went in search of Ms Willcox...

Last Easter weekend in Brighton, Scarborough and Southend, nearly 400 kids, mostly mods and skinheads, were arrested after violent clashes with bikers, holidaymakers and police. Said one mod, happily: 'The 60s were the great time.' In outraged newspaper editorials the next day you see one word: 'Quadrophenia'.

From peeling posters for that film Toyah Willcox's face stares out, a new Wave icon being used to paper over the punk-mod gap. Strange to think just how much the film originally relied on the life-blood of punk culture; Johnny Rotten was auditioned for the film's lead and Toyah came to the film after 'Jubilee'.

Now she is in the new Derek Jarman film of 'The Tempest'. Twenty-two this year, brought up in Birmingham, learning to read only after she had left her (Church of England) school, Toyah was spotted because of her crazy hair: 'I told these people to fuck off. I thought they were perverts...' Now it isn't just the dirty old men: 'If I'm seen in the street now they run and try to grab anything on me. I just cover my hair all the time - it's the hair which does it.'

'Everyone had their own interpretation of punk,' she said. 'Kids on the street thought it meant they could hit people. Kids in bands thought meant they could be political about fascism. Other kids thought it meant they could be fascists. But at the time it was exciting. It gave the 1970s a reason for being . I thought the 1970s were a very boring time and  I thought punk was exciting and needed. But like everything that's really exciting, when it dies, it dies a death, and everyone puts it down. I forgot about punk after 'Jubilee' was released. I just started moving on.

'Quadrophenia' itself pushed things to a crunch: Lambrettas in, bondage out. In a pub near the Marquee in Soho, Easter Friday, the pimps are doing their early evening drinking. Two girls come in - bleached hair, bondage gear and tartans. 'Oi!' yells the barman, brutally pointing the way to the door, 'You know you can't come in here. Out!' Conversation doesn't even falter

The Album

I listened to Toyah's album, 'Sheep Farming In Barnet' . On the radio I had heard she invented the title on the spur of the moment, but I think it smacks of calculation. So, after a while, does the music: electric sounds mocking the electronic age as Toyah's voice swoops and dives over a synthesizer background like Patti Smith on speed. What the angst-laden album cover doesn't prepare you for is a psychedelic overtone that leaps weirdly back into the acid culture:

'I believe that people should use drugs...people abuse drugs, drugs don't abuse people...and have their freedom to so what they want with their false happiness. I was living in an old British Rail warehouse in Battersea. There would always be goings on there, like films showing on the roof...it was a place to go and have a good time. But the police banned me because I was getting about 1,000 people there each night, and they were on the roof and demolishing anything they could lay their hands on...a riot.

'What I want to do now is buy a cinema and create a place where people could come for 24 hours, take what they want to take, and live out their own fantasy by having images everywhere. I also want to use it to do video things, and have bands rehearsing, for people to get their things together...experimenting with people's emotions. And also I'd plant cameras and film these people...'

Money without corruption...drugs without punishment...and the world as her oyster: Toyah's dreams have the ruthless naivety that made Warhol and Mary Quant the coolest stars of their generation.

The Interview

Moving to London, she appeared on TV and in 'Tales From The Vienna Woods' at the National, and started a band. Then, in the summer of 1977 she met Derek Jarman, whose first film, 'Sebastiane', had just been completed. 'I went along and had tea with Derek, and read the script of 'Jubilee' and asked Derek if I could play Mad, and Derek just said yes. Simple as that.'

'Jubilee' was a cult success in London, trailing its mildly scandalous reputation, and Toyah's self-hating role, through Punk's peak in 1977-78. The move from stage to screen was one she welcomed.

'Stage acting as far as I'm concerned is very frustrating, because it is too set. You do the same thing night after night for months on end. But on film you are acting to a make-believe audience and that excites me totally. You are concentrated into a machine which has got to go through a process, and it has got to go out into all these people's brains. On film it has to be perfect every time - it really keeps you on your toes...And I like the camera, I like having to go in front of it.'

How did she get her part in 'Quadrophenia'?

'Franc Roddam, the director, was thinking of casting Johnny Rotten (Lydon) in the lead role, and I went along and helped him audition by improvising with him and being a friend to him. Then the insurance people refused to insure the film with Lydon in it. So I thought "Fuck, I've been chucked because Lydon's been chucked", and  I went along to Franc and told him to give me the part of Monkey...and I think he was so taken aback - I was quite rude - that he gave me the part. Partly because he couldn't think of anyone else to do it.

At about that time the Pistols started on their film, 'The Great Rock And Roll Swindle'. For a while - when Russ Meyers was due to direct - Toyah was going to take part in the movie. Then, like so many names associated with the project, her role fell through. Derek Jarman, meanwhile, was casting for his next project, 'The Tempest'.

'I had read 'the Tempest' once, and it was truly the only Shakespeare play that I felt interested in because the story from the very beginning had mystique, and I felt I could follow it, whereas with other Shakespeare stuff you've got to read it all the way through before the characters really connect - I find his language so hard to understand that by the time I reach the end I've forgotten the beginning.'

Did Jarman change the language of the play?

'No, but he cut out the boring bits, which I'm very grateful for, because Shakespeare doesn't half gabble on. Not everyone can get into that, and I think by cutting certain bits Derek has expanded the audience. I think it's a fabulous film.'

With the exception of cod-Freud sci-fi film (made in 1956 and entitled 'Forbidden Planet'), Jarman's 'Tempest' is the first celluloid version of the play. The dreamy magnificence of the original, with its embittered, exiled magician-king stirring a tempest of nature and mind to transform a wrong turning from his past, is better rendered than in most stage productions. The film's willingness to fantasize eases the notoriously compact rhythms of the play. It also banishes the one major headache of theatrical versions, the presentation of Ariel, Prospero's genie, whose appearances, disappearances, and general magic play a large part in the plot. 'The Tempest' is one of those rare films in which every element of production fell into place: the crew (many of whom had worked on Jarman's earlier films), the impressive cast, above all, the mysterious, decaying location of Stoneleigh Abbey where the film was shot.

The Abbey

'By the end of the movie almost everyone was living in the abbey. Each night there used to be cabaret shows. Everyone would put on a show and get pissed out of their brains. I was forever exploring the place, and I remember once it was just before dawn and there was no electricity in certain parts of the house, I remember walking into a cellar and there was just a ray - one beam - of light...coming out, looking around...and slowly my eyes became accustomed and it was full of stuffed animals, stuffed bears, and they were all facing me. It was early early in the morning, I was quite pissed, and that moment captured the whole energy in the place.'

The amazement in her voice matches her role as Miranda, emphasized in the film by the deletion of elements of comedy and intrigue. Miranda/Toyah is the original wild child enchanted by a brave new world. Like Toyah's dream of a palace of images, like the psychedelic ramblings of 'Sheep Farming In Barnet', like Stoneleigh Abbey, the new world is a metaphor for imagination, a pleasure dome through which to wander on the passage away from childhood.

The Photo Session

It is Saturday afternoon in a North London studio. Standing in the livid red spotlight, in her New Wave haute couture, Toyah waits patiently. She is 'into art fashion', and wears regally black clothes, rings, bronze bangles. Surrounded by four men in the studio, who arrange and dissect her, it is hard to tell whether she is the heroine or the victim of the event. In 'the Tempest' Miranda confesses: 'I do not know/One of my own sex; no woman's face remember/Save, from my glass my own', an admission that her sense of innocent wonder is possibly only because of the island solitude her father has imposed.

Toyah's aloofness in the red spotlight is different. It is a display of self-possession.

'I hate showing my body...really hate it. I don't mind so much now, but I have lost almost two stones since that nude scene in 'The Tempest'. It was very bad at that particular time. I was supposed to be 16 but to me I have the body of a 30-year-old. And now I find, as I am slowly becoming established as an actress I am being offered things just to show my face somewhere, phenomenal amounts of money...'

Toyah greases back her flaming red hair for the last few shots, and stands sideways to the camera, stubborn not to lose the pose although she is tired. the camera whirrs in the stale room. The light outside fades fast. After the last take we step fro ma dark interior into a warm and twilight London. Toyah leaves with her roadie, Jem - off to the Marquee to do the mixing on her new album. The photographer stays behind packing his gear.

And The Future?

'I would only go to America for a fucking good reason. There are so many tits hanging around in Hollywood anyway, and I think they are just there because the money is phenomenal and they can lead a life of luxury. I don't want that. I like being on the move. I watch things and I study things, but I just live my own life. I want to create my own image.'

Time Out, 1980
Thanks to Andi Westhorpe