"THE BIG DECADES"
THE BRIDGE 102.5 FM
WITH MARK SPATE
MARK SPATE: My guest this week on The Big Decades is a lady that has just began an autumn tour which kicked off in Newcastle on Friday evening. With many strings to her bow she's a musician and an actress, having had 8 Top 40 singles and over 20 albums, has appeared on several stage plays and feature films. We welcome to The Bridge – Toyah Willcox! Good afternoon Toyah.
TOYAH: Hello! How are you doing?
MARK: How are you, alright?
TOYAH: I'm good, I'm good, thank you!
MARK: Thanks for joining us this afternoon. Before we have a chat let's just remind ourselves of the music that is Toyah Willcox! (Plays a medley of her hits) Toyah – they take me back! (Toyah laughs) Don't make me feel old!
TOYAH: I mean it's 30 years ago, I mean that's a long time!
MARK: A long long time. Let us go all the way back - how did it all begin for you?
TOYAH: I was born in Birmingham and I went to drama school in Birmingham and when I was about 17 I got spotted by 2 directors who put me in a Pebble Mill play and I've just never stopped working since. When I moved to London, which was literally three months after meeting these directors, I was lucky enough to find my first co-writer Joel Bogen (above with Toyah) when I was working at The National Theatre and we wrote five albums together.
Back then you could a have very healthy sustained career in music, just touring the pub circuit and we were having something like two thousand people turning up to see us each night. And we'd be playing small pubs. So eventually we got signed by a record label because any record label would've been mad to ignore the fact that we were drawing that amount of people every night. So it took five years for my overnight success - let's put it that way.
MARK (laughs): You grew up here in the Midlands. Who were your musical influences around the beginning of your career then?
TOYAH: Very very mixed. My largest influence is David Bowie. I think he was just always unbelievably amazing and always took you as a listener by surprise. Every album was a departure which I found a total inspiration. But I love Black Sabbath, I love Led Zeppelin, I love Hawkwind, I really like very heavy statements. And I liked early Roxy Music and Alice Cooper so I was very much a hard rock girl.
MARK: You're a rocker by heart! (laughs)
TOYAH: Yeah! And I think that's very Birmingham.
MARK: Yes, yes. Aside from your music you also had an interest in acting. Where did the love of acting come from?
TOYAH: I always wanted to act, right from the age of seven I wanted to act and sing but keep them separate - I wanted two different careers. My mother was a dancer, she had very short career. She was a professional touring dancer from the age of 14 to 19. And I really think she regretted giving it up to have a family.
I just think I carried on – I carried the baton as it were from her giving it all up to become a mother. I love acting and I still love acting. It's in my blood. I love being someone different. I find it immensely exciting. It's so interesting to be given a script and then to build this person and to find that person. It never ever tires.
MARK: You've starred in over 40 stage plays, 10 feature films. Do you have a personal favourite?
TOYAH: Yes, I do. I worked with Derek Jarman, the kind of cult film director on two films. One was “Jubilee” which was just an absolute scream but the one that sticks with me out of 35 years in show business is “The Tempest” which is Derek's kind of step into respectability. I played “Miranda” (above) in that, Shakespeare's “The Tempest”.
He just just approached this as if he was compiling an oil painting. I still feel – I'm in the moment when I think back to the experience of making it. We made it Stoneleigh Abbey throughout the winter of 1978-79. It was freezing cold but it was so magical and the way that Derek enveloped all of us in the magic of what he was creating – it will never ever leave me. Such a poignant memory.
MARK: I think my favourite appearance of you in a film has to be the classic “Quadrophenia” -
TOYAH: Yeah well, the great thing about “Quadrophenia” is that it survives every generation. It's one of those films that teenagers find for themselves. And it's a massive success! I think it's success is the fact that it's remained a cult film for three decades - which is fantastic!
MARK: You played the part of “Monkey”. You played alongside names like Ray Windstone, Lesley Ash and Timothy Spall to name a few. How did you get that role of “Monkey”?
TOYAH: Well, at the time they were casting I was starring in a film alongside Katherine Hepburn called “The Corn Is Green” and I heard they were making “Quadrophenia”. The director Franc Roddam actually contacted me to get Johnny Rotten from The Sex Pistols through a screen test and he said would I help Johnny learn his lines and get him ready to kind of act on camera which I did and Johnny was a consummate gentleman.
He was absolutely wonderful to be with and we did the screen test together at Shepperton. I thought he was fantastic, he was such a natural actor. And he screen tested for Phil Daniels, the lead role and I screen tested for the role that Lesley Ash took. And I didn't hear anything at all after that so I contacted Franc Roddam and I said “c'mon – you owe me here!” and eventually he let me play “Monkey”.
MARK: Absolutely brilliant film. Then you quickly became known for this colourful flamboyant hair. This was before the punk scene – how did people react when they saw this young girl with brightly coloured hair for the first time?
TOYAH: Well, I think I was in Birmingham when I started dying my hair strange colours like green and yellow. I didn't know know about punk but punk was staring to happen. And I just slotted into the punk scene so well and where it worked for me was – I'm not an academic brain, I'm an instinctive brain and I think punk allowed people like me to express ourselves and I just slotted into it brilliantly.
I enjoyed the punk movement so much, I think it was fantastic for women. It was fantastic for all diverse types. And I actually think it's done more for creativity than any movement I've known in the whole of my life.
MARK: Is there a character you'd love to play that you haven't already played?
TOYAH: A few have passed me by. I never played “Ophelia” and that's obviously very too late. Yes, there's actually a million characters I'd like to play. At 55 there's still many many great roles. I would love to do the “Scottish play” (Macbeth), I'm interested in all of Shakespeare's female characters, the wickeder the better and I think at my age I can still do it.
And I think I need to just knuckle down and write something for me to play on screen because I think that's sometimes the best way get things done. But I don't see myself as script writer, I'm a great story writer and I'm a good book writer but screen writing is a talent I don't have. But my agent - every day he says “c'mon - you've got to write this play” so one day that will be my next thing to do.
MARK: Do you have a favourite? TV, music or stage?
TOYAH: I love working, my priority is I have to work. I go bonkers if I don't work. I'm the last person you'll ever see on a beach in Ibiza. I adore acting and as I get older I think acting suits my physicality a bit more. I'm definitely physically getting challenged and slowing down. But my voice, singing voice at the moment is really really good.
And I allow myself to say that because I have worked on it. I got my top range back, I got two octaves extra in my range which I have to have for this tour I'm doing at the moment because when I was younger my voice was naturally higher. I'm not ready to stop singing yet while my voice is this good! I think I have a right to sing.
Photo Damon King
MARK: You touched there on your TV career, you've appeared on our TV screen for quite a while, in “Casualty”, “Watchdog” and “Loose Women” to name a few but you had my dream job – you worked on the “Holiday” programme for the BBC. What are you memories – is it a holiday or is it work?
TOYAH: No. The thing is I did that for ten years and it was an honour to do it because I saw the world and I saw the world in the best way possible which was I was with a film crew which meant I never had to queue, I never had to wait for aeroplanes. They had to get us there on time and we had to film on time and it was a very privileged place to be. But we were only ever in a country for three days.
But I liked that, it really suited me. We did mad country hopping – I can remember one day I was in Bermuda, I had 12 hours to get to Switzerland - three days in Switzerland, I had 12 hours to get to the Maldives and it was like that all the time. But I loved it! I got to see real people because when you're filming like that on a schedule like that you land in a country and you a have "fixer" and that's a person that gets you from A to B and makes everything happen. And these fixers always took us to eat with their family and friends so you got to meet real people. It was lovely.
MARK: It was a dream job, I'd love that job. We've been asking some of your fans for questions, they've put some questions forward. Jennifer from Birmingham asks "we've not seen you in Pantomime for a few years, do you have any plans to come back to Pantomime this year?"
TOYAH: (baffled) Oh, I do Panto every year. The irony is I'm taking this Xmas off because I have a TV series but I do Panto every year. Last year was Canterbury (below) It could be that she's brought this up because I haven't done a Panto in the Birmingham area in two years. I do Panto all over the place.
It is a genre I am very proud of doing, when it's done properly and with good intentions it's so fantastic for everyone – the performer and the audience. So I have no intention of giving it up at all.
MARK: Donald from Wednesbury says "you continue having a wonderful career. What would you say is the highlight of your career to date?"
TOYAH: I've been very lucky in that I've worked with generations that are no longer here. To work with people like sir John Mills, Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn – even Diana Doors. Such a privilege because they were the people that inspired me to go into acting and we live in a very different style of acting now which is very naturalistic whereas 30 years ago it was full of bravado and quite eccentric. And I'm very very glad that I met and worked with these wonderful people because they are the people that inspired me.
MARK: The beginning of 1981 you released what is my favourite Toyah album titled “Anthem” which went gold and from that album you had several huge chart singles such as “It's A Mystery” and “I Want To Be Free” and “Thunder In The Mountains”. Do you have a personal favourite you like to perform when you're on tour?
TOYAH: Well, at the moment we're touring an album which was released in 1983 called “Love Is The Law” which is my personal favourite album. And we're performing these songs for the first time in 30 years and I absolutely love performing “Dreamscape” - which is off “Love Is The Law” -
MARK: Yes, there's “Dreamscape”, there's “Broken Diamonds”, “I Explode” - all of those …
TOYAH: Yes. It's a lovely album and for me it was a very happy album because when I was making it I was starring in “Trafford Tanzi” (below) in the West End and I went to on to do “The Ebony Tower” with Laurence Olivier. It was the most perfect year because I had my parallel careers. So when I perform these songs I'm connecting really with the happiest year of my life.
(Plays “It's A Mystery”)
MARK: That was in the charts for such a long time. In those days the charts came out on a Sunday afternoon. How did you learn in those days about your chart position?
TOYAH: Well, there wasn't mobile phones back then and by lunch time you were able to be told whether you had gone up or gone down. So I always knew by Sunday lunch time whether it's going to be good news or bad news.
But they didn't tell your actual position, we used to have to turn the radio on and listen to Kid Jensen do he chart run down. And as the show went on and your name hadn't been mentioned you just got more and more excited! (they both laugh) You just knew you'd gone higher!
MARK: As we said at the top of the hour you've just began an autumn tour which is called “Love Is The Law And More”. You started in Newcastle, you were in Manchester last night. What can we expect from this tour?
TOYAH: “Love Is The Law” is a really typical 80's album in that it's lots of synthesiser and very very poppy songs. I absolutely love performing it! Because you've got to remember I started in punk and by the time I wrote “Love Is The Law” - that's probably my 5th or 6th album so the journey from this kind of boisterous punk movement into the New Wave approach of “Love Is The Law” - it's a massive arc.
And to be performing this – it's so melodic. I love singing it. And the songs are just penned the way the 80's songs were penned. They're kind epic, they're dramatic, they're inclusive of the audience. So when the show starts we start with “Love Is The Law” and then we slowly digress backwards so we end up doing the punk songs by the end of the night. So we span the whole of the period in 22 songs.
MARK: I was looking at your itinerary during the week and in between the tour dates you're also on a Mediterranean cruise. Can I carry your bags? (laughs)
TOYAH: Oh, I would love someone to carry my bags! I am so busy it's ridiculous! I'm also doing a movie – a short film with Tom Lawes who owns The Electric Cinema in Birmingham. He's a fantastic director so I'm working with him, shooting with him, I have to go to Barcelona, get the ship, do two concerts, fly back, play Bristol. It's absolutely manic but that's the way I love it!
MARK: We always finish by asking three or four silly questions that we seem to get a laugh from. On this tour you're travelling with a live band I understand. Who in your band moans the most?
TOYAH: Actually you know what – my band do not moan! They're fantastic. We work hard and it's not glamorous. We don't have a big tour bus or anything like that. We all drive ourselves. They never moan, they bring their equipment in and they realise that we all need to put 150% into this to make it work.
They are as committed as I am and they do not complain. But also the one thing we've all got in common, there's five of us, we really don't like listening to people moaning therefore we don't moan.
MARK: A positive attitude, absolutely brilliant. Now bearing in mind they may be listening to this – who has the worst dress sense? (laughs)
TOYAH: It's a good question! I've never really looked with that subject matter on my mind because all I care about it that they're fit and happy, healthy and they play brilliantly. I don't think any of them have a bad dress sense.
MARK: They've all turned out excellent!
TOYAH: It might be me that has the worst dress sense! (Mark laughs)
MARK: Who in your band is the most talented?
TOYAH: The lead guitarist Chris Wong. Even my husband -who's Robert Fripp - says that he can outplay him. Chris Wong is the most talented musician I've ever known and he actually can do everything that my husband did when my husband was in his 20's. He's mind blowing, he utterly mind blowing!
MARK: And the final silly question – what is your ringtone on your mobile?
TOYAH: I'm a complete technophobe, I can only just work a telly, there's now way I can find a ringtone so I have the standard ringtone.
MARK: The standard ringtone! (laughs) Toyah Willcox, we wish you every success for the future, we hope the tour goes well and we look forward to seeing you here in the Midlands this Friday.
TOYAH: Thank you! And have a wonderful rest of the year!
MARK: Take care won't you. We love to see you in the Midlands.
TOYAH: Well, I look forward to it. See you soon!
MARK: OK. Take care, bye!