Toyah Willcox: The punk princess in Pershore
“Some women,” whispers the photographer discreetly, “just look better and better as they get older.”
Toyah Willcox, the once pink-tressed princess of punk, has turned 50.The pin-up anarchist – Helen of Troy meets Vivienne Westward - who sang of mystery and freedom does, indeed, look wonderful... grown up (wild hair-dyes now ditched along with extravagant make-up)… and beautiful - yes; but a beauty neither conventional (nothing is conventional about Toyah) nor vapid. As you might expect from the girl at the forefront of a movement whose safety-pin fashion jabbed at world complacency, even her youthful appearance is a challenge to hypocrisy. Her best-selling Diary Of A Facelift, published three years ago, is an overt Death-to-Wrinkles surgical extravaganza. There’s no mystery to her Peter Pan-smooth skin.
“I’ve been lied to so much; I can’t bear lying back,” she explains. “Women who look great - slim and young - are forever saying it’s all down to good genes. It simply isn’t true! You need to tell other women that, if you want to look good at 50, you starve yourself; you live by calorie restriction; you have surgery; you have Botox; you save money for it and don’t go on holiday.” (Though she does lay out buttery croissants for us in the sunny garden that leads down to the River Avon - and eats one herself.)
“The one problem I have with the acting industry - and that the industry has with me - is they all expect you to have Botox but they expect you to say you don’t. And I don’t like it.”
Forthright; true to herself. She once went to a read-through with George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn with hair dyed so red the American film director invited her to “take her hat off” before they began.
On paper, that forthrightness can be scary. She returns the pre-interview questions I submit with the seemingly-dismissive note, “I’m a bit tired of reading 'freakish' interviews after editors get their hands on them.”
But face to face, it’s different: not the kind of honesty that pushes you away, but draws you in. You fear you’re looking at uncompromising, uncaring truthfulness; and then you discover it’s disarming frankness instead.
If you want metaphors, it’s the same with her house, for first impressions are misleading here, too. I was half expecting a mansion hidden behind a Berlin Wall of trees, in Greta Garbo countryside, approached by a mile of distancing drive and moated by acres of defensive fields. Well, she has lived in places like that – she and her husband (the rock legend Robert Fripp of King Crimson) once owned Cecil Beaton’s old pad, Reddish House in Wiltshire, with nearly six acres of landscape and water garden. But for a couple who’ve had their fair share of weird stalkers and obsessive compliment-payers – and don’t forget that Toyah worked with Jill Dando on the Holiday programme - their current home is startlingly on view. It is Georgian-fronted and grand – but the front door opens straight onto the streets of the market town of Pershore.
“Actually, this is the safest house I’ve ever lived in,” Toyah says. “Yes, we have had a lot of problems, and especially Robert. And I had a very, very bad experience when my work colleague Jill Dando was murdered. I was advised never to go to the same address at the same time for at least three months, and it took a long time to get over that.
“But coming to live bang in the centre of a town has eradicated all our problems because the people who want to make your life hell will only do it when they think they can get you alone.
“Our neighbours are fantastic. Everyone has the time to say, ‘Hello; how are you?’ About three years ago, we had a very bad storm – a gale – and the elderly who live here were being blown over. And we were all rushing out of shops and hairdressers to pick them up and take them home. That’s the kind of community this is – you don’t let anyone fall over, metaphorically or physically.”
But she and Robert so nearly didn’t end up here at all. They’d just bought a new home - Evershot Manor in Dorset – in 2001 when they happened to take a boat trip down the Avon. Spotting the ‘For Sale’ sign, they looked round “just to be nosy”. “After we’d seen it, I burst into tears and said, ‘We’re not going to talk about this house again’. And for the whole day, we just couldn’t speak about it. The situation was a mess: we knew we had to have it, yet we’d just bought Evershot.”
When Robert returned to America, where he works, he sorted the problem with consummate simplicity - he bought the house without telling Toyah. “I didn’t find out until 9/11. He was in Nashville and I phoned him to tell him the Twin Towers had been destroyed. I said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to get home for a while’. And he said, ‘Oh my god; I’ve just bought that house in Pershore on a 100 percent loan!’
“We didn’t sell Evershot for a year, but he loves it here; he says it’s the happiest home he’s had in his life.”
Despite its central position, it’s an amazingly peaceful house. No matter how busy the street, once the doors are closed it could be in the most isolated place on earth. The garden is long and narrow-ish, picturesquely curtailed by the banks of the Avon; but its shape has been magicked from awkward to fascinating, masterfully arranged into ‘rooms’ of individual character and charm - a pond, an arbour, a backdrop for evocative pieces by the sculptor Althea Wynne.
Inside, the house is traditional – beautifully, opulently furnished, saved from any stuffiness by unique touches, such as paintings of King Crimson album covers up the stairs.
Toyah was no stranger to Pershore when they moved in. She grew up in Kings Heath, Birmingham and often sailed down the Avon to this pretty market town.
“In fact, I first came to this very house when I was three, when it was The Willow Tearooms, run by the Squires sisters. I didn’t know their names at the time – I only found out because we had a ‘haunting’ programme here, which discovered them in the house.”
“Discovered” them…? So does she believe in ghosts?
“Well, I don’t make a career out of it, and this was first time I’ve ever been open about it - I let a camera crew in for the programme Living with the Dead. The actress Rula Lenska joined in – a complete sceptic - but she got caught up in a vision in the cellar of dying children. That took me by surprise because I’d never sensed that here at all. After we’d finished filming, we found out that, during the plague in this town, they put all the children into the cellars. They thought it would protect them, but some ended up starving to death.
“Rula said the experience changed her life: she could see everything, as if she’d been transported back to that time. When we told her afterwards about the history of the house, she felt a lot better – she said it made her realise she wasn’t going mad.”
Toyah has always been open to spiritual ideas others might dismiss out of hand. Though you might naturally be more inclined to remember her as the presenter of the Good Sex Guide Late, she’s also fronted Songs of Praise. Her autobiography, Living Out Loud, published in 2000, has references to spirit guides as well as psychic phenomena and poltergheists (though it was commissioned by the religious department of Hodder, which, she says, meant including more of these experiences than she might otherwise have done). She describes her faith as pantheistic not traditional: “Belief is good for people but I do think Christianity is metaphorical, and about 12 chapters of the Bible are missing - the mystic chapters.”
It could sound kooky, but it doesn’t. What makes her particularly fascinating is that she’s remarkably well-informed – our chat ranges from the cultural advantages of Christianity, and out-of-body experiences, to Darwinism, whether or not the Turin Shroud was achieved by primitive photography, and the interaction of consciousness with technology.
It’s a reminder of several things. Firstly, that this diminutive woman is nobody’s fool. Secondly, that the punk movement that brought her so much fame cannot easily be dismissed. Convenient as it might be for critics to file it away as mindless anarchy, there was an intellectual force and idealism in Toyah, and other young proponents, that raised it way above the level of strange fashion fad.
Indeed, Toyah’s image was not created by stylists and PR crews. She was punk long before she appeared in films such as Quadrophenia and Jubilee. Uncompromisingly so. She turned up for an office job with Legal & General, hair dyed jet black and blue… She refused to change her hair for her part in Tales from the Vienna Woods at the National, and had to wear a wig during performances. (Although she shot to prominence in the ‘70s as a punk singer, she is, of course, a highly accomplished stage actress, too.)
“It was like every lost soul found a place in punk,” she says, “and I haven’t seen anything like that happen since for a young generation. I can remember public school kids pretending to be middle class. Everyone would turn up at Sloane Square tube station and get changed out of their school uniform and become a punk. It was cute in many ways but also I think it was the beginning of some great literature; some great music; great attitude, and it did brilliantly for women and for disabled people.
“We all came from an era of finger-pointing and name-calling in the playground and suddenly all that had no meaning because it was almost a compliment to call someone a name. And we really went through the mangle because society was so against us. You’d walk down the street and people would either cross the road or throw things at you.”
Does she think society would be a different place today if punk hadn’t happened?
“I think something had to happen, the way the Swinging Sixties happened. It was one of those social osmoses where something clicked; the litmus went up, as it were.”
From the outset, her serious acting and her punk performances ran side by side. You’d have thought them incompatible but, amazingly, the ‘aristocracy’ of the theatre world adored this talented young upstart – particularly Hepburn and Olivier. During Toyah’s work with the great thespian on the film The Ebony Tower, she became Olivier’s confidante. The relationship was respectful - she always called him ‘Sir’ - but he nevertheless confided to her intimate details of his life, including his obsessive love/hate relationship with his late wife, the actress Vivien Leigh - Leigh’s madness; her ability to act that seemed to arise directly from that insanity; even personal details about her death.
“I think it was because nobody would listen to him – but I could sit and listen for hours,” she says. “Olivier was dying when I worked with him, and he had a nurse on set. He trusted me not to tell anyone if he was feeling ill. One of the most scary moments I had was during a rehearsal when he brushed his skin on a screw. He was trying to hide the fact that he was bleeding because he didn’t want the nurse to see. In the end, I stopped the shooting and said, ‘I’m really sorry, Sir, but we’re going to have to deal with this.’ He didn’t like that.”
With anecdotes such as this, it’s easy to picture a glamorous life. But reading through her early years, things were far from hedonistic. At one point, when she was working on Quadrophenia by day and, at the same time, doing night shoots with John Mills for Quatermass, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She simply took the antibiotics and didn’t let on to anyone.
So why did she survive the madness? Why didn’t she crash and burn? She laughs. “Because everyone expected me to, I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.”
If her life was mad when she was younger, it’s not much more restful now. She plays Billie Piper’s mother in the Secret Diary of a Call Girl (“If I ever had a child, I wish it would be Billie because she’s just beautiful and gets on with everybody.”) She’s writing songs to put on her own albums and for other artists, film and television. She creates TV shows, lectures on cruises and writes. She’s about to embark on a hectic tour with the cult musical Vampires Rock – “A bit like the new Rocky Horror. It’s an evening of the best rock ballads you can think of”. She also performs sell-out concerts, including ‘80s tours, where, to her astonishment, the majority of the audience is under the age of 20.
And this, all from a base in rural Worcestershire. She’s well aware that the cute move might be to the States, if she wanted to expand her career even further. But is she interested? Nope. In fact, one of her next moves could well be to invest further in Pershore. She and Robert are mulling over financing a new shop, maybe designer women’s wear to begin with, to help boost business in the town.
“I don’t want to move to LA; I really don’t want to move to New York,” she says. “I realise I could possibly have a career there, but I would lose everything of great value here.
“This is just the most perfect place, and Robert and I feel very protective towards it - and to the people as well. It’s the sort of place where the young move away and eventually always come back… Which, in a way, is exactly what I’ve done.”
For more information on Toyah and her latest projects, visit www.toyahwillcox.com