After playing a member of the anarchic and murderous girl gang in the 1978 punk film Jubilee, actress and singer Toyah Willcox is revisiting the story in its first stage version. Is she still punk, 40 years on?
“I can’t live in a world of dullards,” Toyah says. “So I think on that level, I’m definitely punk.”
Toyah, who forged an acting career while also making her name as a pop star, is still rebelling against the expectations of society – in her own way.
“For me, it’s non-conformist,” she says. “I’m just not interested in the norm. The only example I can give you is I can’t go to a hairdresser and talk about holidays. I just don’t live in that world. It’s not me.”
Being punk means something different in 2017 compared with 1977. But the world’s a different place now, and Toyah is almost 60.
As a 19-year-old, she played the orange-haired pyromaniac Mad in the original Jubilee. She’s not returning to that role on stage – this time, she’s playing Queen Elizabeth I, who travels forward 400 years to find her country falling apart.
In the film, the semi-fictional Britain the queen visited was terrorised by punks who had overthrown the establishment and who revelled in murder and mayhem.
It has been brought up to date for the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester, with the mob now made up of gloriously outrageous modern youths who are at various points on the gender spectrum.
While the world may be a different place, as another generation simmers with anger and resentment at the hand they’ve been dealt by the establishment, some things have stayed the same.
In the 70s, Toyah was pushing against being “gender specific, which I certainly wasn’t back then,” she recalls.
“I had no interest in people telling me to be feminine, to be ladylike, to wear dresses – it just made me rebel completely.
“But in comparison to today, it was quite an innocent rebellion. Punk 40 years ago was rebelling against conservatism – well, wham, bam, here we are again.”
During rehearsals, Toyah says she’s been given a steep lesson by her fellow cast members in what it’s like to be young today. She’s decided things are more difficult and complicated in many ways.
“If I was given the choice to be 20 now, I would say, no, I’m happy with where I am. And having experienced that incredible revolution, it felt like a really successful participating revolution,” she says.
“People today are fighting for their space on social media all the time. I just find social media such a robotic experience, whereas punk was right in your face.”
Society is more fractured, too, meaning it’s harder for cultural movements like punk to take hold. Whatever else it was responsible for, punk gave artists like Toyah a living through music and acting.
“There were people who wanted to come and see us perform in their 10s of thousands,” she says. “We didn’t starve.
“Whereas I’m seeing for the first time in this generation the potential for well-educated people to starve, and my eyes are wide open about this and I’m finding it very frightening.”
Toyah got the role in the original Jubilee after being introduced to director Derek Jarman by Chariots of Fire actor Ian Charleson, with whom she had acted at the National Theatre.
Going to Jarman’s flat in Earls Court for the first time was an eye-opening experience. “A naked man called Yves, his French boyfriend, answered the door,” she recalls.
“Yves was the most extraordinarily languid, relaxed human being, who would drape himself over furniture completely naked. Two more naked men were in the kitchen cooking.
“Derek ushered us into a lounge and we sat on the sofa and we had tea and cake.”
Soon after offering her the role of Mad, Jarman faced funding problems and cut her character to save money. But he later reinstated her, instead deciding not to pay himself.
“So he gave up his fee,” Toyah explains. “He said, ‘I could just tell I’d removed the earth from under your feet.’ That was it. We were in love.”
The film caused controversy when it came out in 1978 – mainly among punks themselves.
It prompted Vivienne Westwood to write an open letter to Jarman on a T-shirt, describing it as “the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen”.
When Jubilee came to be shown on Channel 4 eight years later, there was outrage that it was being beamed into millions of homes.
The outraged included Winston Churchill’s grandson, also called Winston and also an MP, who wrote to The Times to complain about this “corrosively vicious trash”.
Now, the stage version has its own controversy. Lines describing Moors Murderer Myra Hindley as “a true artist” and a “hero” – which were in the film – have been cut from the theatre script for fear of offending the audience in Manchester, where Hindley and Ian Brady preyed on children.
The original film set out to shock and offend, as did many punks themselves. But Toyah says they came to realise they had taken some things too far.
“This is what punk was about at this time – it was about shocking,” she says. “And I think as punk grew, it intellectually grew as well, and it examined its roots.
“You can find pictures anywhere of punks in swastikas. We very quickly as a unified group policed that, because we knew the history was wrong.”
With much of the film’s sex and violence intact, the play is still hoping to shock – and to prove that punk lives on in 2017.
Jubilee runs at the Royal Exchange until 18 November and then at the Lyric, Hammersmith, from 15 February to 10 March 2018.