Taiwo Ajai-Lycett- A Legend of the Reel (Part 1)
For decades, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett has thrilled millions all over the world. In this exclusive with Oliver Enwonwu, she talks about her journey including the defining moments that shaped her life and career.
When you were at about 19 years old, you left Nigeria for England to study. Please tell us about this early period in your life including your successes and the difficulties you encountered on your journey into acting.
‘Show business’ was entirely accidental. When I left here to study abroad, I was going to be a lawyer because it was conventional. It was on the eve of independence in 1960, and having a law degree got one not just to practice law, but to know the law. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo were lawyers and could speak for the people. I wanted to be a one so that I could be a spokesperson, but when I got there I had to work. First, I got myself a typewriter and learnt to type so that I could work anywhere. I had to wait tables to get money, but one day, I saw an advertisement in The Guardian or The Times that the civil service department and the General Post Office were looking for people to train in their secretarial field. So I applied and was successful. They sent us for training and then assigned us to the typing pool of the civil service. I also registered at Pitman College. Now lawyering was out of the question, but being a pragmatic person, I decided to apply for the next course because as one progressed, they taught us typing and shorthand. I would say my eclectic taste developed from reading all the things I was typing, from science to mathematics and literature. I was fascinated and absorbed them all. At the end of the 6-week course, which the civil service paid for, they assigned one higher. I was taken from the typing pool and assigned to the directors. First, I went to the director of personnel, Mr. Coates; I will never forget him he nurtured my curiosity and gave me books to read. Till today, if you give me a book, I know you love me. I am not interested in diamonds or anything like that, but if a man looked and talked to me, then thought, Taiwo should read that book, then no greater love hath no man. If anyone wants to open my mind and nurture it, then I know he is a true friend. The books introduced me to all sorts of things, for example Egyptian poetry. During lunchtime, I would go to the lunch office library to study various artists like Leonardo da Vinci. That was how I came to know about your father, and to appreciate art and poetry.
I had a special time in England. Nobody saw me as black, green or yellow; they just saw me as a mind. This is why I will not forget Mr. Coates, I owe a great deal to him because through him I educated myself. There is racism by the ordinary illiterate mind, but the professional mind is a completely different one. There is a class hierarchy in England, and as you know, not all professional minds belong to the higher class, like those who struggled to find their own niche in the system.
Soon, I went for another course and got posted to research and development, where Mr. S. Wood was the director. It was at a time when PCs were being developed. People were coming from America to have secret meetings in my department, where these were being developed. This was between 1962 and 63. I was the secretary then, and present at the meetings. Scientists were developing this amazing thing–the computer phenomenon that is taking over the world while I was typing away, going for meetings and having geniuses and great minds come to prepare for the future. They would even talk about if there would be a need for secretaries in the future because computers would take over the world. I listened to all these discussions, read their papers and prepared the reports for my boss. They were highly confidential events between America and Britain, about how every home and office would have a PC. It was working with S. Wood in research and development that made me change my mind from law. When I now go round London and see the post office tower, I tell myself I was there when that started. No one knows who I am but I am proud to be part of it as I feel an affinity, a proprietary connection, though I was only a secretary then. I was later posted to the private office of Lord Hall, the Chairman of the General Post Office as senior personal secretary, then to the minister, John Stone’s house. He was the postmaster – general. So I worked up from the typing pool in the General Post Office to the minister, that is the extent of the broadening of my knowledge. I worked with people who run the system there; they broadened my knowledge and educated my sensibilities.
How did you delve into acting in London?
While at the civil service, I had a friend, Yemi Ajibade whom I was about to date and after work we would go for tea. Rehearsals were taking place for the premiere of Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. I was sitting in the foyer one day when the director of the play approached me. I was dressed like a model in those days; I looked unusual, not artistic but very elegant. He walked across the foyer of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square and asked if I was an actor. I said no, I was just waiting for my friend Yemi. He then asked if I would mind being in the play. I said I’d think about it. I hope he is still alive, his name is William Gasscol and he was the legendary Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre. He is one of those who started the modern English theatre. The Royal Court Theatre is an avant-garde theatre; they tried things that orthodox, conventional theatres wouldn’t. Whenever I took a holiday, I went to study something or the other. So when I got back to the office, I told my boss that I would like to take my holiday, but because I thought it was a project for a year, I joined the Royal Court Theatre and started going for rehearsals. That is how it all started, I never set out to be an actor; it was completely accidental. Most of the girls were Ghanaians and Africans from the Diaspora; West Indians and Americans. A girl called Stella and I were the only Nigerians. I was just having fun, but then we opened the floodgates to people and the press who wanted to know who my agent was. I could not work in England without an equity card, the theatre had to apply on my behalf for a temporary one as I did not have an agent. Soon Elizabeth Allen Jeffery of Premier Management signed me on. The following week, John Smith (I think this is his name) who was Head of Domestic Service at the BBC, asked me to come to the Bush House, and then the show started. So it was just something I did during my holiday while waiting for a friend.
When people started approaching me for work, I said to myself, ‘I am a fraud. One of these days they are going to find out that I am an interloper, I had better do something about this.’ Do not forget that all my life I had been learning this or that. If you like, being secure about my own talents or gifts because theory is important, and one has to get it right. So I rushed into training and forgot the private sector. I went to the City Literary Institute in London and even tried to learn to play the piano because of the musicality in acting, as one has to know all the underground roots. I also tried to learn to play the guitar and work on my voice. Not only did I go to school, I had private tutors like Sue Ridges who later became one of my maids of honour when I married Tom Lycett. So my life has always been consumed with my work.
I also went to down Floral Street at Covent Garden to learn ballet and modern dance. I then started television, eventually enrolling for a course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama; world-class musicians were there and I had good teachers. Mrs. King was my teacher in acting while Mr. John trained my voice. I also had the Australian, John Wilcox, who taught me to sing modern musicals. This is the range of training I spent my money on in my journey to becoming an actor. I was taught all manner of things that I would like to pass on to aspiring actors. I cannot remember my first show but I played at the Edinburgh International Festival; if as an actor you have played there, it is a big deal. I think my first appearance on the international stage was the Dublin International Festival. Conor Cruise O’Brien, a diplomat who was a deputy to Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the UN at the time, wrote a play about Patrice Lumumba titled Murderous Angels. It was about the shenanigans of the UN and how they sacrificed Lumumba with African politicians in the 60’s when African countries started gaining independence. Olu Jacobs played Shaun Bay and Gwen Mahoney played the assistant to Hammarskjöld. I played Pauline, Patrice Lumumba’s wife, but not without a word. I was only supposed to be crying when they came to tell me my husband died, so I asked if I could do a dirge for him, as what was happening in Africa was intense. I also thought to myself, it would be nice to have an African wake. Tom Lycett, my husband, came all the way from London to Dublin to see the play. There used to be a Yoruba drama group at Ebute-Metta, behind the fence. I could always hear them sing this song, and I liked it; it was so evocative it made me cry. It was about a warrior who died in battle. The village no longer had this champion and so the women were wailing about where he was (starts singing in Yoruba). The meaning of the song is if there is war here, you have to fight it for us. So my dirge was not only for Lumumba but also for a war being pitched in Africa; I sang it in Yoruba. Tom, who was in the audience told me later that if a penny had dropped, one would have heard as the audience was so captivated. The next morning, I was in all the papers and I became the toast of the town. Then, I was still doing other things like studying accountancy, but my husband warned me against being a perpetual student. He said that he had not met anybody as broadly educated as I was, so I have to give education a rest. “If it is about money, I will put a stipend into your account every month. You are an actor. I know you are multi-talented but you have to focus on acting because this is your calling, as when you got on stage, everything shut down even though they did not understand what you were saying.”
You attended the Christine Shaw School of Beauty Science and Cosmetology, London where you studied cosmetology, and later earned a Diploma in Business Studies. Have these separate fields had any influence on your acting?
While I was working at that height at the post office, it occurred to me that I needed to be well groomed because my bosses were entertaining people from all over the world. Depending on my status, I was entitled to a holiday of between 4 and 6 weeks. So every holiday, like a proper Nigerian, I went to study something or the other including filmmaking and cosmetology at the Christine Shaw School of Beauty. Cosmetology entails knowing how to dress properly for various occasions, especially cocktails. You do not have to look like a model but you must have everything put together absolutely right, including your makeup. So I studied cosmetology to aid my work for the post office. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a makeup artist; I just wanted to understand what it meant to put yourself together. Looking good is good business. When you look good, you encourage people to tidy up themselves because when you are in the public eye, there are so many impressionable people looking at you. You have to send a signal that is edifying to everybody. How you comport yourself and how you speak is what you learn in cosmetology, which is not just about the painting of the face. Even if painting the face is a perspective, it is a vision you want people to see. It is a point of view you are trying to communicate. Though, it is a mask, what is it saying? You have to be aware of that. What is your brow saying? Where are your cheekbones? Is your face animated or do you want to be passive because you are sending a different message? Cosmetology is not just about a face, it is meaningful to whatever I do. Have you seen the many faces I have? Each projects different ideas about my person or character, so I am able to live with my face whether I have makeup on or not. Indeed, cosmetology has informed my life and work. It still does and maybe that is why I do not take painting my face too seriously.
Acting is not just a show, there is a business attached to it. My training helped me learn that it is not play acting but that it is to an end and can be commercially and financially meaningful; and when you realize it, you can plough back more to develop in that area. The reason we are struggling is because we have not taken care of business, it is all show. We do not have managers because everyone just wants to take all the money. However, you must have specialists even in show business people who manage you, and you pay them to take care of business. Instead, we want to grab all the money, and think I am the talent, so why should I get 10,000 naira and pay him 100 naira? You must do that, concentrate on what you know. You can focus on that while other people help you grow, perchance, you can even make more money than if you are struggling in areas you know nothing about. Even if you know about these areas, let others earn a living because when all these people support show business, it grows. That show business is unsung means that so many people have to work together to achieve that goal. It is a function of illiteracy for anyone to play diva because you know your true importance when you realize so many people are behind you to get you out there. If the wardrobe person is not doing his job, the makeup person is not doing his, the lighting cameraman doesn’t know what he is doing, the stage manager doesn’t know too, and the coffee lady who is going to serve you doesn’t know what she is doing, where exactly are you? I always think politicians, in particular, should look at show business; it is unsung when people have to work together to achieve a great whole. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit because if what you are doing is marvelous, you all win; it is not about you. That is what I learnt about business for me to win, everybody has to win. So yes, my business training is important in my development and in understanding what I am doing.
The concluding part of the interview will be available on Omenkaonline on August 6, 2018.
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