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A Legend of the Reel

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 in to 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 any one 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 make-up person is not doing his, the lighting camera man 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.

You came back to Nigeria when the standards weren’t as high as those in the UK and acting wasn’t so popular, how can you compare the difference then and now, and is there any room for improvement?

In Nigeria, there is always room for improvement. Life is a stage and every one of us is an actor but because we are Nigerian, we are more theatrical than most countries and think each of us is an actor, or an artist. This is the reason we do not appreciate art; it is all around us. It is difficult for some to particularize what we do. They take it for granted when they see masks and paintings, and do not take an academic, analytical or the intellectual view. Actors think they can do anything, including standing on their heads, especially in performing art, where everyone is a dancer or singer. I have studied singing all my life but I would never say I am a singer. We do not know our limitations; it is difficult because everyone wants their five minutes in the sun. When one is put on television, it doesn’t matter what he or she is doing. As it is a compelling medium, the content is irrelevant. Everyone wants to be recognized, but one should be recognized for something. There is no self-criticism; there is little humility in our show business as we think we know it all. Nollywood exemplifies that. There is no doubt that it is an energetic system that has breathed life into show business in Nigeria in the last 20 years, but it is very complacent. When it started there was nothing happening around and some people with a business survey decided others were going to be entertained. It was very imaginative and creative to do that, the energy is prodigious, but to what purpose? It is exploiting people’s need. I understand that is the essence of the entertaining business but it is abusing their helplessness and inability to question, and just take what they have. This is a national malaise because 51 people are stealing us blind and we do not say anything because of our ‘poverty mentality’, we think well they are lucky, maybe one day we would be there as well to eat some too. Well, it is shortsighted. If one does not plant the seed, what one is eating now will finish. One constantly has to grow things so that one can harvest. The same with the people who started Nollywood; anything that is moving on the screen will engage people. It is not for nothing it is called an idiot box. It carries some of us, who are acting, away because we are recognized on it. There is no literacy in what we are doing; Nigerians are not reading and do not understand their own culture. Take this fetish nonsense as an example. When we had babalawos, they were not useless people. They were our modern psychologists and medical people, who helped explain what the universe is. They were not trivial, and not killing people.

Everybody was mystified about why they were here on earth. They had certain knowledge about herbs and many other things. They solved problems. What do we do to them?

We make them a laughing stock. I think everybody should be ashamed of the way they have portrayed the people who kept our culture and society together. These people understood their responsibilities to their community and discharged them. In that contract, it is written that if you do not deliver, you must go into your room and as Yoruba call it, parada (change yourself). In other words, go and join the ancestors. It’s not like this lot on TV, who thinks they have the power of life and death over people. In those days, if a witch doctor said it was going to rain and it didn’t, he had better disappear because what is the use of predicting something that doesn’t happen? They were good, kept people calm and comforted them. They healed the sick, but what do we see now? That my husband is interested in another woman, I come to you and say give me poison to put in his food. This is rubbish because it is not what they were doing in those days; at least those who did so were charlatans. But then we start our own thing and project to the world that we are a people who are superstitious and fetish. The way we are packaging and misrepresenting what is happening shows we do not truly understand what they are. That’s my fight with Nollywood. If you couldn’t have a baby, you went to see the babalawo because he was your doctor. He was the one who knew which herbs to put together for you, and to tell you what to eat so that you can be more fertile, ready to ovulate and pregnant. Is that what we are seeing now? We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for rejecting our culture and becoming such a laughing stock that people think we are witch doctors. My understanding of what these babalawos were in our community is that they carried us through before inoculations and vaccinations were discovered. They knew what to put together and though they didn’t have injections, they would cut you to rub these things in so that they go into your blood stream. We may not have invented whatever it is, but it is our responsibility to tell the world that we are not people to be trifled with. A lot of them came here to get the herbs for most of the things they are giving us through injections. They synthesized and advanced them because that is the way of universal knowledge, called universal consciousness. You could start something but the next country would advance it. That’s the nature of knowledge but Nollywood constantly projects to the world that we are so backward and knew nothing about anything, and you think I should align with that? I don’t agree. They imbibe other people’s cultures they do not even understand and make them look superior, so why should I be doing business with them? My business is to make the world know who we are; it is because I am like that I have been able to work with them. They respect you for who you say you are. When I was modelling, they said my teeth had too many gaps and wanted to fill them up, but I said, ‘in my country, this is sexy, it is beautiful.’ So they learnt something. We have sold a great deal to Europe that many do not realize. I used to carry my nephews on my back down Oxford Street and people would stand and watch us. They developed the sling that you use to carry children, and now we buy that and think they invented it. These are the things that show business in our country should project. I remember I would go in the underground and Nigerians would get away from my side because I looked so backwards, like a maid or a village girl. They wore wigs or their hair relaxed. I used to do my hair the way I did back home and I don’t come from a backward family, but I am an African and I do not intend to look White for anything or anybody. I have lived and witnessed Nigerians going to sit somewhere else. This business has been carrying on for 60 plus years now. There is this incredible self-loathing we have that everything foreign is the currency. It would fascinate Europeans that Nigerians do not want to be associated. The Europeans say our hair is nappy; we buy it and then hide it. In America it is a different kettle of fish, the Whites do not want to see our hair, so Black Americans have to put on scarves. People should educate themselves even in America. The Black Americans have different types of hair and bleach to become more acceptable. I can accept that because it is where they live, but what is our excuse here? They were forced to do that over there to get jobs and be more assimilated because if they do not look a certain way, they won’t employ them as they are not comfortable with the Black skin, if you buy into that nonsense. Here in Nigeria, it is only if you want to accept that but I didn’t, I was intensely African and still am. I am Nigerian and I find it insulting for anyone to even challenge how I look. My boss was very fond of me at the first place I worked, the Lion’s Tea Shop at St. James, London. People used to come there because I talk a lot. Wearing their bowler hats, they wanted to know where I come from, because to travel all the way from Africa to England was a big deal at that time. They hadn’t even gone to Brighton themselves (laughs) and yet, I came all the way from Africa, talked like this and knew about their country! Nuns educated us in the type of home I came from, so we were articulate and knew all about England. My brothers and all my family are very articulate and very well educated. I started my professional life in the city of London and how we projected ourselves was essential. I got into an industry and projected ideas and images. My people should not be projecting the kind of images we see because we do not need the outside world to tell us who we are. Look at the way the international media is projecting Africans the way they see us but we have a chance to let them see who we are –the largest population in Africa and the cleverest brains in the world. Showbiz has a responsibility to project what Africa truly is, and the contributions we have made, and continue to make, and how important we are to the rest of the world. We are consuming here, everything they are producing, all our resources are being exported over there and yet we project that we are still so helpless and useless, do not have anything and have to depend on them to give us things. Hollywood almost single handedly colonized the world with the idea of America and the American lifestyle. A lot of it is from their films but false. America is the land of the peaceful and the free, but many of us know the reality. Have you seen any film from America without the American flag in the background? One way or the other, that flag is flown all the time, even in the romance films. Are we thinking deeply? When I talk about illiteracy, I mean the inability to think analytically and deeply about one’s self. Project only what you think is good about yourself, not judging yourself badly by ideas received from other people. In our films we are still consuming everything that Europe and the rest of the world throws at us, not looking at contemporary issues. Take romance, what is the style of romance between our young today? The only examples we have are what Hollywood is giving us – the high number of one-parent families and the fact that our women are ready to have babies without husbands, and plan not to have a future with their men. I remember when I did Winds Against My Soul. People didn’t just know me from watching me in England, they also know me from work that I did here. They talk about my accent, but I say what accent? It is just an educated voice because you must hear what I am saying. Even the market woman understands what I say because of the inflexion my voice comes with. I am seeing the money I spent on many teachers, as I grow with my inflexion. I have an actor’s voice and I am not trying to conceal that I am a Nigerian. It is because my voice is trained that I give value to my vowels and diphthongs, as there is no point talking if no one can hear what you are saying. Everybody watched Winds Against My Soul; it caused streets to shut down. This was the mother of all soaps and so intelligently written by Laolu Ogunniyi. Romantic love fades but what makes love, is not romantic love. It is like the Valentine’s Day we celebrate, what does it mean to Nigerians? We should have a film about that. It seems to me now from what I read and hear, that on Valentine’s Day, you get a present so you can bed her. Do they even know the background to the Valentine that they are talking about? Some people said they didn’t see J.P. Clark at my 75th anniversary celebration. I replied it is not his bag for those who know him. Just before my birthday, he brought me three white roses; one each for 25 years of my life. It is pure love; his feelings towards me are adulterated affection that does not cover sex, but many people wouldn’t understand this. I am not part of Nollywood because it is not portraying our culture. I believe Nollywood should be the mirror of our society. There is good and bad in life. When you show bad, show good but what we show is this very rich ‘big’ man. We do not know what he does to get money, but the media shows that you have to be bad to get up in life. In our films, we want to be that rich man who stomps on the poor like they are nobodies, further polarizing the society and sending the wrong message to the architecture of our culture, as the enemy of an open society.

Owing to your most successful international career, a few critics argue that you are not part of the Nollywood film industry, how would you react to such criticism?

My fight with Nollywood is that we consume other people’s ideas. In show business where we should be spilling ideas, we are still consuming their bankrupt philosophies and ideas, and thinking people would take us seriously. We do not take ourselves seriously, and when somebody says Nollywood, the largest film producer, we fall for that. We are so happy that we just spew it out like that. How clever we are (laughs) when people are actually insulting us because nobody can produce any quality feature film in two weeks. There is no greater fool than a fool who doesn’t know he is one. Do you know how long it takes to plan, the shooting and everything else? However, there is something nobody can teach you – your own ideas. There is nothing original in this world but different perspectives on the same idea. For example, the roots of jazz are from here, and most of it is experimental. I am offended by the way we have opportunities and don’t do anything about them. One might ask, why aren’t you doing anything? Well, I am an actor. I am portrayed as an enemy of the industry, because they can’t hear what I am saying. They think I am criticizing them and being too snooty because I am from Europe. What insult! That’s why I do not want to join them. It isn’t all about talking; you have to talk to people who are listening to what you are saying. But maybe they are beginning to understand because recently, Nollywood gave me the award for Legend of Nollywood. I said to them, ‘This is very funny because everybody knows that I am one of the greatest critics of Nollywood.’ I also said, ‘I hope this is a new dawn for Nollywood. My business is not quantity, it is quality.’ If it were up to me, I would be the last person they would want to honour. I was encouraged and received the award. They were very hospitable and maybe they are now listening. I have never been averse to working with anybody and yes, it is true that I am a juggling actor, but I care about what I do. I want to make a mark; I want to make a contribution, because it has to be worth something. This is a journey that none of us has traveled before, so someone shines a light on it for somebody else. That is the only reason one should be there. I am self-educated; when you travel it broadens your mind. I didn’t go to Europe just to get Europeanized. Knowledge isn’t only in Europe; it is universal and belongs to everybody. You take knowledge and not wait for somebody to give it to you. The Pope carries his own brief case and umbrella. People are mystified when they hear from him that the secret of success is service; they do not understand.

What new projects are you working on and what advice do you have for the coming generation?

I want to establish the Taiwo Ajai-Lycett Arts Academy. When Ike Ude visited and interviewed me, he met several of the actors. He challenged me to run master classes for them. However, they don’t think they need training, but there is a new generation in entertainment, who want to learn. Those are the ones I am trying to catch. I have a place at Egbe but in the mean time, I’ll see if I can run at Freedom Park. Money is the engine; they can see more people flashing money around, but I still want to correct that to stop them thinking that everything starts with money. I want them to know that one creates prosperity through knowledge and execution, because both total success, and that for one to make it, one must not pursue money first. It’s not the reason to want to do something because one must first have a vision and line up how you want to achieve it, and that as you are doing, you would be getting. At the moment they are attracted to showbiz because they can see all these so called celebrities. First of all, I want to stop this celebrity nonsense so that they can see this as work they can take a high sense of responsibility to, a commitment to change, a blessing to themselves and the community, and an avenue to build the society while making a statement about their culture. You have to do the work for the money to come in. That is the philosophy behind my school. If you want personal recognition, then you work for it. When I say work, I mean not necessarily with sweat, but work smart, don’t even expect anything because you do not work for nothing, the world gives to you what you give to it.

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