By Hazeez Balogun
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett at Tinsel's 1000th episode celebration in Lagos. May 23, 2013.
74-year-old actress Taiwo Ajai-Lycett once described herself as “an accidental actress,” but nothing about the veteran thespian's brilliant career seems less than deliberate. Born in Lagos, Nigeria on February 3, 1941, Ajai-Lycett moved to the UK in 1960—the first step on her way to becoming a celebrated African stage star abroad. Even though she worked in the UK civil service for eight years, that career path was very much a sideshow. She was far more popular as a performer on the UK theatre circuit than as a worker in the United Kingdom General Post Office
Honoured with a coveted OON (Officer of the Order of the Niger) award by the Nigerian government in the 2006, Ajayi-Lycett is still an active actress who isn't showing any signs of slowing down. In this interview with Hazeez Balogun, the legend, in the familiar comfort of her home, bares her soul on Nollywood, her love life and her lengthy acting career.
Hazeez Balogun: You are back on Nigerian television, precisely on the acclaimed show, Tinsel. How does that feel?
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett: I am on Tinsel and I am enjoying every bit of it. I hope people are excited with what I am doing on the show. I take my audience very seriously, and I give 100 percent of myself to them.
HB: You act the role of a wicked woman on Tinsel. Given the fact that you are a well-loved national icon, are you comfortable with that role?
TAL: Of course. In this world there are good people and there are bad people, and an actor plays a role whether good or bad. Our job is to mirror life. I am not in the business to just play a goody-goody, I am in the business of playing strong characters, delineated, clear, vibrant, and believable. So whether the person is unhappy or wicked has nothing to do with it. When people who you see as wicked are doing bad things you should try and see what is worrying them. The character I play, Yahimba, is hurting and she does not have a relationship with her children. Such a woman will be bitter and hurting. What people call wickedness is somebody trying to find her way through life.
HB: You were a teacher before deciding to leave Nigeria for the UK in the 60s. Why did you leave?
TAL: At that time it was popular for Nigerians who had the means to leave the country in search of what they refer to as the Golden Fleece. People like Zik, Mbadiwe, Herbert Macaulay and the like all went to the UK to better themselves. Remember in those days, we did not have thirty-six federal universities like we have today, so everyone was going abroad to study at that time. After three years you were expected to come back home to take up a position in the civil service. I as well went to the UK in search of further education.
HB: Is it true that you worked as a waiter at a tea shop to support yourself in London?
TAL: Of course. In those days, most people who travelled to the UK to school went on scholarship. Also, those with rich parents had it easy as well. Someone like Rasheed Gbadamosi had parents who are well to do and were able to sponsor him abroad to school. I did not have those opportunities. The best I could do was to find a job to support myself. The first few days I got there, I was able to get a job and I lived off that, working in the day and schooling at night.
I’m amused when people say “I couldn’t complete my education because there was no money or my father died.” That is rubbish. When you get there, you go and work. Even Americans do it; they work in the day and school at night. They even do two or three jobs. So that was what I did. I cleared tables, I made tea, I served customers, I made Welsh rabbit. All these times in my life were times of learning that enriched my life. Waiting tables helped me to learn a lot of things about the city.
HB: You said that in those days, Nigerians would school for three years in the UK and return to Nigeria to work, but you schooled for longer and even decided to stay in the UK to work. Why did you not come back like most other Nigerians?
TAL: Firstly, I told you that I was studying and working at the same time. It was only those who schooled full time that were able to finish university in three years. I was working and schooling and that took about four or five years to complete. So things were different for me from the onset. Also, I come from a family where education is very important, and I am addicted to learning. I am a perpetual student.
This was the post-independence era. At the time, my plan was to study law but where I was working in the British civil service, I learnt that science, commerce and industry were, together, the engine house of the economy. That’s why I studied business studies at the Hendon College of Technology.
HB: All this while you still did not know you would be an actor?
TAL: No. I had no idea I was an actor. It was not a dream I had nor did I think of it as something I could do. My dream in life was to be a lawyer and later a strong business person.
HB: So how did you get into acting?
TAL: I had a friend who was an actor. One day, I decided to take him to get coffee while in the studio where he was working. The director who was working on that set then came around and asked if I was an actor, and I said no. Then he asked if I would be interested in acting in his production. I thought about it for a while. I usually had a two-month holiday from work and what I did with it was study. So I decided to spend my holiday giving acting a try.
That was how I went to join rehearsals. Then the play opened. After every show, people will come around to ask who my agent was. In England you are not allowed to act without being a member of the Union. Till today, I am still a member of the Actors Equity Union of England. After one of the plays, an agent approached me and signed me up.
HB: Since you started acting, did you give up your day job and previous ambition?
TAL: No, I was still doing my day job at the time. Previously I would work during the day and school during the night. This time I was working during the day and acting at night. Eventually, I had to take a decision to either continue doing both jobs at the same time or I should leave one for the other. The decision was made for me because the demand for me was so much.
After acting for a while I became very wary, that someone might find me out because I was not a trained actress. It must have been the Nigerian in me that believed that I must have a certificate to do anything. That was when I decided to go and study acting. I got myself a voice teacher, I learnt music, I tried to learn to play the piano, I learned dancing at Floral Street Dance Centre. It was while I was learning dancing that someone who was recruiting actors for Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser at the Royal Opera House to dance in the production.
HB: You co-founded the Gbakanda Theatre in England. What was it about and what did you want to achieve with it?
TAL: It was a theatre company. I and my partners decided to have an African theatre company at that time. We do not have theatre companies in this part of the world. The only thing of that sort in Nigeria is Terra Kulture, a drama company owned by Bolanle Austin Peters.
HB: You worked with Wole Soyinka on the stage production of his classic book, The Lion and the Jewel.
TAL: That was my debut. It was The Lion and the Jewel that was being rehearsed when I was approached by the director. Because I was a Nigerian on set, I understood the village setting and was able to play the role very well.
HB: How did you meet your husband, Thomas Lycett?
TAL: When I met Tom, I was already a very popular actor in the UK and other countries. That time I was looking for a place to stay and apparently, the place I got also housed many other people of art- poets, painters, actors, musicians, writers and the like. So I moved into the place. The community there decided to have a party for me to welcome me to the neighbourhood. Tom Lycett at the time was living in the area and was invited to the party. Soon we got talking and found out that he was a well-read man. He was a Cambridge man, a historian, and I used to read prodigiously then so we got along easily and there was always something for us to discuss.
Some weeks later, he told me he would be travelling around the world soon, since he was in the oil sector. He was away for six months but all the while he was away we talked constantly on the phone. Our discussion was more cerebral than romantic. Through these calls, we got to know each other very well. So when he got back, it was as if we had known each other for ages. So the question was where do we go from there? He said that he was not looking for a girlfriend but a wife. I on the other hand was not looking for a boyfriend as well. But I liked him, in fact I loved him. I was very busy at that time and did not want the complications of a relationship. In fact, I was on tour when we got married - after or wedding in the afternoon, I was back on stage that same night.
By that time, he had bought us a flat which he had decorated very tastefully. So when I finished the tour, I joined him in our new home. He was very romantic, very unorthodox, and very special. Our relationship was very special, it was a union of minds. It wasn’t about sex, yes that was glorious later on, but what we shared was special. It was he who told me that I had to give up working in the civil service and concentrate on my acting.
HB: Which do you consider your greatest work?
TAL: All of them. There was one that was special though. It was at the Dublin International Film Festival. I played a wife of the assassinated Congolese prime minister. The woman was illiterate and did not have any lines. My part was when they came to tell me that my husband had died. With my reaction, apparently, I shook the theatre. If a penny had dropped, you would have heard it. The audience was stunned. Even the other actors got carried away.
HB: Was it at that point you knew you would take up acting as a full-time career?
TAL: You know, Tom flew in to see the play. After we closed up, we had a lengthy discussion. He told me that I had to take acting very seriously and leave my other work behind. He understood the financial security I got from the other job and he told me that he would be paying a certain amount into my account every month. That is the basis of my security in England till now. He asked me not worry about being financially secure and concentrate more on my acting.
HB: It seems you got comfortable living in the UK and forgot about Nigeria.
TAL: How can I forget about Nigeria? I returned to Nigeria in 1971. By that time I had been making noise over there and all that was reaching them here.
HB: Did you bring your husband to meet your family in Nigeria?
TAL: Before I got married, my eldest brother was a top shot in the International Labour Organisation. It was important that I follow my tradition and I was not going to marry without showing my husband to at least one member of my family. So since I couldn’t get married in Nigeria, I made sure he got to meet my brother before we got married.
HB: As a professional actor, you have appeared in TV dramas, plays and movies. Which of these do you prefer acting in?
TAL: I prefer stage myself. You can do anyone of them as an actor, but the superior platform is the stage. There, you have to know what you are doing. With stage you have a direct interaction with the audience. You do not have the luxury of cutting scenes and taking them all again. You better know what you are doing when on stage. You cannot go on stage without knowing your lines.
HB: What is your take on Nollywood, Nigeria's movie industry?
TAL: We must never forget that Nollywood gave the Nigerian entertainment scene a shot in the arm at a time when nobody could go to the theatre because of security concerns and there were only a few television houses mostly owned by the government. What those TV stations did most of the time was run propaganda for those in power, which was short-sighted.
So there was a vacuum because people wanted to be entertained. Some people who did not have any technical knowledge and lacked ideology but were business-savvy recognised an opportunity to make money. These ones started making movies, mostly rubbish, but the people were hungry for anything and they sold a lot of movies.
There was a problem with the messages as well. Talking about how your mother is a witch, how your step-mother is against you, how a medicine man cast a spell on you and so on. All that was rubbish, but it was expected because their own intellect did not go beyond that. They were catering to the lowest common denominator. But as I said, they kept entertainment alive never minding the quality and content of what they produced. And I always give them kudos for that. As for the quality, forget it.
HB: As an internationally acclaimed actor, why have you refused to be a part of Nollywood?
TAL: For years, many thought I was ignoring the industry. I am not going to be a party to what I know is going to be half-baked and no better than it should be. I am not on stage because I want to be popular or to be known. I am on stage to tell stories of excellence, of how people live, of the spirit of man, of who an African is and of strong women. I love my fans and viewers and I don’t short-change them with anything less than excellence. The industry has been there for twenty years and not taking part in it has not affected my life in anyway.
HB: That is why it is believed that someone like you should come in and try to do things the right way.
TAL: That is what I am doing at the moment. That is the next stage of my life. Now people are getting to understand that things are not being done properly and they understand that there is a need to step things up. I have set up TAL House Academy to train people in acting.