Spotlight: Wendy Toye
While the 1950s and 1960s were something of a desert for female directors in the UK, there were two notable exceptions, two women who built formidable careers against the odds. The first was Muriel Box, who made 13 feature films across the two decades and remains to this day the most prolific female director in British cinema history. The second is Wendy Toye.
Like many wonderful filmmakers – Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, Sally Potter – Wendy Toye came to film through dance. We can speculate what it is about dance that seems to lead, with surprising frequency, to the camera. Is it about discipline, or an understanding of movement, or the skill of storytelling through imagery?
Wendy wasn’t just a dancer; she was a prodigy. She made her first public appearance at the Royal Albert Hall at four years old, and by the age of nine had already choreographed a dance spectacular at the London Palladium. As a teenager she danced at the Café Paris in London and watched Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes rehearse with the artist Jean Cocteau, who was at that time designing their sets and costumes. By her late teens she was regularly visiting film sets as a dancer and choreographer. On these sets she quietly began to soak up the technical knowhow that was to prove an asset when she eventually moved behind the camera. By the late 1940s, Wendy was a well-known figure in the British theatre scene. She had her own internationally touring dance company, Ballet-Hoo de Wendy Toye, and was already respected as a director of West End musicals.
Her break into directing came in the early 1950s. Wendy was serving as a choreographer on the set of short film The Stranger Left No Card (1952), when the director, David Lean, dropped out. Toye seized her moment and persuaded the producer to let her take over production. She didn’t squander the opportunity. Wendy completed the shoot in 13 days for £3,000, ahead of schedule, and under budget. Somehow the film caught the eye of Jean Cocteau. When Wendy had crossed paths with Cocteau as a child at the Ballet Russe, he had been a heroic figure. Now it was Cocteau’s turn to be impressed. The French auteur loved Wendy’s film, declaring it a masterpiece. In 1953, as chairman of the Jury at Cannes, Cocteau awarded The Stranger Best Fictional Short.
It’s hard to think of a better calling card for Wendy’s particular set of skills. Based on a short story, The Stranger is an eery, self-contained fable with an ingenious palindromic structure. The film opens with an almost kitsch jauntiness. An eccentric stranger (Alan Badel), dressed ostentatiously in a top hat, arrives by train in a small English village, signs into a hotel, and declares that his name is “Napoleon Bonaparte”. At first, Napoleon is a figure of fun, mocked by the kids, viewed with amused confusion by the locals. Soon however, he becomes a beloved local eccentric, a kind of village mascot. But the jolly countenance hides something darker. Napoleon is here for a particular purpose, and his true intentions are eventually revealed in a chilling final twist.
The theatrical nature of The Stranger plays to Wendy’s strengths. The opening scenes are essentially a dance sequence, Napoleon flitting around like the Pied Piper, attracting bemused looks from the locals as he skips around the high street and marches with a military band. The overblown nature of Napoleon’s costume is almost ludicrously stagey to a modern viewer, and the film’s reveal owes much to theatrical sleight of hand. Wendy handles these sequences with aplomb, her fluid camera sweeping the viewer along until the fatal momentum enfold us irresistibly. The film lives or dies on its shifts in mood, and here again Wendy’s confidence is impressive. The move from cheerful and playful to blood chilling is extraordinary, a stomach-dropping moment, like a trapdoor opening. Yet despite this feeling of complete confidence, Wendy credited the success of The Stranger partly to her own technical naivety, saying later: “I did some things in Stranger which I probably, two or three years later, wouldn’t have attempted”.
Wendy’s transition from theatre to film was a slick, seamless move. The Boys’ Club had never seen her coming. Her connections and inarguable expertise made her difficult to dismiss out of hand, as Wendy described herself:
“If I’d come up through the technical ranks in the studio, I probably wouldn’t have been treated the way I was. I might have been patronised. But because I had reached a certain level outside the film world, in opera, ballet, plays and musicals, I suppose they through – she must know about something.”
Unlike Muriel Box, who had come to filmmaking via the traditional route of continuity work and documentary, Wendy parachuted in as an established talent formed outside of the industry, blindsiding the usual gatekeepers. She had smartly slipped in through the side door.
After the attention-attracting success of The Stranger, Wendy was hot property. Influential British/Hungarian Producer Alexander Korda immediately put Wendy under contract. A decade of productivity followed. A series of successful feature length comedies in the mid-1950s established Wendy as a reliable pair of hands. The first of these was Raising a Riot (1955), a gentle gender role-reversal comedy which starred Kenneth More as a navy officer forced to be a house husband (with chaotic consequences). Raising a Riot was a substantial commercial hit and opened the door to a series of five features in total, all gentle works of escapism. All for Mary (1955) is about a love triangle at a ski chalet, True as a Turtle (1956) a yachting holiday.
While Wendy’s features are solid and well made rather than revelatory, there’s more to them than meets the eye. They may appear to fit comfortably within the generic expectations of the period, but a streak of subversion bubbles beneath the gently conventional surface. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster argues that films such as Raising a Riot are filled with coded feminist messages about the relationships between men and women. Caroline Merz agrees with this assessment, arguing that Wendy’s film anticipate feminist concerns and that by centring her work on hopeless or pathetic male characters her work undermines assumptions of masculine strength. While weak masculinity was not an unusual theme in 1950s British cinema, there is a spark of fantastical mischief to Wendy’s work that shines through, a ripple of rebellion. Like any dancer, Wendy knew the value of the details – the smallest gesture, the flick of the wrist, the subtle flex. There is a precision, an assuredness, a certainty, that feels distinctly hers.
That Wendy built a successful career, and managed to make multiple features, was no mean achievement for a woman of this period. But her most artistically satisfying work was in short form, where Wendy seemed to find the lower stakes liberating. In the Picture, a short segment which is part of the horror anthology Three Cases of Murder (1953), demonstrates Wendy’s ability to sculpt minimal but memorable vignettes. The Stranger’s Alan Badel reappears once again as a sinister outsider, this time an unnamed visitor to an art gallery, who puts a gallery assistant’s obsession with one particular painting to nefarious use. Simple but chilling, the section demonstrates once again Wendy’s supreme mastery of mood and ability to use clever sound and sleight of hand editing to make something genuinely creepy with very little.
At the other end of the spectrum is the delightfully maximalist festive short On the Twelfth Day (1955). The carol The Twelve Days of Christmas provides a pleasingly literal starting point to an extended gag about the practicalities of receiving dozens of live animals, leaping lords and the like from your beloved in the build up to the big day. Set in a gorgeously realised Edwardian fantasy world (designed by artist Ronald Searle, best known for the St Trinian’s cartoons), the film brims with lush colours and lavish costumes. The vivid artificiality of it all, and the sense of a world teetering between frothy fantasy and something slightly darker, brings to mind Powell and Pressburger. Although The Twelfth Day stays on the side of warmth and joy, there is a sense of escalating mania and a cartoonish edge that adds depth to an otherwise sugar-spun confection. As the madness builds, the sight gags get ever more unhinged, but that slightly wild-eyed energy is in itself, weirdly festive. Once again, it’s Wendy’s playful editing and dynamic camera that holds the chaos together, keeping the delivery delightful, featherlight and just sweet enough.
Unlike her contemporaries Muriel Box and Jill Craigie, both of whom became vocal feminists in later life, Toye never consciously embraced feminism in her filmmaking. Women do not feature prominently in her films, and her best known work is firmly centred on male characters. Like many women of her generation, Wendy did not align herself with the movement. Nevertheless, it can’t be understated how exceptional Wendy’s career was, and how impressive it is that she managed to carve out a space for herself in the industry of the time. In a 1992 interview she addressed this explicitly.
I like to think that because I did my job, not necessarily very brilliantly, but well and never went over budget (which is probably very unimaginative of me, but I didn’t), I paved the way for other women to work in film… I like to think that because of that perhaps I did help other women get jobs.
People say, “you’ve never been a feminist, and you never fight for women.” Well, I don’t really, but I think an example of doing something and getting on with it and not being a crashing bore about things is probably better than getting on a platform and making some big speech about it all. By being didactic, you alienate a large part of your audience
It’s perhaps somewhat uncomfortable to acknowledge now, that part of the reason why both Muriel Box and Wendy Toye managed to build careers was because they were both directors who quietly and comfortably slipped into the male-dominated world without making a fuss. Wendy in particular seems to have charmed her male peers – Carol Reed, David Lean, Powell and Pressburger and “Dickie” Attenborough all expressed their admiration for her at some point. But it would be unfair to dismiss the achievements of these pioneers, simply because their approach was pragmatic rather than revolutionary. The mid-twentieth century was truly a barren period for female directors in mainstream cinema. Simply by breaking through, making work and sustaining careers, Muriel and Wendy made their mark.
Wendy spent a decade in the film industry, making five features and four shorts in total. Even so, she did not manage to achieve everything she longed for. There was one particular idea, a longer fantasy feature set in Paris (“a wonderful idea, I would have given my eye teeth to do it!”) but she could not find space within the British industry at the time for such an ambitious project. Wendy directed her last film in 1963 and spent the rest of her career working in television, directing opera, drama and art programmes. She never gave up on the idea of returning to film however, as she described in a 1992 interview:
I would like to do another film. One of the reasons I haven’t worked on more films is because, if you want to get something off the ground, you’ve got to concentrate on that alone. They take such a long time to set up... I would only do something I approved of, that I’d be sure I still believed in in another 10-years’ time, and it’s difficult to find the right subject”
Wendy never quite lived up to the promise of her first film, which hung as something of a shadow across her directing career. In 1981, she even reluctantly remade The Stranger, as a one-off television drama starring Derek Jacobi. Nonetheless her achievements as an artist across media – in theatre, dance and opera as well as film – are remarkable by any measure.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Women Film Directors: An International Bio Critical Dictionary. “Wendy Toye”
BFI Screen Online, “Wendy Toye.”
Emma Hedditch, BFI Screen Online, “Women and Film.”