Women In History: Wendy Toye

In preparation for International Women’s Day on 8 March, we’re joining fellow Cicestrian Kate Mosse in looking back at Women In History, and turning the spotlight on the fascinating life of Wendy Toye, who became the first woman to direct at CFT in 1973.

Born in 1917, Toye showed an incredible talent for dance from a very young age: at four she made her debut at the Royal Albert Hall; at nine she choreographed a ballet at the London Palladium and won the women’s prize for her Charleston at a ball judged by Fred Astaire and Florenz Ziegfeld. She went on to spend the 1930s acting and dancing in shows including The Miracle at the Lyceum and Love and How to Cure It at the Globe. She was forced to give up her ballet career after an operation, but continued to dance and choreograph.

In 1946, she made the switch from choreographer to director with Big Ben, the first of three Herbert-Ellis musicals at the Adelphi. She went on to open Bless the Bride and Tough at the Top, before forming her own company: Ballet-Hoo de Wendy Toye. She directed her first film – The Stranger Left No Card – in 1953, winning Best Short Film at Cannes, and later adapted it for television, starring Derek Jacobi. She was one of only a handful of prominent female film directors working during the decade and no doubt inspired many others.

She never forgot the theatre however, and in 1973 came to Chichester to direct R Loves J, a musical version of Peter Ustinov’s play, becoming the first woman to direct on the Festival Theatre stage. She returned the following year to direct the Vanburgh farce, The Confederacy and Follow The Star, a musical nativity starring Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson as the Angel Chicago. Follow the Star was revived several times (most recently in 1992) and Toye directed it again in 1975 and 1977. In 1975 she directed a new play by Andrew Sachs, Made In Heaven and Make Me a World at Christmas the following year. Her final CFT production was Miranda in 1987, an adaptation of Goldoni by Beverley Cross and starring Penelope Keith.

Throughout her long and varied career, Toye was nominated for an Oscar for the 1955 short On the Twelfth Day, served on the jury at the Berlin film festival in 1963, was awarded the Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977 and directed shows including Showboat, Orpheus in the Underworld and a Danish production of Kiss Me Kate! She was made a CBE in 1992 and died in 2010, aged 92.