Features Q&A and Interviews Published 10 January 2013

Richard O’Brien: Lucky Man

To mark the 40th anniversary of The Rocky Horror Show, we speak to its kitten-heeled creator about the show's genesis and creative legacy.
M. F. Jones

Richard O’Brien responds to my initial “How are you?” by saying, “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world!” And after the interview wraps up, he parades his shapely legs around the empty restaurant while announcing that “I’m so lucky to be able to get away with this!” At the age of 70, with glittering jewellery around his neck and kitten heels peeping out from under the tablecloth, he’s indeed lucky to be still getting away with it. He gets away with a lot more besides, the old devil. He delights in telling me about over-the-hill actors leaning over to him and whispering, “I don’t know what the cut-off point is for people to play Frank N. Furter, but…” Of a certain actress, he observes, “There are some people you don’t want to find yourself trapped in the kitchen with at parties.” On numerous occasions, he uses the phrase “I won’t mention any names!”

This appealing combination of self-effacement and self-assuredness is entirely conceivable in a person who created The Rocky Horror Show, unleashed upon the world 40 years ago. The rags-to-riches story of its origins is part of theatre folklore: an unemployed actor writes a few rock ‘n roll songs, takes them to a director friend, and they develop a deliciously low-brow piece of schlock entertainment that strikes a unique chord, plays to sell-out houses, extends its run by months, transfers to the West End, crosses the Atlantic to Los Angeles and New York, gets picked up by Twentieth Century Fox who finance a major motion picture, and becomes a continuing cult phenomenon unparalleled in theatre and cinema history. O’Brien’s humility regarding this quite incredible piece of work recurs throughout our conversation. “I just find it astonishing. It keeps garnering new kinds of overtures of acceptability.” The Victoria & Albert Museum has selected RHS as one of the ten most important plays of post-war Britain, he tells me. “It’s just extraordinary,” he repeats. Self-deprecating about his work, yet fiercely proud of its legacy, I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to call him one of the luckiest people in the world.

Richard O'Brien as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Richard O’Brien as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Well, maybe not the absolute luckiest. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is officially the longest-running theatrical release in film history. “I don’t get anything from that movie. It’s annoying. I’d written the original play, and Jim [Sharman] and I wrote the screenplay. Neither of us have seen a million dollars from that movie.” This is said in a matter-of-fact way, with a resolute shrug of the shoulders and an acknowledgement that “the deal was done.” What a stroke of luck, then, that O’Brien made the decision to form a publishing company before RHS took off. “We said that we were going to record a cast album, regardless. Even if it’s the most crappy musical ever written, we’ll still have a cast album. So that was our intention, and wasn’t it a good idea to form a publishing company for something that was so successful?” Again, I’m reminded he’s one of the fortunate ones.

Fortune probably didn’t appear to be favouring O’Brien the day he was fired from the original 1972 West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar, though. Hired to understudy the role of King Herod, he got one opportunity to sing the part, on a Friday matinée, before producer Robert Stigwood promptly relieved him of his duties. “Stiggy sat in the box – you know, the emperor’s box! ‘All those about to die, I salute you.’” The legal branch of Actors’ Equity confirmed that his contract had been breached, so he received a settlement. “£300. Four weeks’ worth of wages. I went home and sat at home, and started watching the television, as one generally does, and I started fiddling around with this germ of an idea.”

At this point in the story, I was expecting to hear that Fortune had begun to give a damn; surprisingly, she was a few steps ahead of the game and had already laid some groundwork. All-powerful Stiggy may have given O’Brien the imperial thumbs-down, but Superstar’s director was none other than Jim Sharman, who had taken poor Richard aside after his dismissal and said, “I’m really sorry about this. It’s not my idea, and I think you’ve got a lot of promise as an actor, and I’d like to work with you again.” O’Brien smiles at the memory. “I walked out and thought, ‘It’s very good of him to let me down nicely.’ And then in the New Year, in January, I got a call to go and audition for him at the Royal Court Theatre.” He got a part in Sharman’s production, and took advantage of their renewed relationship. “I mentioned to Jim that I was writing this thing, and he brought Richard [Hartley] around to my place one evening, and I sang ‘Science Fiction’, I think probably three times… Maybe four songs, five songs, and I said, ‘This is the way it goes.’” A week later, Sharman phoned him to say that there was an offer to direct another play at the Royal Court, and that Sharman had accepted on the condition that he could have “three weeks’ fun” in the upstairs space as well. “’We’re on! So I want another ten songs by the end of the week, another 20 pages of dialogue…’ And it proceeded like that, and by the middle of the year, we were up and running.” The rest is history. Not just history, practically fantasy.

As with any quasi-legendary story, you desperately hope that the person who has “been there, done that” will reveal some hitherto-unknown trivia. O’Brien does not disappoint. Everyone knows that the original cast of RHS produced one true star, but a different actor was practically being fitted for Frank N. Furter’s costumes before Tim Curry turned up. “There was a guy, Jonathan Kramer, who was in the running, more than in the running. We just imagined Jonathan was going to do it; I think we all did. And Tim walked into the room and auditioned for Jim and by the time I came back, that had changed completely in half an hour.” It turns out that this is no industry secret; the only notable piece of information on Kramer’s IMDb entry, aside from a credit for the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy, is this exact piece of RHS trivia I’ve gratefully received. Somehow, though, it seems so much more exciting hearing it from the horse’s mouth. Another joyful bit of inconsequentia pops up after I question O’Brien on the inspiration for the character of Frank. “Is it true that you were picturing a mixture of Ivan the Terrible and Cruella DeVil?” I ask, referring to my internet-aided research. He laughs heartily. “I was actually on television in New York City, and I felt that I had to say something that makes me sound intelligent. Tim was with me at the time, and he went, ‘Really? Is he?’ I said, ‘Well, Tim, I keep some things to myself.’”

When it comes to analysing RHS as a creative work, O’Brien’s unassuming modesty doesn’t waver. The characters are mere “archetypes, there’s no doubt about that, and lovingly so.” In reference to the 40th anniversary stage production touring the UK this year, he gleefully describes the curtain call, in which the actors take up a tableau position behind a gauze curtain. “And I was watching one night, and I thought, ‘You could pick them up and put them in a little box. They’re so cliché.’ And Sue Blane’s costumes are so locked into our consciousness. They did look like little plastic toy models, and it was kind of wonderful. So instantly recognisable.” At one point, he ventures the oft-repeated idea that “Rocky is a declaration of the end of the American Dream.”

Continuing, as if the creator of the piece isn’t in a better position than anyone else to propagate or refute such an interpretation, he says, “I can see how it works, with Brad and Janet representing the American couple of the ‘50s. The American Dream came true, of course, in 1958, and hung on until 1963 and the death of Kennedy. And then the Vietnam War in the ‘60s – it was all kind of coming to the end right there.” It does explain his humility, this persistent view of his one great creation as not really belonging to him, but something that he merely began. He freely admits that he feels it became a multi-parent collaboration as soon as he played the songs to Sharman and Hartley. “Nobody wanted it to be successful. Nobody was trying to do anything. Nobody was walking around saying, ‘I think we’ve written a hit!’ We were just getting on with it, and hopefully building an entertaining evening that would make people laugh, and feel happy they’ve seen something complete. Beginning, middle and end. I like structure. I’m very fond of structure.”

It seems to me that O’Brien is extremely fond of the simple things. He likes structure. He reports loving words and stories, from a young age. He tells me, in no uncertain terms, that algebra doesn’t do any good whatsoever. “Geometry – same. Won’t serve you well.” In later life, he professes to be a big fan of sleeping all day, or watching television with a glass of wine. His most profound celebration of simplicity takes me by surprise. “Singing is the purest artform. It transcends any need for musicianship. It transcends any need for instrumentation. Dancing is the second, very close second, but still second. And singing is something that is uniquely wonderful. My belief is that singing started with the mother singing, cooing to her child. I think that’s the way the first song must have happened. And after that came chant and anger and all the bigger, more expressive emotions. But the simple emotion of intoning a note which is calming, embracing, is wonderful.” He says this in a very unaffected way, his mode of expression reflecting his subject.

The 40th anniversary production of The Rocky Horror Show

The 40th anniversary production of The Rocky Horror Show

Then again, even though he may love simplicity, Richard O’Brien is far from simple. A man of fluid gender and unconventional sexuality, a true eccentric and lover of all things flamboyant, who grew up in New Zealand watching trashy B-movies and identifying with the outcasts. “The aliens in the movies represented the disenfranchised and the marginalised in our own society. It was a way of… without going and bringing in a black man who was one-legged, you know? You’ve got an alien and they’re outside, because they’re aliens.” The foundation of truly great science-fiction is potent allegory, as O’Brien knows, and RHS is up there with the best of them. “Having Frank as a transgendered or transvestite figure in the middle of this works terribly well, because he’s representative of those who are marginalised, especially back in ’73 – the gay people, the transgendered. They have a spokesperson.”

I ask him which of the sci-fi movies he saw in his youth remained with him the most. “The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s very solidly structured and acted.” There it is, that love of structure. “It’s not done like a cheap movie. And I like the simple philosophy of it.” The word jumps out at me. Simple. He’s right – the premise is wonderfully simple. Concerned about violence and destruction among human beings, extra-terrestrial visitors send a mission to Earth, warning its inhabitants not to extend their aggression into space, or their planet will be destroyed. “And it still works today. Look at the trouble around us, the deeply troubled world. Cultural differences and bullies and cheats and thieves and liars in all governments. We’re run by a greedy bunch of people. Religious fundamentalism. People with shit for brains. So the message is very clear. And what I like about Rocky, strangely – and by accident or by subliminal understanding, subconsciously knowing how to round it off – it starts with ‘Michael Rennie was ill / The day the earth stood still…’ That’s the first line, and then we go right to the end of the play, and the narrator says –

‘And crawling on the planet’s face

Some insects called the human race,

Lost in time, and lost in space,

And meaning…’

 – and it kind of ties the beginning and the end together really. That is the theme.” And then another of Richard’s words jumps out at me. “It wasn’t me going, ‘Ooh, this is clever!’ It was fortunate.” Indeed. I’m just about to tell him that, Fortune notwithstanding, it’s still damned clever, and suddenly he’s off on a flight of fancy about the real possibility of alien lifeforms visiting planet Earth. “It would be interesting if they do turn out to be Transsexuals from Transylvania. That’d be interesting! They’d say, “How are you? Got our story right, didn’t you?” That would be legendarily fortunate, in true Richard O’Brien style.

The 40th anniversary production of The Rocky Horror Show, directed by Christopher Luscombe, is at the New Wimbledon Theatre from 21st -26th January 2013. For tickets visit the ATG website.

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M. F. Jones

Matthew trained with the National Youth Music Theatre (2002-3), and graduated from Oxford University in 2007 with a joint honours degree in Classics and English. He is best known as one half of Frisky and Mannish, cabaret double-act and "global phenomenon" (The Times). The duo have performed at Sydney Opera House and Shepherd's Bush Empire, appeared on BBC2 and Radio 1, and enjoyed four sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. As an actor, he played the lead role in Steven Bloomer's Punch at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Other credits include: Oklahoma! (Sadler's Wells), The Threepenny Opera (Oxford Playhouse) and The Secret Garden (King's Head). He also works as a writer and composer

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