Richard O'Brien: Still Rocking
The Skinny talks to Richard O'Brien, author of The Rocky Horror Show, on the eve of a fortieth anniversary tour
"I am the laziest person on the planet. I've never been ambitious. I let life unfold and things turn up. It's not a race," says Richard O'Brien. "The greatest gift is to love and be loved in return. And as far as a career is concerned, I've have never really been bothered. If there are things I want to do, I'll do them. If I wanted to play Hamlet, I would find a way to do that. Fame and fortune have never been spurs. The things that I do aren't work. You are just strolling through life, accepting the good things as they fall and moving on from the failure."
Although Richard O’Brien has plenty to boast about, he is surprisingly relaxed and generous. Having created The Rocky Horror Show, which somehow manages to be a huge commercial hit and a cult classic in a genre that is better known for its musical and social conservatism, he went on to become one of the few quiz show hosts who isn’t best remembered for his bland patter but as a manic MC in the best cabaret tradition. As he approaches 70, O’Brien’s enthusiasm and originality are evident in his conversation: now entering something close to retirement, he is supporting the fortieth anniversary tour of Rocky and promising to use his time in New Zealand to paint.
The Rocky Horror Show has enjoyed unexpected longevity. According to legend, O’Brien made it because he was frustrated by the number of religious musicals and saw no work for his peers that satisfied their counter-cultural dynamism. "We all thought it was three weeks' fun at the theatre upstairs at the Royal Court and after that we'd all be looking for another job," he comments. "We were in London for seven years: the movie has become a cult classic."
"Rocky maintains that cult credibility, although it is difficult to understand how we can do that because it has been seen by tens of millions of people and translated into all those different languages, so you would have thought it would be considered mainstream. It still seems to be just out of that - and that's quite nice. It gives us a naughty attraction." But part of Rocky's charm is that, behind the popular songs, wild characters and provocative costumes, O’Brien wrote a musical that mapped the transition from the conservatism of the 1950s into the fluid sensuality of the 1960s.
"It's an eternal fairy tale. It is timeless. It is the oldest story in the world. Brad and Janet are Adam and Eve, and Frank N Furter's the serpent. That will never date... it's a rite of passage," he says, "and it is complex. We are looking at the end of the American Dream. Brad and Janet stepping out of Eisenhower's America into an uncertain, drug-fuelled future and society falling apart."
The Time Warp might be the show's hit single, but its implied nostalgia for the good old days of early rock'n'roll hides a more brutal truth. "We now see an empire in decline. That is what underpins it," O'Brien says. He quickly points out that isn't necessarily the reason why the song became popular. "If we started pointing all that out on stage, it would become very tedious: as far as the audience is concerned all they've done is had a good time. Subconsciously, they've also had something which satisfies. If it had just been a bit of light frothiness and campery, it would not have lasted this long."
Despite having spent forty years talking about the musical, and having played Riff Raff in the film, O'Brien has an affection for Rocky: unsurprisingly, since his inspiration came from "nothing but my love of all things populist!" Rocky may have resonated with a generation, but the enthusiasms behind it are very much the those of the author. "I left school with no qualifications and apparently no potential. Rock 'n' roll kept me going. I was a gauche undereducated teenager who loved comics, B-movies and all things populist. I adored them. I love the joy and the spirit and the unintentional comedy in B-movies. It was an homage to all things populist. Someone once said Rocky was Pop Art on stage, and I really like that!"
Rocky’s script is unafraid to juxtapose themes and influences: a B-Movie aesthetic, rock’n’roll, lingerie, cross-dressing and broad comedy all vie for attention. This eclecticism reflects O’Brien’s own career and does connect to the Pop Art tradition. He might describe himself as lazy, but his biography spans everything from serious theatre through to his stint as host of The Crystal Maze.
Rocky’s continued success is testament to both the ongoing cultural changes in society and the clear narrative at the heart of the spectacle. O’Brien notes that the basic story is ancient – the battle between good and evil – and while it has its hardcore devotees, including the “shadow casts” who often perform alongside showings of the film, it appeals to a wide audience. Until the last decade, however, the live show would be interrupted by fans who felt that they had permission to join in.
"I used to object when, say, twenty per cent of the audience were attending a party that the rest of the audience hadn't been invited to," O'Brien says. "I wanted the show to be for everybody, not an elite group. And some of the lines they shouted out weren't witty, but a little bit crude. I am glad that it's still there but I am glad it doesn't drown out the performance."
It was The Crystal Maze that gave O’Brien his iconic public persona. Far from being the typical host, he added a comic melodrama to the show’s relatively complex format, introducing thematic elements and bringing an anarchic sparkle to his interactions with the competitors. Never happier than when blowing away on his harmonica, or chatting about his “mumsy,” O’Brien shattered the bland stereotype of the presenter and helped the quiz show climb briefly out of the tedious hell of fading comedians propping up their careers by patronising members of the general public.
"When they offered me that job, I took it because it was a change of direction, and I liked that. One of the things I was terrified of was being in the public eye and then becoming public property. Up until that time I was successful without anybody in the street knowing who I was - I had anonymity. I loved the fact I was almost invisible. I didn't envy the attention my friend Willie Rushton got in public."
Rather like the eclecticism of his influences for Rocky, there were serious reasons behind his decision to accept the job. "I was at the time trying to get a charity arranged to help people who want to get off drugs and go into rehabilitation. I thought if I could start a charity with a nest egg, we'd patch up the hole in the net. I knew it was going to be easier to raise funds if I had a public image, if the public knew who the guy with the begging bowl was." But he stayed because he was having fun. "And once I'd started, I had such a nice time: on any given day on the set there was thirty to forty people: and not one negative arsehole."
The Crystal Maze manages, like Rocky, to be massively successful while retaining the allure of being an alternative. But for O'Brien, it was all about the fun. "I loved the attention of the children: it was a good time. I was allowed to perform, and once I knew, there was no stopping me. I invented mumsy. The fortune teller was supposed to be a game in the first series, and I built up this image of my mumsy... she became a regular, which adds another layer. It just added silliness and intrigue!"
Even as a pensioner, O’Brien retains the same counter-cultural vitality that inspired Rocky. His immediate plans include getting married, doing a farewell solo show in London and heading off to New Zealand. Ironically, New Zealand, which once erected a statue to him, was awkward about his plans to settle back in the country. Now that this has been resolved, there is no sense of a man disappearing into slow retirement, and he still has an eye on show business.
The fortieth anniversary of Rocky sees a musical in rude health and while it is firmly ensconced as a cultural treasure, it echoes the subversion of past tours without being lost in nostalgia. The latest cast takes up the baton from a highly successful tour – the previous Frank N Furter was adored by the fans, and he would talk of his family relationship with them – but O’Brien is confident that this version will be equally popular.
"I know it doesn't make any sense for the author to be trilling about how wonderful his show is - I would think that, wouldn't I - but the band cooks, the set is lovely, bright and gorgeous, the performers have stepped up. Over the past forty years, it is wonderful how musical theatre in Britain has improved. The energy is there, the voices are better. All the production values have increased."
He admits that the reasons for Rocky's continued success are mysterious, but does suggest an answer. "It's not pretentious, it is a happy piece and it resolves itself. There is comeuppance for Frank N Furter and that closure is important. But I am glad we can't quite pin down the reasons for its success. If we do know, we'd be doing it again and again. The storyline is formulaic, the characters are archetypal. There is nothing terribly clever about it. It all comes together in something that makes it uniquely different. It's fascinating."