13 May 2018

Richard O'Brien: Rocky Horror Show 45 years on

From Sunday Morning, 11:30 am on 13 May 2018

It's 45 years since the now cult Rocky Horror Show opened in a London theatre. Its creator,  Richard O'Brien, is taking to the stage again to MC An Evening with Patti Boyd  in Auckland.

Richard O'Brien

Photo: Screengrab / YouTube / BBC

O'Brien was born in the UK, and his family moved to New Zealand when he was a child.

To the 10-year-old who stepped off the train in in Hamilton, New Zealand was "lovely technicolour" compared to the post-war monochrome of the UK, O'Brien says. “Twelve hours later I was running along the bank above the Waikato River and I thought ‘I’m home'."

He returned to the UK in the Swinging Sixties, at the age of 22.

"The class-ridden state of Great Britain when I got there in ’64 was dreadful,"he says, but the Beatles were helping change that. Working class lads suddenly became rich and popular, and daughters of establishment families wanted to marry a Beatle or a Rolling Stone.

At drama school he became friends with Mick Jagger’s then-girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton - sister of supermodel Jean Shrimpton – and was introduced to rock ‘n’ roll London.

“I was a dustman in the day and in the evening I’d be in Mick Jagger’s front room watching television.”

There was no better place to be on the entire planet than London in the '60s, he says.  “I compare it very much to the '20s … vibrant and exciting, new music, jazz entering our bloodstream. The ‘60s kind of did it again.”

He didn't want to be anywhere but the theatre and when he was unemployed as an actor he worked as a stage hand or on the lighting.

He played roles in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar but when promoter Robert Stigwood decided against casting him as Herod, he says, he tossed up whether to go back to NZ and “get a proper job” – his first son, Linus, had just been born.

In the meantime he tried his hand at writing. "I tested myself out with an evening for the EMI studios Christmas party. I wrote a song and a few jokes and a few impersonations – my intention was to make people laugh for 15 minutes and I did!"

The song was ‘Super Heroes’ and became part of the Rocky Horror Show, which opened in a 62-seat upstairs theatre in London in 1973. The movie adaptation - The Rocky Horror Picture Show - came two years later, and the stage show is still performed 45 years on.

“We were just having a bit of fun in the theatre … rather than anybody trying to write a hit," O'Brien says.

“It seems to somehow or another hit a nerve, and 45 years later it still sells out. And at the end of the evening … it’s as if you’ve just delivered a high voltage rock ‘n’ roll show, the audience is so noisy and so appreciative.”

Richard O'Brien, Tim Curry and Patricia Quinn in a publicity shot for the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Richard O'Brien, Tim Curry and Patricia Quinn in a publicity shot for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Photo: AFP / Archives du 7e Art / 20th Century Fox

O'Brien has again made New Zealand his home, at Katikati, Bay of Plenty. But later this year, the 76-year-old is heading back to the UK for a Rocky Horror Picture Show reunion.

He says fans' reactions are humbling – the creators had set out to entertain but it's been a happy accident the show has had a liberating effect and allowed people to feel less isolated and marginalised.

“As the world knows now I’m a transgendered human being. I don’t quite know how that works – you’re dealt a hand when you’re born and you just have to get on with it.

“Looking back now I can see the writing of Rocky and the introduction of Frank N. Furter as a ‘Sweet Transvestite’ must have been carthartic, mustn’t it.

“[My mother] didn’t like the song ‘Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me’ and she went into complete denial about me being a tranny because it didn’t fit in with her scheme of things.”

His father was caring and pragmatic, O’Brien says. “He worried that I was going to turn the corner one day and run into a bunch of homophobic kind of bullies - and I suppose to some extent we all worry about that.”

His three grown-up children are delightful, he says, and strongly in his corner. “I’m very lucky”.

Richard O'Brien is MC at An Evening with Patti Boyd on 19 May in Auckland.