The Richard O'Brien Crusade

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Life of O'Brien

He created one of the biggest hits in musical history, but it took a game show to make xhim famous. Now Richard O’Brien is going back to his roots with the release of a jazz album — and there’s a new stage show in the pipeline.

KYLIE NORTHOVER met the man who created Rocky Horror. (Photos: Paul Kennedy)

Richard O’Brien created one of the biggest cult phenomenons of the 1970s, yet for many years his face remained stubbornly unfamiliar. But the man behind The Rocky Horror Show — arguably the most popular musical in modern history — owned the stage rights to the show, which still plays around the world 25 years after its conception. So he didn’t mind the anonymity — in fact, he enjoyed it.

But after fronting the top-rating Channel Four game show The Crystal Maze, he became a celebrity, despite the fact that he had previously appeared in countless stage shows, penned some of the most instantly recognisable songs of the century and played Riff Raff, one of Rocky Horror’s central characters, on stage and screen.

“The Crystal Maze was a road I never thought I’d be walking down,” says Richard. “It raised the O’Brien profile, which was kind of good for a while, although I did miss the anonymity. I considered myself very lucky — I had success in film and theatre in Britain, but people wouldn’t know who I was in the street. Anonymity was very nice.

The downside was that I used to get a lot of people making ‘kissy-kissy’ noises at me. Then, after Crystal Maze, the same people who used to make these mocking noises would be calling out ‘‘ello Richard, love yer show!’ It was quite strange — all of a sudden I could walk down the street in a frock at night if I wanted to.”

Which wouldn’t be out of the question for the extravagant O’Brien. All the more strange, then, that it took a game show for him to achieve celebrity status. Even after the film version of Rocky attracted audience-participation fanatics to scream at the screen, he was rarely recognised in the street.

x“I used to think I’d have to wear my name across my front. The first time I ever came across the film fans was around 1978, in Miami. We went to see a performance with all the fans doing their stuff in front of the screen. When they were packing away I went up and said ‘very good, very enjoyable’.

They just sort of tittered a bit. After a while one of them said ‘What’s your name?’ I told them I was Richard O’Brien and it was like ‘Oh my Gawd!’” Twenty-five years after Rocky first hit the stage, it is still going strong. Yet Richard never imagined it would be so enduring.

“I was just treating it like another job. I honestly believed that by the time the initial six-week run finished we would have exhausted it. We were playing in a tiny fringe theatre that seated 62 people,” he says.

“But word got out that something was happening. If they’d said ‘go and write your own review’, we couldn’t have bettered them. ‘Every man’s fantasy and most women’s as well’ was an interesting concept. The thing that astounded all of us was that it wasn’t just a camp, gay audience. It was very much heterosexually driven — women were finding Tim Curry a bit of a turn on in stockings and fishnets.

“Word of mouth got round and it became a very groovy thing to see. We had all sorts coming to see it during that first run. On the last night we had Elliot Gould and Mick Jagger standing on the stairs.”

Surely a bit of a thrill for an up-and-coming actor/songwriter? “Elliot Gould, yes. But I’m afraid I’m not very fond of Mr Jagger — he wanted to buy the film rights so he could play Frank, but we’d all seen Ned Kelly by then,” he says with a laugh.

Before Rocky and worldwide success, Richard had performed in various musicals including Gulliver’s Travels (1968), Hair (1970/71) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1972) and acted in several fringe theatre productions.

Fast forward to the ‘90s and the charismatic actor has decided to go back to his musical roots with Absolute O’Brien, a jazz album to be released on Valentine’s Day (on Medical Records).

“It’s a new departure for me, going down this mellow kind of road, because I’ve always been very rock’n’roll.” And that’s not all he’s been — since leaving high school, Richard has had all sorts of jobs. Although he was born in Gloucestershire, his family moved to New Zealand when he was ten years old to take up sheep farming in rural Tauranga.

He always loved rock music and films, but the thought of entering the entertainment world hadn’t entered his head when he left school at 15 to study a three-year dairy farming course.

“I was without direction,” he says. Before he eventually decided to head back to Blighty — and the swinging sixties — he had stints as a barber and a trainee glazier, but these jobs failed to inspire him.

Looking back, though, he appreciates his adolescence.

“Growing up in New Zealand was excellent because Britain, until very recently, was a class-ridden society. To some extent, it still is. Being brought up in New Zealand — a classless society — was such a strength.

“Being impervious to the class structure when I came back to England was a blessing — I wasn’t going to allow anybody the idea that they were somehow socially superior to me. I ignored those affectations.”

In London, he started exploiting his experience as a horse rider, landing a job as a stunt rider, and it was here that he realised he wanted to be an actor. Supplementing his income with jobs as a dustman and truck driver, Richard began his career in fringe theatre.

“The great thing about the ‘60s was that you didn’t have to go to RADA to get anywhere,” he says. Starting out as an understudy and eventually landing his own roles in musicals, Richard was also a budding songwriter and Rocky eventually evolved in the early 1970s from a batch of songs he’d written over the years but had never used.

Having been a singer, actor and game show host, Richard is now back where he started, enjoying his songwriting. “I like this little musical journey and I want to do more of it,” he says. The songs from his new album were written for a short-lived one man show, Disgracefully Yours, which Richard wrote and performed a couple of years ago.

“I played the demon Mephistopheles and the premise was basically me saying ‘well, we’ve got to a point in Hell where we’re not going to take Heaven’s rejects anymore — we don’t want those arseholes, the sickos and the weirdos. We just want nice groovy people who are going to party on forever. I’m here today to tell you to make your decision — you can choose to be up there and be bored to tears, or you can come and party with us.’ That was the premise and I spent an hour or two on stage cracking jokes and singing songs, wearing hooves for the whole show, which really took its toll.” But Richard loved the show’s smooth jazz tunes and so his new album was born.

“I did enjoy being on stage with a live band, it was lots of fun. It was nice to hear laughter xcoming back over the footlights. “But I’ve got no idea how the album will be received. It’s the kind of album that people might hear at a dinner party, ask what it is and then go and buy it, as opposed to rushing out to the stores,” he says.

“I think it will have quite a long life — it’s not locked into what’s hot at the moment. I’m a big fan of Chet Baker and Willie Nelson and I think the album is somehow between those two. It’s a very sexy album. “I like to describe it as so cool you’ll want to take a warm bath with a friend.” But while Richard may seem to be chilling out these days, his fans needn’t worry — he’s still the same old flamboyant character who conceived the likes of Frank’n’Furter.

Last year he appeared as the nasty Mr Hand in the sci-fi/horror film Dark City, so he’s still got his dark streak (although he also had a small role in the recent Spice Girls film). And there’s another musical on the way.

“It’s called Alive On Arrival. It’s about a girl who goes to the Land of the Dead — she’s still alive — and she scares the shit out of them. It’s like a zombie being among the living. The big question down there is ‘is there life before death?’ It’s quite an interesting premise, another dark fairy tale,” he says.

“I love working in fantasy. I don’t want to play bank managers or real people — too boring!”

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The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996