Richard O'Brien shaped the sensibilities of more than one generation
with 'The Rocky Horror
Show'. Now he's at it again, penning a long-awaited sequel which
is almost ready to hit the London stage.
"I'm a bit piss elegant," says Richard O'Brien, in his
light, rather camp tones. "I like a nice environment."
This is obvious from the first glimpse of the bijou interior of
the south London townhouse where- despite being still married
to his second wife, Jane- he lives alone.
O'Brien's is the
kind of place that probably only otherwise exists in the dreams
of the designers in Home Front. Each room is rigorously themed,
and stuffed with ornamental booty from around the world. The
melange of styles makes little sense: the kitchen is all Oxo
adverts and militaria, while the entrance hall looks like an
Edwardian toy emporium. In the sitting room there's a doomy
fresco of an overgrown Roman garden, some high-backed chairs
decorated with masonic patterns, and lots of crosses. But there's
a conspicuous absence of any material to remind visitors that
O'Brien, now 57, is responsible for one of the most enduring
cults of the modern age.
Mention The Rocky
Horror Picture Show to O'Brien, and his aura of New Age calm
starts to evaporate. The show brought O'Brien his wealth, but
it also sealed him in a world of stocking, suspenders and giggle-strewn
smut- preventing him, he believes, from achieving the success
he deserves as an actor. "I still get marginalised,"
he says. "There is a role out there for me which is going
to blow everybody's socks off. But why they never offered me
Dr. Who I'll never know. And why I've never been asked to play
a Bond villain is a mystery. I'd be perfect for it. But you
know, " he adds, heading back to the safety of crystals
and karmic equilibrium, "nothing eats at me."
It's hard to know
whether to believe this. What you can believe, though, is that
the whole Rocky Horror hoop-la has raked in close to 50 million
pounds- and most of it bypassed O'Brien and poured straight
into the coffers of 20th Century Fox. Payback time, though,
may be imminent.As it turns out, there is one Rocky-related
item in O'Brien's house. In the kitchen is a sheet of A4 paper,
on which is scrawled a flow-chart that probably only makes sense
to it's author. This is the genesis of the second Rocky Horror
Show, subtitled The Second Coming, which is slated to go into
( theatrical production *) later this year. The subtitle could
refer as much to O'Brien's life as the show itself.
youngest of four siblings, O'Brien was born Richard Smith in
Cheltenham in 1942. His father was a municipal clerk; tired
of earning 4 pounds a week, he loaded the family onto a ship
for New Zealand in 1952. There he was given a governmental post
far in advance of his previous job, and the family moved to
a 120-acre farm. O'Brien is misty-eyed at the memory: "It
was a fab, classless society to grow up in. There was none of
that English subservience."
He was an anomaly
in New Zealand, where Antipodean machismo was the norm. His
burgeoning campness was soon making him conspicuous, and he
had to be brought into line. "I used to get caned severely
at school, and I can't help but think that the cannings were
to try and make more of a man of me, because I was small and
skinny, and there was the suspicion that maybe I was a poofter."
"As for my parents-
I can remember making a camp gesture in the kitchen and my mother
going apeshit. So I thought I'd do it again just to wind her
up, and I realised quickly it wasn't a very good idea."
Contrary to many a rumour, O'Brien isn't gay- he has been married
twice- although he is noticeably coy when I raise the question
of same-sex encounters. ("I just see the person")
"The thing was,"
he continues, "I noticed that the gay men kind of liked
me. They hid themselves in New Zealand, as you can imagine-
they weren't very obvious. But the one, perhaps two, who were,
gravitated toward me. It used to scare me too- you'd feel your
anus tightening up slightly. But I think that's normal. You
know, the fear"
In 1964, O'Brien
ended a hairdressing apprenticeship, and- for want of anything
else to do- left New Zealand and returned to Cheltenham, improbably
doing a series of jobs for local builders, before falling into
acting and moving to London. Here he found something approaching
a social revolution: sexual promiscuity, recreational drugs,
the idea that youth was to be celebrated. With a friend, he
rented digs in South Kensington, where they attempted to maintain
peacock standards of appearance while being unable to afford
milk. "Economically, we were right one he borderline,"
he recalls. "I was very skinny- people would assume I was
on awful drugs." And were you? "Well, LSD was around
and available, and those who were interested in mind-altering
substances took it. I still enjoy mind-altering substances.
I do like them."
In 1969, working
in the touring cast of Hair, O'Brien met his first wife, Kimi
Wong. They had a son, Linus, in 1972. O'Brien, who had just
been rejected for the part of Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar,
and was feeling the burden of his new responsibilities, threw
himself into the conceit that became The Rocky Horror Show.
his failure to convert this triumph into long-term career success
to domestic strife. "My marriage was fairly unstable, and
I was very aware of my responsibilities. So I decided I would
stay writing and not do too much acting, so as to avoid being
away from home. I even made a further mistake of doing small
parts in movies for people, as a kind of 'yeah, sure' thing."
Since the late seventies, his CV has contained an ever-increasing
list of This and That: the odd film part, a couple of plays,
his successful role as the MC of The Crystal Maze , an appearance
in Spiceworld: The movie. "As far as other people were
concerned, I was a small-part actor. Now it's too late for me
to change that."
is unfair, for O'Brien can claim to be a social revolutionary
of some significance. Rocky Horror came just at a time when
sexual stereotypes were being joyously exploded, and it's success
brough the party to even the prissiest backwaters. "The
period when Rocky Horror appeared, after the Free Love thing,
was the point when the rigid ideas of sexual identity started
to be attacked." says Adam Matter, editor of the gay magazine,
Attitude. "You had glam-rock: David Bowie, Queen and Marc
Bolan pushing sexual boundaries. At the same time, Cabaret had
introduced the notion of decadent, high-camp drama. For a lot
of people, Rocky Horror was the perfect release. It was centered
around a man who wasn't confined to a traditional sexual role:
the whole point of Frank'N'Furter is that he's sexually ambivalent
and fantastically confident and glamorous at the same time.
For a lot of people, that represented the destruction of the
suburban sexual ideal"
All the more frustrating,
then, to have made so little impact since; and all the more
reason to hope that The Second Coming will turn the tide. O'Brien
has, in fact, tried a sequel before. The disastrous Shock Treatment,
made in 1982, was dragged far from O'Brien's pitch by collaborators
who were wary of repeating Rocky Horror's in-built formula-
and it sank without trace. This time, O'Brien will have sole
The plot of The Second
Coming, as it stands, rests on the birth of Frank'N'Furter's
son, conceived during his liaison with Janet in the original
musical- cue, it would seem, a miasma of father/son rivalry
and the drama that would accompany the revelation that one's
old man was a quasi-gothic, cross-dressing bisexual. But O'Brien
is also looking for weighty references comparable to the rites
of passage tradition that undermined the original- and he mumbles
something about the topicality of gay adoption. "I wanted
to try and find something to hang it on" he says. "Otherwise
it's just a rock and roll romp. It can't be didactic or overbearing,
but without some substance, it's nothing."
He is also tied to
the more obvious aspects of the original: the collision of the
straight world with a universe of drooling licentiousness, the
nods to low-rent Americana, an abundance of innuendo. "I
love 'naughty'" he says. "And 'naughty' is something
that actually disappeared. I think we've got it back again,
slightly. But there was a moment when everyone was doing all
sorts of things, and being quite blatant and open about it.
It's part of the fun, although it's part of Rocky Horror that
some things are unspoken. Otherwise you may as well have a wank."
Perhaps his greatest
challenge, though, is to shake of his innate conservatism. Like
many social revolutionaries of his generation, O'Brien has matured
to be as stout-chestedly upright as his parents: supportive
of the sexual revolution, but extolling the family and railing
against delinquency. So he will happily enthuse about hallucinogenic
drugs, but say that shoplifting is morally repugnant. He makes
an unexpected outburst about one-time Eastenders icon Leslie
Grantham, imprisoned in the seventies for killing a taxi-driver:
"I don't want him in the same profession as me." And
he admits that, in the last election, he voted for Sir James
Goldsmith's UK Independence Party.
O'Brien is noticeably
curt, however, when questioned about the finer details of his
marital arrangements. He divorced Kimi in the late seventies,
married Jane in 1983 and has two children with her, Josh, 16,
and Amelia, 10. Now Jane lives near Guildford, although shortly
before the end of my visit she arrives with Amelia.Immediately
O'Brien tells his daughter that she should be wearing something
warmer and sends her upstairs to change. It is amusing to see
this smartly dressed little girl obediently receiving instructions
from a 57-year-old shaven-headed libertine in skintight trousers
What are the best
things he's done in the past 20 years?
"I don't know,"
he says after a long pause. "I've written some good songs.
And having babies. Truthfully, there's very little that beats
that. The day that youngster is born, there's no drug on the
planet better than that. I'd like to have had babies myself,
actually. That's how much of a feminine side I have."