The Richard O'Brien Crusade

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A Horror Story

Richard O'Brien shaped the sensibilities of more than one generation with 'The Rocky xHorror 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.

xThe 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.

O'Brien attributes 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."

His marginalisation 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 control.

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 and winklepickers.

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."

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The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996