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Remembering Richard Who?

13 dec 2004
Philippa Stevenson

Bemused Hamiltonians trying to recall their newly elevated scion Richard O'Brien may have more luck if they run the name Richard Smith through the grey matter.

Young Smith spent just over a decade in New Zealand after his family migrated from Britain to Tauranga when he was 10. He knocked about Hamilton for a bit in the early 1960s, working as a barber next door to the now demolished Embassy Theatre, where he apparently got a taste for the seriously weird at late-night double features of sci-fi movies.

At 22 he went back to Blighty, took the name O'Brien after his grandfather and worked as a hairdresser, truck driver and stuntman, before hitting the stage.

In 1973 he wrote The Rocky Horror Show (original title: They Came From Denton High), the wacky musical featuring mincing Transylvanian transvestites in which he played the butler Riff Raff in fishnet tights and black nailpolish.

Although, or perhaps because, the show was described as "lewd, vulgar and tasteless", it created its own time warp and has played on stage or screen almost continuously around the world ever since.

Now, in honour of Smith/O'Brien's brief sojourn in Victoria St, the man most Hamiltonians had never heard of until now - or at least not in association with their city - is to take up permanent residence courtesy of that bastion of funk and cool, the Hamilton City Council.

It has given the okay and 25,000 of ratepayers' bucks so a bronze statue of Riff Raff can forever strut Hamilton's main street - styled by the renowned artists who brought us hobbit feet, Wellington's Weta Workshops.

Hamiltonians must be totally bewildered by their leaders' priorities when the Perry Foundation is forking out the lion's share of the sculpture - $100,000.

Only three weeks ago the city's dump - stupidly sited on the banks of the Waikato River - was revealed as a badly run, long-term, serious polluter. It is operated by Perry Environmental under contract to the council.

The Perry Foundation may be but a distant relative of Perry Environmental, but what would it and the council rather be associated with - Riff Raff or righteousness.

Some Hamilton folk - perhaps grasping at the opportunity to idolise something other than cows or trying to be seen as cool and trans-gender tolerant - have taken Riff Raff to their bosom. Others believe the city has taken its first prance towards Sodom.

It wouldn't be Hamilton unless there was a riotous row. Actually, when it comes to acrimonious debate over statues the world is your stage.

Tomes have been written about who decided which statues would go where, depict whom and in what light. Usually, the vexed process is forgotten once the monument is in place.

Usually. The island of Jersey's dearth of statues is attributed to a generally hostile public reaction to proposals. The case of George II is typical. His statue, which has presided over the Royal Square in St Helier since 1751, was Jersey's first piece of public statuary but has endured more than 250 years of scorn and ridicule, plus several attempts to replace it.

There was controversy, too, when Hungary decided to display rather than destroy giant memorials from its communist era. Now, Budapest's Statue Park is a popular tourist attraction.

Look past the pyramids and Egypt has statues commemorating viceroys, prime ministers, generals, industrialists, nationalists, and Alexander the Great.

Gone but not forgotten, says cataloguer Samir Raafat, are a war memorial to honour the Australian and New Zealand soldiers at Port Said, the New Zealand Memorial of Maadi, and a memorial to Anzac soldiers on the North Coast.

Riff Raff will be in exalted company.

However, I just wonder whether the newly designated city of Tauranga has thought of erecting a statue to mark its elevation from district status. Richard (Smith) O'Brien spent five or so years there too, you know.

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The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996