EXTENDED INTERVIEW: Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien

Krisitian Lavercombe as Riff Raff "Rocky Horror is such an out there weird show that it becomes like one kind of big trip."
RICHARD O’BRIEN on wanting to play Eddie, the 1973 Opening Night, growing up a disaffected youth in New Zealand and more…. 


Richard O'Brien returned to the stage as 'Narrator'

I have never seen an Auckland audience react in quite the way they responded to Richard O’Brien’s entrance in the recent season of Rocky Horror Show at the Civic. Richard strides on, dazzling in a Gaultier denim coat tails, opens his mouth to utter the Narrator’s immortal line “I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey…”,  but the audience wouldn’t let him speak! 

 We clapped, cheered and hollered, on end… here was the Richard O’Brien, a kiwi made good, (damn what immigration say), finally bringing his world-famous cult show home.  The man who wrote ‘The Time Warp’ and originated the role of Riff Raff, had to raise his hands and settle the audience down. He seemed overwhelmed, his “Thankyou”, genuine. Richard was home.    

Rocky Horror was the audience experience of last year. The audience was filled with Riff Raffs, Frank-N-Furters, Columbias, Magentas and Transylvanians of all kinds. Everyone was ready to party. Some came ready for audience participation, made famous by the late night Rocky Horror film screenings. Newspapers were lifted over heads when Brad and Janet got out of the car in ‘There’s a light’, and flashlights were at a ready when the song hit the chorus. Rice was thrown repeatedly throughout the show, often landing in my shirt! 

Rocky Horror virgins would have been forgiven for wondering what strange disease had taken over the Civic… we were acting so unlike normal Auckland theatre audiences and actually having fun! By the end of Opening Night the entire audience was doing up doing the Time Warp with Richard and cast. The second time I ventured to the show, a late night Friday performance, made opening night look like we were under sedation. There were even more whacky costumes, even more participators, and it only took as long as the first few lines of the first Time Warp before all of us were jumping to the left in the aisles.     

Kristian Lavercombe as Riff Raff "Rocky Horror is such an out there weird show that it becomes like one kind of big trip."

   Juan Jackson, an operatically trained African American, was not a typical choice for Frank-N-Furter – there was little trace of Curry Camp, and his muscle tones made Rocky look rather puny in comparison – but he was a bold and original take that grew on me substantially. New Zealand’s own Kristian Lavercombe more than rose to the challenge of performing a very droll Riff Raff alongside the show’s creator. And Richard was… Richard. Delivering it straight, he revelled in being onstage, and rocked out with an electric guitar for the finale. 

There was something delightful too about how simple the staging was – levels were achieved by ladders that moved across the stage, Brad and Janet’s car were pushed by the ‘Phantoms’ and  different sized models of Frank-N-Furter’s house showed us we were getting closer to the debauchery. The producers of this version of Rocky wanted to get closer to the original production, without the bells and whistles and extra jokes that had been added over the years, where it debuted at the Royal Court’s ‘Theatre Upstairs’ to an audience of 62 in 1973.     

Rocky Horror, of course, should never have worked on paper. The narrative – about a newly engaged couple getting trapped in the house of a sexually liberated alien –is admittedly bizarre. The show isn’t very long. Just as it gets itself going, interval hits. But the stage show, and the film, tapped into something that saw it running and running. It seemed to offer outsiders, with the message ‘Don’t Dream it, be it’, a place and community to belong to and be themselves. Richard theorises it’s about the show’s root mythologies. Certainly for me, I always saw it as being something very special, and while it may not be the best… it is hands down my favourite musical. Kristian Lavercombe, when I interviewed him, reckoned “ It teaches you basically to be yourself no matter what other people think, and I think that’s why it has been so popular over the years because it challenges you to stand up for who you are and be different, and to be proud to be different.”. Rocky Horror is of course so utterly mainstream these days years that a whole episode of TV’s megasmash Glee was devoted to it, and they even released their own (censored) album of the show’s songs.       

I had the fortune of meeting Richard at the show’s afterparty.  Everyone wanted a piece of him. A lady was trying to sell him on the merits of the electronic cigarette. Rocky’s brilliant publicist and Magenta look-alike Sandra Roberts gave me an introduction. Richard self-deprecating played down the experience. He thought Opening Night had gone well, but his role hadn’t been much – he just stood where the director told him to stand. He signed my programme, with a devilish look in his he defaced the cover like a naughty school, making Janet an Angel and Brad a devil. I asked if it would be kosher to give him a hug, he was amused. I did so, and couldn’t help myself giving him a quick kiss on his wonderfully shiny head as I thanked him one last time. In that moment my professionalism had all but given out to fan boyism, but how else can you thank the original creator of the Rocky Horror show? I wasn’t about to break into the Time Warp in front of him that’s for sure!     

A month before I met him in person, I rang Richard in his house in London and had a very in-depth interview with him. It was late for me, early in the morning for him. He had just finished looking over last night’s crossword, trying to solve the last clues. He hoped that his interview wouldn’t send me to sleep. There was no danger to that.     

A much shorter version of this interview appeared in Craccum Magazine October 2010. Here is the complete interview:     

What has bought you back to the stage for Rocky Horror?     

Well this is interesting because you may or may not know I’ve been applying for citizenship over the last year or so, well actually over the last 8 years, and finally I jumped the first hurdle which was getting the residency stamp inside my passport. I have a lot of musician friends in New Zealand, and I was thinking to myself it might be a very opportune time to do a very quick spin around the country, get a little band together with some of my friends and just do a quick tour. I was in discussion about that with musicians, and my brother as well who plays sax, and then this Rocky tour came up and they asked me if I wouldn’t like to play the Narrator in New Zealand, and I couldn’t think of anything nicer. It all fell into place so beautifully, that it just seemed that providence was looking after me, you know some greater intelligence or agency was at work and doing all the work for me.     

When was the last time you actually performed with the musical?     

In Rocky, about two years ago there was a week here in London, in Wimbledon just round the corner. For the last week I went on and played the Usherette. I looked a bit like, let me see… I called the character I was playing Joanna Slumley – I performed a really, really poor man’s version of Joanna Lumley and took the guitar out and sang the opening and closing of the show. That was fun. Anything that gives me pleasure is okay by me. I’m a lazy bugger but if there is some pleasure to be wrung out of the day then I’m all up for it.     

You’re playing the Narrator this time around; he is quite involved through the show isn’t he?     

He’s the glue really isn’t he, he’s definitely involved through the show. He’s our storyteller really.     

What are you looking forward to doing in that role?     

Being allowed to be the author and the narrator at the same time – that will afford me quite a bit of pleasure actually. And I’m looking forward to being able to enjoy both being in make believe and outside the make believe, you know what I mean? I get the best of both worlds. I can step out of the proceedings, and back into the proceedings, it’s very useful.     

You are most famous for playing Riff Raff. What was your inspiration for that character when you wrote it, and how you played him?     

Well all of them are stereotypical, all the characters are stereotypes, that’s why the actors have to play them as if they are incredibly serious and deeply written characters because the more seriously they play them the funnier it all becomes. Riff Raff is the hunchback, the Igor figure that we have known and loved from various B Movies, the resentful butler. It is enjoyable to play someone who is so resentful, such a misery guts, and so resentful of the other, harboring all that discontent and loathing. It’s a good role to feast on.     

But I wasn’t going to play Riff Raff originally; I didn’t see myself as playing Riff Raff. I wanted to play Eddie, I just wanted to get out of the fridge, sing a song and get off. I didn’t know that the show was going to be successful; I never thought that we’d be allowed to have the luxury of casting someone just to sing one song. But I was young and naïve, and I thought if the show wasn’t doing very well, and the audiences were sitting there just saying oh-my-god, if I just sang one song and got off then I wouldn’t have to carry the can, that everyone else would be getting hit with the rotten tomatoes and what not being thrown at them, and I would have escaped into the wings. That was my childish journey!     

Jim Sharman the director, it was him that suggested I should play Riff Raff, and I thought well, if I hadn’t written the show, if I had nothing to do with the show, and I got a phone call from Jim saying I’ve got this show and there is a character who I would like you to play, I would have been there with bells on. And we was quite right, I think Riff Raff was a perfect role for me to play, being a strange, peculiar, skinny kind of person, it was good casting.     

It must have been unusual at the time for a writer to have a role in his own show?     

I’ve never given that any thought until this precise moment. I don’t know… I’m not sure about that actually. Perhaps it was, you’ve asked me a question I’ve never been asked before. That’s pretty damn good over 30 years. You may well be right. I’m not able to give you an answer on that. I can’t think of anybody else. I know that a lot of authors at the time had an acting background – Alan Bennett came out of the Footlight fringe, John Osborne had been an actor before he wrote Look Back in Anger, Harold Pinter had been an actor before he started writing. So you could be right, but I don’t know, I’ll have to google that.     

It makes sense that the director wanted you in the role.     

Oh I was definitely going to be in the show, it was a show I had really written for myself for my own enjoyment, I had no idea it would go on for this long, or well first of all that anybody would want to do it in the first place. That was quite astonishing.     

What were the first performances were like? Do you remember the first night you opened?     

Yeah I can actually, it was interesting because it just a little fringe theatre. We could only accommodate 62 people a night in that little tiny room… doesn’t necessarily mean just because it was a small venue that you were going to pack it out. But we were packed, we did sell out – it sounds like it is very easy to sell out 62 seats, but if your show is a load of crap it’s still not going to get any bums on the seat – you might get a few loyal friends on the first couple of nights but that’s not going to sustain it. But the response, the feeling was terribly good. We developed an atmosphere as they came in; several members of the cast, myself included… we used to strike poses and people wouldn’t notice us, and then they’d be a sudden movement… we evoked a little feeling of childish excitement and fear as the people came in and sat down. So there was already a kind of spooky atmosphere, you know if you’d make an usher appear behind a girl she’d give a shriek, that would permeate its way through the other people sitting there. They were in a mood ready to accept what we were going to throw at them.     

And it was all very close, and we only had four in the band, and one microphone, that’s all we could manage. The microphone came over the heads of the audiences, it would sort of drop in, and that would be picked up by the lead singer of each song, and then dragged out at the end narrowly squeaking past the heads of the audience, as it swung out with this weight on the end of it.     

On the very first night I was sitting there, and it was probably a preview, before the official opening, like a dress rehearsal the night before, and we had a full house, and the lights went down, and I was standing behind the screen thinking ‘oh god, I hope this isn’t going to go down like a cup of cold sick’. We got to “There’s a light over at the Frankenstein place” and that line came out – “there’s a light” and myself and the bv’s [backing vocalists] sang “over at the Frankenstein place”… and they laughed. And the laughter was such a relief, because I thought if they laugh at that – “Oh there’s a light over at the Frankenstein place” and the people with the pitchforks and the torches and gather that they are going to burn down Frankenstein’s castle – if they get that as a joke and a throwaway line then we’re okay, if they got that we’d be fine, and it proved to be so.     

How different is the original stage show to what we’ll be seeing?      

Not a million miles different. A lot of the years it had – it was in the hands of somebody and it became autonomous and wouldn’t allow me to have a voice strangely, it was an odd situation, and the show was becoming a parody in itself; people were writing jokes in. What we’ve done with Christopher Luscombe the director of this show was go right back to stage one, take all the jokes out, clean the show right back to its original formula and start it again. So what you are getting now is the clarity of what we had back in those days, it’s not overly fussy and the story comes across and it’s got air around the jokes, it’s not messy and muddy and pretending to be funny. The jokes are written and it doesn’t need a nudge-nudge to make them work – play it serious and then it becomes funny.     

That’s really good to hear actually!     

It is actually, it’s a relief for me! In fact it was a relief all round, I saw what a gem of a show it was and it had been concealed behind too much artifice.     

Your connection with NZ was obviously very important to you when you were trying to get your citizenship. What was it like growing up in your teens here?     

It was lovely, I was a troubled teenager there’s no doubt about that, but most teenagers are troubled. And also when you’re a troubled teenager… I was a dodgy bastard, hanging round a street corner in Tauranga in 1956/57 on a wet miserable Sunday afternoon; there wasn’t much to do. And a disaffected youth hanging out with other disaffected youths on our street corners we thought we were moody and expressing our angst, like punks basically. It was… I loved it. I loved the freedom of New Zealand, and you know one of the greatest things about New Zealand (and there are many great things), but the greatest thing is this middle classless society. I absolutely adore the fact that nobody is allowed to be your social superior, and I think that is such a gift. And when I came to England in 64, having been bought up in that society, the freedom it gave me in Great Britain was phenomenal, because this was a truly class divided society in 1964 when I arrived, and coming from this classless society in New Zealand it enabled me to go anywhere, across any borders, lines of demarcation – it didn’t exist for me. It gave me an access all areas card. It can never ever be overstated that New Zealand’s classlessness is wonderful. It’s a meritocracy, it’s true, and due deference is given to various people for what they have achieved, but they are never allowed to be your social superior. And that is phenomenally good.     

I guess that’s the sort of perspective you can only gain when you leave New Zealand…     

I guess that’s probably true, you take it for granted, but you see when somebody does attempt in New Zealand to play some kind of role of superiority, you see these suckers stand out like a sore thumb, and they don’t get  a very easy ride. You only become aware of it when somebody tries it on otherwise we just take it for granted that we are allowed to talk to each other on the same level no matter who were are, no matter if we are professional people with degrees or a carpenter, we are all equal. But yes, you’re quite right, it did become apparent to me, and I became astonished by people’s willingness to buy into a class system in this country, especially people who were getting the worst of it like working class people. The inverted snobbery of working class people in New Zealand was astonishing, as if they wanted to maintain this lowly position, I couldn’t understand that either.     

We do like to lay claim to you in New Zealand…     

I love it! As I said to Nathan Guy, I just wanted to belong; I just wanted to properly belong. I do like to consider myself a kiwi whether I’m officially one or not. But it would be nice to get that rubber stamp, that would be cool.     

And what of the claim that it was your experiences in Hamilton that inspired you to create Rocky Horror?     

A lot of my teenage angst, and small town New Zealand [experience] is not dissimilar to the Mid-West of America. A couple coming from a small Mid-West town in the 1950s/early 60s – their experience is not a million miles away from a New Zealand upbringing in those days. Yeah, ‘what ever happened to Saturday night? When you dressed up sharp and you felt alright’. I can remember… there used to be a dance hall in Hamilton; it was just a wooden hall… the starlight ballroom or something like that? I was going along one night, and I think a young guy wanted me to play some guitar and he was going to sing there during the set and I don’t know how that was going to work… and I was running along Garden Place (and that was a misnomer because there was nothing garden-like on Garden Place in Victoria Street in those days) and there used to be a pie wagon stuck in the middle of it and it was drizzling, the rain coming down, and the radio was on in the pie store and Buddy Holly’s last song was playing (I Guess it doesn’t Matter Anymore) and it was echoing around the building and I can remember it so clearly that moment, so when I was writing that song I can remember being up with some guys in a big old American car with the radio on and the driver of the car was in the backseat with the chick and we were just horsing around you know. So writing that song I’ve got lots of images of my teenage youth.     

I used to go to the Embassy – that was where I used to go on a Friday and Saturday night and see the late night double feature, again sitting in the dark with 8… 10 at the most, spread round, useless geezers like myself, with no direction, gormless youths shouting lines at the screen, muttering and thinking we were funny.     

Oddly, the Embassy theatre… and I never thought about this to very, very recently, and I forgot the guy’s name, and that was where I saw my first drag act as well or female impersonator in New Zealand – very big guy, must have been 6ft1, huge guy – and I saw him on stage because the Embassy was also then a theatre. So there I used to watch the double features and also saw my first drag act, and that hadn’t occurred to me until quite recently, about 5 years ago that crossed my mind, and I thought that’s interesting isn’t? That Frank N Furter and the double features came out of the Embassy Theatre.     

What is your take on why Rocky Horror has kept going and going and going?     

Well… several reasons. One that it’s just a very nice light, frothy Rock N Roll evening out where you don’t have to take your brain along, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s pure good entertainment and value for money on that level to cheer you up. But if it was just that I doubt it would have lasted as long as it has. And I think it taps into root fairytales and pleases on a subconscious level or subliminal level, that once again we don’t have to think about it, but we feel satisfied, because it really is a retelling of the fall and rites of passage; Adam and Eve are Brad and Janet and the serpent is Frank-N-Furter. So from that point of view I think it works as well. It’s also a parable or analogy for the fall of the American Empire; Brad and Janet have walked out of the past of the American Dream of Eisenhower’s America of the 50s, slap bang into the present and the trouble with sex and drugs and Rock N Roll and depravity, and you know, all the confusion… it’s as if America had been living in a perpetual state of childhood and suddenly – the Vietnam War was probably a part of this as well – you step out of the 50s into the 60s and the disaffected youths at university, the students protesting against the war, and dope coming in and peace and light… you know it was an interesting period and I think Rocky kind of charts that as well. But once again, not as agit-prop, it doesn’t bring it along and force anybody to listen to a message, that’s all kind of invested into the subtext isn’t it.     

When was the point when you realized that Rocky Horror was ‘big’?     

When it started to have it owns life, yes, I think once we’d twigged… you see even in our 62 seater we were full every night, and we were getting people fighting for tickets and we became aware that this was definitely a hot ticket. On our final night of the 62 seater we had Elliot Gould and Mick Jagger on the stairs you know… the word had got around that we were a show to see. And then we moved down the road a little bit further, and we sat down about 300 people, and once again the audiences are full of luminaries. Tennessee Williams came along our first night, and it was packed with the show biz and the 60s/70s Kings Road kind of people. It was a very sexy show.     

What is it like to have to created something 35 years ago or so and for it still to be such a big part of your life and what you are defined by?     

It can be quite intimidating, but I’ve never tried to top it, I’ve always tried to go out and do something of its own merit. It’s wonderful to have left a small mark in the world, I’ve never been ambitious, or needed to be ambitious, it’s not my nature, but to have been part of something that is… the movie has gone into film history as probably the benchmark of cult movies, the stage show has been by tens of millions of people all over the world. And to think that I was part of that is wonderful. It’s a great calling card; I can get people’s time on the back of it. I stay alive somehow or other in the minds of people because my name is over the title now – it says Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show. 

 And that’s not for ego, simply when the show first went to Los Angeles after we opened in London it said Lou Adler presents Michael White’s production starring Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror show, and I wasn’t even mentioned. And I wasn’t even in the program. As if I didn’t exist. And I thought this is not right. I complained about it, I said ‘come on, include me in’. And they said “oh yes, we’ll do that, anyway Richard it’s really not important”. And I said ‘well if it’s not important why is it important for you three guys to be above the title?’. You can’t have it both ways! So at a later stage they were going to do a production in London and it was suggested my name went above the title, and I like that now. It’s not that I’m showing off, but it is good advertising, and I am in show business and it keeps your name up there on the marquee, and it means you’re going to be slightly more employable than someone who has become a little bit forgotten. It’s a bit shameless I know, but I am in show business!     

What else gives you fulfillment in life? What else do you get up to?     

My pleasure in the day is the first morning cup of tea – I mean this sounds incredibly contrite and it is – but the first cup of tea in the morning with the cryptic crossword, I’m kind of in heaven. Cup of tea by the side of the bed and a cryptic crossword that gets you thinking. That gives me a great deal of pleasure. People’s company, good conversation around the dinner table, and that again is just wonderful. Going to see somebody perform and find you’re in the presence of an evening that is changing and uplifting. I went to see a 1928 film the other night… not a great movie, but it was lifted up into greatness that night because they had a six piece band with it… And it was fucking great, it really really was cool. They really hit every moment and just lifted up the pathos and the energy and the humour, and it was a very, very special evening. Because it’s never going to happen again, because it was live. The movie stays constant, but the music is always going to vary. And it was fantastic.     

What are you most looking forward to about doing in New Zealand?      

It will be the first time that I’ve performed onstage in New Zealand, I’m really looking forward to that. I kind of am looking forward to taking a personal connection with the audience in a way that perhaps a lot of people aren’t allowed to have because I feel like I’m coming home you know what I mean?    

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