IT'S NOT unusual for fans to write to their artistic heroes. When Richard O'Brien receives letters, though, they run a little deeper than "thanks for a great show".
• Richard O'Brien created The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, but neither the film nor the stage production is showing signs of running out of steam. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Over the years, the creator of The Rocky Horror Show has been told on a number of occasions that he's changed people's lives. First, by writing the book, music and lyrics of a musical that showed people it was okay to be different, and more recently by being so open about his own personal life.
The day we meet, O'Brien looks as if he has been spray-painted into the tightest pair of white jeans I've ever seen. At the age of 68, he could easily pass for ten, possibly 20 years younger, his distinctive bald head and tiny physique virtually unchanged from the days he spent charging around the Crystal Maze in the early 1990s.
Renowned for his flamboyant dress sense, O'Brien regales me with tales of shopping for high-heeled shoes to match a party dress, or having his lingerie sifted through at customs. Yet despite the ease with which he talks about such events and the way people look at him until he gets them on side, it wasn't always thus. For years, O'Brien waged an internal struggle over who – or what – he was, finally emerging as transgender. Unashamed, unafraid and uncompromising, it's easy to see why he's a role model for many.
"I've had people come up to me and say, 'I'm so grateful that you put your head above the parapet, because it's allowed me to not be so shy about myself,'" says O'Brien. "By being open about what I am, I've given other people the confidence to do that too. I'm just being myself and saying, 'This is it, I got it by default not through choice, and I'm going to be as free as I can and enjoy myself, and not be intimidated by dinosaurs'."
It's a philosophy O'Brien shares with his most famous creation, Dr Frank N Furter, Rocky Horror's lead character and a man for whom enjoyment is top of the agenda. Almost 40 years after Tim Curry first pulled on his stockings and suspenders to play the role (on stage and on screen), Frank N Furter's proclivity for seduction is as irresistible to audiences as ever.
"The casting of Frank N Furter is crucial," says O'Brien. "Wit and intelligence is what you need. And that sense of danger, that he might climb over the footlights and roger the wife – and he may well roger the husband as well. It's that kind of ambivalence that makes him dangerous and appealing, cheeky and charming, charismatic and selfish and all the things that he is."
From its humble premiere at London's Royal Court Upstairs in 1973, the stage show quickly became a cult classic – as did the film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which opened two years later. The tale of a straight-laced young couple who stumble upon an old house filled with hedonistic misfits, O'Brien's story has enjoyed an enduring appeal, and is back in Scotland this week. To what does he attribute the show's continued success? "Well, it's like Babes in the Wood – which in itself is a parable of Adam and Eve," says O'Brien. "And Frank N Furter is the wicked witch or the serpent. If you look at fairytales such as Cinderella or Snow White, they all have the same recurring theme – they're rites of passage tales where the girl becomes an adult. Rocky Horror falls right into that category – Brad and Janet are an idealistic couple whose lives are changed, and they won't ever be the same again. I think the story fulfils all the requirements of root fairytales, and that gives it its longevity." Then, of course, there are the songs. Sing-along numbers such as Sweet Transvestite, Damn it Janet and the eternally popular Time Warp (to which all audience members are encouraged to dance) have captured the imagination of generations of musical fans.
So too the audience participation – or AP as it's known. Originating during midnight screenings of the film in New York's Greenwich Village, it involves key lines being shouted out by the crowd and certain products being thrown at optimum moments – although the later is now banned in most theatres and cinemas. What started as a joke is now an integral part of the performance, with the AP almost as important as the genuine dialogue. It also solved a problem with pace O'Brien felt the film suffered from.
"The film runs for 90 minutes just like the show," he says. "But it was a tight hour and a half in the theatre, people picked up the dialogue and it kicked along. When we made the movie it still ran for 90 minutes, but it seemed so slow, there were gaps between lines. And I would watch it and think, 'Why are we hanging around? Those lines should be coming right on top of each other'.
"Five years later, somebody at a convention asked me if we left the gaps in deliberately so that the audience could put its own dialogue in – and I said, 'Oh yes, that's exactly what that was for'."
Re-branded as Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show, the stage show is currently touring the UK, with a revolving door of actors taking on the role of the Narrator (former Brookside hard man and panto king Gerard Kelly plays the part in Edinburgh and Aberdeen). There's no indication the show will ever run out of steam, and although O'Brien peaked so early in his career that he's been unable to top it, he is more than content with his achievements.
"I'm just so grateful that I've been part of something that has so uniquely left its mark," he says. "They can never take that away from me."
&149 Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 26 June; and His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, 28 June until 3 July.