Interview: Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien

Richard O'Brien, creator of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Picture: Contributed
Richard O'Brien, creator of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

FOR decades the Rocky Horror Show has had audiences dressing up in basques and throwing toast at the cast. As the musical hits Scotland, creator Richard O’Brien and star Rhydian Roberts ponder its appeal.

Forty years ago, in 1973, the Sydney Opera House opened, the three day week was in full-force and The Exorcist was terrifying people in cinemas. There was also a small happening in the upstairs, 60-seater space at the Royal Court Theatre in London. A group of exotically attired young thesps were cavorting around, pretending to be sexually liberated and voracious aliens in a B-movie inspired musical called The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

One of them, who also happened to have written the show, was Richard O’Brien, born in England but raised in New Zealand after his family emigrated in 1952. He’d come to London in 1964 for a one-year working holiday but, finding that he rather fitted into swinging Sixties London, he’d stayed.

He created Rocky Horror having been fired from playing Herod in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (O’Brien wanted to do it in the style of Elvis, Lloyd Webber not so much) channelling all those schlocky films he’d loved as a teenager with the hip-shaking rock’n’roll singers he’d idolised. I know this because when I ask him about it, he sings a long excerpt of a Johnny Devlin (New Zealand’s answer to Elvis, he assures me) song which is about a girl wearing a “tight, straight skirt” and involves a lot of “oooeeeyy-oooeeeyy-ooooeeeeyys”.

In the busy bar of the Groucho Club, looking like a kind of goth pixie (he is stick thin in black skinny jeans and a black jacket and completely ageless, although he tells me he’s 70), O’Brien has no qualms about singing, reciting poetry, kissing my hand or launching into impressions. He’s charmingly unique, utterly idiosyncratic and seemingly endlessly happy to talk about Rocky Horror, even if sometimes by rather circuitous routes.

“Johnny Devlin used to wear a burnt orange zoot suit with leopard-print lapels,” he says with reverence. “I went to see him at the local town hall on a Saturday afternoon.” He pauses, enjoying his story but suddenly unsure why he’s telling it. “I’ve lost the plot now,” he says, sounding completely unconcerned by the fact.

Rocky, I prompt. He starts again, immediately in full flow. “I wanted to bring the excitement of a rock ’n’ roll concert into the theatre,” he says. “I wanted a rock ’n’ roll show with a storyline and childish, teenage, silly things that I like.”

At this point it seems both necessary yet perhaps a little absurd to outline the plot of Rocky Horror, such as it is, for anyone who has managed to survive the last four decades without knowing that you jump to the left and then step to the right. Here goes: a young, preppy, strait-laced couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere during a storm when their car gets a flat tyre.

Popping into the nearest castle for help, They discover mad scientist Dr Frank-N-Furter about to unveil his greatest creation – a monosyllabic Adonis in gold trunks, called Rocky – to a cast of exotic, eccentric creatures. There’s sex, murder, mayhem and quite a lot of singing. If it sounds a little thin, that’s as it should be. This is not a show about narrative arc and character development – this is about fun and silliness and taboos.

Word got round about the anarchic show at the Royal Court and Rocky Horror sold out. It won Best Musical in the London Evening Standard’s poll of drama critics that year and the rights were bagged, enabling production of the film to begin the following year. With Tim Curry as Frank and Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick as Janet and Brad, not to mention O’Brien reprising his role as Riff Raff, when the film was released in 1975, it flopped at the box office. But by 1976 it had found its place as a midnight movie showing at the Waverley Theatre cinema in New York and a cult was born.

For four decades, the movie has been screened in cinemas all over the world, audiences have been turning up in lab coats and fishnets, basques and hotpants to fiddle about with an array of props and spend their evening shouting at the screen and getting up to dance in the aisles. I can honestly say that I’ve only watched the movie in its entirety once, at least 20 years ago, and yet for some reason – subliminal cultural conditioning? – I know all the words and moves to the Time Warp. I have, on odd occasions found myself saying, “The river was deep but I swam it, Janet” and, in a rather wobbly falsetto singing, “Touch me, touch me, touch me, touch me”.

Sorry, that was almost too much information. My point is that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a phenomenon, one of those odd cultural creations that has burst out of its basque and found its way into the general cultural consciousness. You don’t have to have seen it to know about it. And if you have seen it there’s a very good chance that you love it and are happy to watch it endlessly, either in the cinema or on stage when you can. That’s why it’s still going strong.

Although sexual mores and taboos have shifted since the Seventies, the appeal of the show doesn’t appear to have diminished. You might think that in a world where fetish clubs and sexual encounters as random as you dare are but a mouse click away, there wouldn’t be much need to slip into your fishnets for a dose of Rocky Horror, but there is, apparently, no end to the pleasures to be found in singing along with a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.

The revamped 40th anniversary production that’s currently on tour proves the point. With a cast that includes X Factor’s Rhydian Roberts as Rocky and Oliver Thornton (previously seen in West End hit Priscilla Queen of the Desert) as Frank, the sets have been tweaked, the costumes revamped, but the silliness and the songs are just the same.

“It’s the best bit of fun that you can have,” says O’Brien, who took to the stage again two years ago as the narrator. “From an actor’s point of view you get up on stage and at the end of the show you feel that it was great to do rather than, thank God it’s over. It’s just fab. That noise coming over the footlights at you – it’s empowering. It’s not a difficult show to do because you want to do it.”

Roberts agrees, which is impressive given that he’s three months into doing eight shows a week. “I never thought I’d enjoy it quite so much,” he says. “I just run around in leopard print pants, that’s it. I just sit back and look like a clueless baby. Essentially that’s my role.”

As for wearing as little as he does, he says that in the audition he told the producers that he didn’t have any inhibitions. It takes some nerve to go on X Factor but still, I’m guessing he might have been exaggerating a little to make sure that he got the part.

“I might have cooked the books slightly because I did really want to do it, but I don’t have any inhibitions that have stopped me from immersing myself into the role. And actually it’s quite liberating to be virtually naked on stage.”

The producers first approached Roberts about the role of Frank, which is hard to believe when you see the photographs of him as Rocky. The hair, the body – he looks like he might have been created by a mad scientist to play the part. The hardest thing is maintaining the six-pack and the pecs he says. “I’ve trained very hard because I’m not naturally muscly. I don’t think the producers knew initially that I had a body.” He convinced them by telling them he used to be the strongest bench presser in Britain under-18 and offered to demonstrate. “That’s what got me the job,” he laughs.

As well as having the physique for Rocky, Roberts says that he’s glad not to be Frank because he’s the character who has to deal with the rowdy audiences, since a big part of the fun of the show is shouting out call-backs – added lines or quips that are usually rude – in between the script’s dialogue or wielding carefully selected props at key moments: rubber gloves to snap on as Frank does when he gives his creation speech, a newspaper to hold over your head as Janet does when caught in the rain. Or maybe a slice of toast to lob when Frank proposes to raise a glass or a glow stick to hold aloft during There’s a Light.

“We get thrown if there aren’t the regular shout-outs,” says Roberts. “We allow for them like laughs in comedy, really. Generally we’re not disappointed. It’s what we thrive on, not to mention the outfits that we see when the house lights go up.”

At least some of the inspiration for the audience participation for O’Brien came from going to see films in Victoria on a Saturday night where O’Brien was one of the audience of “whey-faced youths”. Someone would shout something at the screen and everyone would laugh.

It planted a seed for O’Brien and now the whole sing-a-long-a movement depends on it – “I’m not bitter,” says O’Brien, eyebrow arched. For Roberts, the sexual politics of the show – the gay abandon, the exhibitionism – is what makes audiences flock to spend a couple of hours in the weird world of Rocky Horror. For him, that’s as much about O’Brien as it is about the show.

“As a person Richard still is the manifestation of what Rocky is about,” Roberts says. “He lives and breathes that world. And he’s not the only one. There are hundreds and thousands of people who come along and celebrate it.”

Roberts is right. Sipping a glass of red wine and giggling with his soon-to-be wife, Sabrina, O’Brien is magnificently eccentric, an appealing combination of conservative and quirky. The couple are about to move to New Zealand, where they’re getting married on 6 April. O’Brien had his citizenship confirmed last year and delights in telling me he saw the country’s prime minister on TV being asked about welcoming O’Brien back to the country and confessing to having dressed up to attend Rocky Horror in his youth.

“Hello,” he says, sounding salacious in a way that only O’Brien can, his eyebrow crawling up his forehead, “And what did you wear? Was it a little gold swimsuit or something more exotic?” He laughs. He turns to Sabrina. “We’ve got another 30 years,” he says, eyes twinkling. “I’ll be a hundred and she’ll be just about the age that I am now.” They’ve bought a house set in “two-and-a-half acres of paradise” and although I can’t quite imagine O’Brien in a rural idyll, he’s having none of it.

“It’s parochial and very nice. I love it,” he says. “We have friends who are musicians and artists and they do like to eat and drink. As far as I’m concerned music and food and drink – we should be all right.”

I’m sure he’ll be fine. And he’ll always be happy to talk about Rocky Horror. Why wouldn’t he be? O’Brien must have seen his show hundreds of times, all over the world, so I wonder which was the best production he’s ever seen?

“The last one,” he says with a smirk. “Oh I don’t know really. I don’t want to start naming people because if I say he or she, all the others over 40 years will wonder ‘what about me?’, just as I would.

“I’ve seen it good. I’ve seen it questionable. The strange thing is that even the questionable performances are loved by the audience.” He describes one in which the narrator forgot to come on stage at one point. O’Brien, watching with the director, was horrified. Still, though, when the curtain fell, the audience was roaring. “I turned to my fellow director and said, ‘it’s foolproof, isn’t it?’” He laughs, heading to the bar for another glass of wine.

• The Rocky Horror Show is at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow from Monday, and at the Edinburgh Playhouse from Monday 11 March, tickets £10-£37.50, see;