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The Man Behind Rocky Horror: An Interview with Richard O'Brien

Posted: 15/02/2013 02:03

It's Wednesday lunchtime at the Groucho Club in Soho and I'm determined to buy Richard O'Brien a drink. He won't have it.

"No, no, you can't," he says. "You're not a member". It's his way of insisting that he buys the round, so I decide not to press the point. It would seem ungracious and, let's be honest, he's almost certainly richer than me. The ongoing success of The Rocky Horror Show has seen to that.

Richard's outlandish musical is currently enjoying its 40th anniversary with a new touring production, but his interests aren't limited to musical theatre. He's the very definition of a cult figure, from his bizarre antics on Channel 4's The Crystal Maze to his inimitable performances in films as diverse as Flash Gordon, Spiceworld, and Derek Jarman's wonderfully anarchic Jubilee. I ask him why his various projects always seem to achieve cult status.

"I've always been an outsider, that's why. I think being transgender I was always an outsider. I wasn't all there. You know how they say that about somebody: 'oh he's not all there'? That was me."

Anyone familiar with Richard's work might well see in his extravagant characterisations an unshakeable personal confidence, but it wasn't always the case. Up until ten years ago, the real performance was taking place off-camera. "I was very good at coping. My defence mechanisms were strong. I seemed sparky and chirpy, but the real me was hidden away inside. That's not healthy. Madness ensues. And I did step off the edge of the abyss ten years ago; I went a bit loopy. But I'm over that now, and I'm dealing with what I am and who I am quite well."

At this moment I can't help but glance over to Richard's fiancée, Sabrina Graf, who is sitting on the other side of the table, reading a copy of Hello magazine. She's trying to keep a polite distance from the interview, but I can't help but wonder what she must think of Richard's unflinching honesty.

"So you feel you're in a good place at the moment?" I say, wishing I could retract this banal question almost immediately. Richard, quite rightly, picks me up on it. "Well, I wouldn't employ an American cliché quite like that," he says, laughing. I take a sip of my orange juice and mutter something about watching too much American television.

"I'm at peace with myself," he says. "I like being in the middle of the sexes and I'm very happy there. I can go out in a frock or whatever and nobody ever says anything. I'm completely and totally free to be myself without any fear of rejection."

But doesn't he still experience some prejudice? "Obviously I'm going to get some flack from certain quarters of society," Richard admits. "But f*ck 'em. Who are these people? People who don't have a sex life, who don't have any life whatsoever".

He reserves his harshest criticism for his own generation, those born during the Second World War who came of age at the advent of the sexual revolution. "I look across a restaurant sometimes and see these old bastards and I think, you're my f*cking age. What went wrong? When did you lose the joy? Why did you let yourself turn into this parody of your grandparents? Were you hippies? Were you rock n' roll? Did that happen, or were you always a miserable old f*cker?"

He somehow says all of this without a trace of anger. He isn't bitter, he simply has very little patience for what he sees as the tyranny of gender, a phenomenon that he believes is irrevocably associated with misogyny. "It's b*llshit. It's absolute b*llshit. Arrogant f*cking men full of testosterone thinking that they're better than women. We're a human race; let's forget male and female. We're a sentient species; the greatest gift that could be provided to anyone anywhere in the universe. And then to turn around and say that fifty percent of this group that we belong to is less viable than the other fifty percent is sickening. It pisses me off."

The current production of Rocky Horror stars Oliver Thornton as Dr Frank-N-Furter, and X-Factor's Rhydian in the title role. "I've been talking to journalists about this tour, obviously, because the producers want me to. It's a dreadful job if the production isn't good; you have to go out anyway, put on a brave face, and say you're so excited. But here we have a show which is wonderful. The cast is great. The band is terrific. It's so easy to go out and wave the flag and beat the drum when it's good."

I ask him whether there is any room for reinvention with each new production. He has a straightforward answer to this. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. We've got the same dialogue, the same characters, the same locations, so it's kind of written in stone. And I think probably, from the actor's point of view, that's the challenge isn't it? Because our original Frank-N-Furter, Tim Curry, was definitive. We had one actor twenty or thirty years ago who said to me: 'I hope you know, Richard, I'm stealing everything off Tim Curry'. And I thought that was an honest way to approach it."

Perhaps this consistency is the key to the show's longevity. Richard thinks it's more to do with the fairytale essence of the piece. "That's its charm, that's the reason it has a life. Rocky falls into this tradition: children's fairy tales, Greek myths and legends, the Bible and other documents of faith. I'm a Darwinist, so I have no problems saying that the story of Genesis and the Garden of Eden is a parable. Rocky is like that. Brad and Janet are Adam and Eve. The serpent is Frank-N-Furter."

This is a particularly interesting analogy given that by the end of the show, after Frank sings the sentimental number "I'm Going Home", we invariably feel sorry for him. "Sympathy for the devil? Yes, exactly. And you should do so. A tyrant doesn't think of himself as a tyrant."

The Rocky Horror Show flouts many conventions of musical theatre. Was this deliberate? "I wanted to put genuine rock n' roll songs into it rather than pastiche. Grease is pastiche. It annoys the shit out of me."

I tell him I prefer Grease 2. "Let's not go there," he says abruptly.

To Richard, The Rocky Horror Show represents the full realisation of his craft as a writer. "All the characters come on at the right time, all the songs come at the right time, and it has a very simple linear plot. Rocky Horror is foolproof. It's flawless. And I know I shouldn't say that. But I'm not patting myself on the back. It's just a fact." Somehow, this doesn't sound arrogant coming from Richard. It sounds honest.

Before I leave I ask about his forthcoming marriage. Sabrina tells me they'll be getting married in New Zealand in April. "I'm her fool," says Richard, smiling and taking hold of her hand. "I'm the luckiest person on the planet. I really am." It's difficult to be cynical about this kind of happiness. I'm left with the impression of a man who is proud of his achievements, excited about the future and, to employ the forbidden American cliché, most definitely in a good place.


The full version of this interview appears in the February issue of ScotsGay Magazine

 
 
 

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