|O'Brien as The Childcatcher|
20 Questions With...Richard O'Brien
Date: 15 April 2002
Actor, writer & composer Richard O’Brien, who opens this week as the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, explains why children love him even though he's a fraud & how he never tires of Rocky Horror.
Born Richard Timothy Smith, British actor, writer and composer Richard O'Brien emigrated with his family to New Zealand at the age of ten. He left school at the age of 15, and at the age of 22, moved back to England.
After a series of odd jobs, O'Brien broke into showbusiness as a film stuntman and then as a "jobbing actor". He adopted his grandfather's moniker and appeared in a number of stage productions, including Gulliver's Travels, The Unseen Hand, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.
With his first wife, Kimi Wong, he formed a singing act called Kimi and Ritz that released three singles in the UK, including a song called "Eddie". "Eddie" later became part of the score for the cult phenomenon which O'Brien created and with which he will, no doubt, forever be associated - The Rocky Horror Show.
Inspired by his childhood love of schlock sci-fi films, Rocky Horror premiered in 1973 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, ran for two years in its original London incarnation and has been remounted and toured around the world ever since. In 1975, it spawned the cult film version, starring a young Susan Sarandon.
O'Brien has also had success on television, most notably as the host of the long-running British game show, The Crystal Maze. And on film, he has developed a niche as a character actor in films such as Flash Gordon, Ever After, Spiceworld, Dungeons and Dragons and Shock Treatment and Dark City.
This week O'Brien opens in the West End - alongside Michael Ball, Nichola McAuliffe, Brian Blessed and Anton Rodgers - in the world premiere of the stage musical adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Date & place of birth
Born 25 March 1942 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Lives now in...
Vauxhall, south London
First big break
Getting into a production of Gulliver's Travels at the Mermaid Theatre in 1969, where I was working with Sean Kenny, the set director most famous for the original production of Oliver!.
Generally, it's been musical theatre from then on, although I've done straight plays and films. I stay in the area of fantasy and make-believe as opposed to naturalist or realistic. I've never been terribly ambitious or career-minded. I'm not in it for the same reasons as other people. I worked with the Spice Girls recently, and they all said they knew as children they wanted to be stars. I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to make believe, but it really wasn't important to me to be famous. I'm a bluff and a fraud and sometimes I do it so well I actually convince myself that I'm good at it. I have no pretensions as to my ability. Really, I'm not fit for anything but getting drunk and having a natter with people. First and foremost, I'm one of those lazy people who simply gets away with it.
How do feel about The Rocky Horror Show nearly 30 years on?
It's the most wonderful calling card. To be responsible for creating a show that continues to run somewhere in the world all the time is something. Rocky is a cult classic, maybe the cult classic. And I wrote it. I find that rather astonishing. Now, it means that people will take my call and give me at least five minutes of their time.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Sam Shepard's The Unseen Hand, directed by Jim Sharman at the Royal Court, because we had such fun doing it. What was supremely wonderful about it was that nobody knew it was going to give as much enjoyment as it did. We didn't even know it was particularly funny when we were rehearsing, but the audiences laughed even when we didn't see any joke. We underestimated just how funny it was. That was a lot to do with how Jim cast it - which is one of the first gifts a good director has, an eye for casting. Jim later directed Rocky Horror. I have very happy memories of that time at the Royal Court throughout that period in the early 1970s.
I did enjoy acting recently with Drew Barrymore in Ever After. She was charming and very easy to do the scenes with. Often when you do a movie, you're only there a couple of days and you don't really establish a relationship with anyone. That can be a problem when you come to do the scene, especially if they're spiky. But she was very charming.
Jim Sharman. Why? Pat Quinn, the original Magenta in Rocky Horror, put it best - "Jim Sharman expects". You know you've got to work hard and that he doesn't accept anything less than your best and that brings out the best in you. Sometimes that's rather intimidating, but generally speaking, you get over it and he does pull performances out of you that others might not.
Favourite musical writers
The Gershwins have to be the pinnacle, the epitome of great songwriting. "Rhapsody in Blue" is one of the greatest pieces ever written. Cole Porter is up there too. And the best musical ever written is West Side Story, with Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim doing the thing he does best, which is lyrics.
Tennessee Williams because of the beauty of his words. And the whole world that he evokes, with the faded landed gentry, is spectacular. He invented a part of the American South.
What roles would you most like to play still?
There's nothing really. I would like to continue acting, and there are roles I wouldn't have minded. For instance, I would have loved Alan Rickman's role in Harry Potter, but I think he's the better actor and he's better looking. If I had been casting that film, I would have cast him over me.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I like to see comedy, I love a quick farce - the energy of it and the rollercoaster laughter. I like taking my children to the same and to feel uplifted by it all. But I can't think of one show in particular.
What advice would you give to the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I wouldn't mind seeing a new government, a government that truly represents the people, a true democracy in place of lip service and pretense. What we've got is middle management running the country for the sake of corporations. It's shameful. I think sometimes the arts can be funded too much. The very thing that keeps the arts important is uncertainty, the anger at inequality and social injustice. The best theatre comes out of that. Stuff that is underwritten becomes soft-bellied, more pompous and less important.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Physically, I'd love to pop into the body of someone who was absolutely stunningly gorgeous. Male or female, I wouldn't really mind, but I'd like to keep my own wits about me so I could enjoy the pleasure of manipulating people with my sheer beauty.
I don't have one particular favourite. I read a lot and I have favourite writers, like Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke. Burke writes detective novels and is possibly the greatest living American novelist. His prose is magnificent.
Favourite holiday destination
I hate holidays because I never know what to do. I'm always on holiday really so going away seems a waste of time. If you've got a nice house and a lovely garden, why would you want to leave it? I love when works takes me to different corners of the world. Then you're there for a reason and can enjoy a place. I still have to visit cities like Seville and Florence - I'm longing to go to those places.
It's terribly long. Jokes have been appropriated because of political correctness. Most were coloured by misogynism or racism or some other -ism. They're a bit thin on the ground now.
Why did you want to accept your part in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
I'm perfect casting for the role of the Childcatcher. If I had my producer's hat on, I'd think of me. I told the director when I went for my first audition, I don't think you should see anyone else now that you've seen me.
Do you think your reputation as someone who scares children is deserved?
I don't scare children; children love me. When I was doing The Crystal Maze, we had 20,000 letters a year from children who wanted to come on the show. As the Childcatcher, I've got to scare people, yes. But I don't want to terrify children and send them to bed with nightmares, I just want to get close to it.
What's your favourite number from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
My song, "Kiddy-Widdy-Winkies", is my favourite in the show. The others are quite nice as well, but mine is the nicest for me. I move my feet around in a way that I think could be conceived as dancing. I move okay and get from point A to point B in a dance type way. I'm not good with choreography and all that stuff that dancers know how to do. I think I'm numerically dyslexic - I don't know if that translates to your brain messing up telling your feet the number of steps to take in any direction but I trip up when I try.
What's the funniest thing that's happened during rehearsals of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
I haven't had to work with the dogs, thankfully that's in the first act. I don't like dogs, I'm not a doggy person. Rehearsals for me have been fairly trouble-free. The truth of the matter is, you're there to work. When you're having a six-hour make-up call and you don't leave until 10 at night, there's not much time for fun. You're too busy working and stressing out, that's the nature of the game. People imagine that showbusiness is all glamorous and fun, they think it's all like the glittery first night, but of course it's not. The dressing rooms are foul for one thing.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm writing a sequel to The Rocky Horror Show. The plan is to get it finished by the time my Chitty contract ends in September. Then I'll look at workshopping it and going from there. The action takes place nine months later and Janet's having Frank's baby. It's quite amusing so far and that's one of things that keeps me going. I won't be in it this time around. It's been 30 years since I played Riff so I'm too old for it now. There's also a 30th anniversary tour of the original planned for later this year.
- Richard O'Brien was speaking to Terri Paddock
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
opens at the London Palladium on 16 April 2002, following reviews from 19 March.