Richard O'Brien On ... Rocky Horror
The Rocky Horror Show arrives at Glasgow's King's Theatre next month as part of a UK tour. The show's writer, Richard O'Brien talks inspiration, casting and cult status.
How does it feel to be talking about Rocky Horror still after all this time?
Rocky Horror is one of those great joys in my life because it’s a great joy in other people’s lives. One of the nicest things about being in this business is I love the fact that show comes into town and it cheers people up. I wouldn’t want to be sitting here if I was just flogging a show for the sake of flogging it. That would really embarrass me. I really am sincere. If the band is cooking and the audience is laughing, I’m kinda happy. It’s not quite as simple as that, you want excellence. And one of the things I’ve discovered in the last few weeks while we’ve been auditioning for Rocky and The Stripper is that Britain really does have talent.
So you enjoy casting your shows?
One day we were auditioning for The Stripper and it was almost an embarrassment of riches. People came and sang for Richard Hartley, my writing partner, and I at 10.30 in the morning, and we were leaking tears from the corners of our eyes as this girl was singing. Not only has she got all the pressure of auditioning, she’s just got out of bed and she turned up and sang like an angel. It sends shivers down your spine. It’s so wonderful. It makes me want to weep. That’s what I like about Rocky it keeps employing young artists, young singers and it keeps giving people in the towns a nice week of ‘let’s go and see the show’. Groups of people, from offices and the like, often go as a party and it’s party time. What a wonderful thing to be giving people pleasure for 30 years.
How involved are you in the staging of Rocky now? Do you still like to be hands on?
Well, thankfully this time round with Rocky I haven’t had to be too hands on and that’s given me the freedom to concentrate on The Stripper. That’s simply because there are two people involved this time I know I can trust completely. One is Christopher Luscombe, our director, who directed it the last time round and did a splendid job and understood exactly what was going on. And David Bedella is playing Frank ‘N’ Furter again and David was terrific; controlled, sensible, witty and intelligent. With the two of them at the helm I didn’t really have to worry very much and I can concentrate on The Stripper as a result.
You’re still attached enough to the piece that you want to get it exactly right, then?
Yeah. I would really hate to think that an audience was being short changed and one of the other things with Rocky, that one always has to bear in mind, is some of the audience, many of the audience, have seen it before but even more of the audience have never seen it before. What I don’t ever want to happen is the people who haven’t seen it before to feel like they are sitting at a party that they haven’t been invited to. It was getting a bit like that at one stage which is why we were sent to try and rescue it and take it back away from the fans owning the show to the people on stage owning the show. The people on stage were feeling all at sea because the audience had taken over the show.
Rocky Horror has its own culture in a way, hasn’t it? The fans have created their own experience and script for themselves. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s splendid. It’s lovely. But it’s not for them alone. I think the more responsible fans understand that too because if they’re not getting a good show, the best show possible, even they’re dipping out aren’t they? And if they want the best show possible, they have to allow the people on stage to give them just that. I think we’ve got the balance right now so everybody can enjoy it. A good sound system is essential and high-energy theatrical performances are very important. We know it’s artificial, but within a couple of minutes we buy into it and the energy level rises and the body language becomes more extreme, but we love it.
How has Rocky Horror evolved? Is there going to be anything new this time?
I hope not. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. We did introduce a few years ago a condom into the bedroom scenes, which are farcical anyway, but I don’t think we’ve done that for a few years. We actually introduced it so not to be irresponsible, we wanted to encourage safe sex if people were going to get a little frisky after seeing the show,
The show has that effect?
It can do and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we haven’t done that for a few years because it seems a little bit finger wagging to some extent. I think anybody with any sense doesn’t need telling anyway.
How did the whole fan interaction thing start?
It started with the movie. It started, apparently, in New York City, in Greenwich Village. I think somebody yelled a line at the stage and it got a small snigger of approval and the next night somebody else tried a line and it was like wildfire. It got to one stage, Sal Pero was the chap who was the Rocky Horror principal player in New York City and he was telling me Richard adopts comedy New Yorker thesp accent ‘The strange thing Richard, someone would shout out a new line in New York and the very next night someone is shouting it out in Hollywood. Isn’t that incredible?’ So it is kind of interesting. It was a very strange phenomenon. Very, very odd and quite wonderful. Almost like a liturgy.
Are you au fait with their cues and the lines they shout?
Some of them. But some of them are quite disgusting and when I’ve been on stage and I played Frank a couple of times, when we were at the Piccadilly and Tim McInnerney’s back went, it was difficult because some of it is really rather crude. They would pre-empt your line so not only did you have to put up with the awfulness of the line, you also kind of bought into it. You’ve become their patsy and it was completely unpleasant. The first time you go ‘urrrgggh, you’ve made me your fool’.
I wonder if they ever thought about it from a performers point of view?
It’s an odd relationship between the hardened fans and Rocky, it was quite odd because there was a certain amount of contempt but there was love in the contempt. It was a very strange relationship they built with the piece. They liked the corniness of the whole thing, that’s what engaged them in the first place, and then they got to kind of dislike the fact they liked it and had this uneasy kind of relationship so most of their comments became very crude and almost a form of ridicule which added to the whole thing. I don’t think some of them quite understood their relationship, whether they really liked it, disliked it or loved disliking it, disliked loving it - I don’t know.
I can’t think of any other shows which have developed that way, can you?
Not on the same organic level. They did do Sound of Music. Graham Norton, I think, started something showing the movie in Leicester Square and people dressed up as nuns and Nazis, but a conceptual thought process went into that. Whereas with Rocky it was an organic process, a very different journey, and at times transcended the art of movies.
Did you have fun making the film?
I think we did. It was a quick shoot. It was six weeks and that was quite quick. Luckily, of course, most of us knew the show back to front as we’d played it on stage. That was one of the nice things about us being fairly close together in a family kind of sense. Then Barry Bostwick and Susan being brought in alienated them even further, so we really were a separate kind of group. They were the people coming into the strange world and that worked very well, I thought. It was terribly cold. I think we finished a week or two before Christmas and it was wet. Susan came down with a dreadful, dreadful cold right at the end when she had to go to the swimming pool and get out and do 'Wild and Untamed Thing'. This girl was a real trooper. You’d never know that she was ill, but she was terribly ill. I think we had a good time. You’re so busy working that you don’t realise you’re having a good time until it’s all over.
You wrote Rocky Horror while working in the theatre with Jim Sharman. Did you find that an enjoyable process?
I did actually. I studied play structure at drama school and kind of knew it in general terms but writing Rocky was the first thing I had ever written, so I learned a lot in the rehearsal period. Then when Jim Sharman and I went away to do the screenplay together I found that I became a kind of creative secretary. I didn’t mind that at all. He’d say ‘I think I would like to see so and so, and approach it from this kind of angle, now write the scene. What do you think?’ He’d give his ideas and I became the creative secretary and I really rather liked that process. It was kind of cool because I was not only helping him create his vision but I was having creative input. I wasn’t just a secretary where I took down notes of what he said, he was able to fire my imagination. I learned quite a bit from that. It’s a craft at the end of the day and it was enjoyable.
How did you come across the original idea for Rocky Horror?
I used to love watching the late-night B movies on television in the late 60s, early 70s. That’s what I wanted to capture and write about, one of those B-movies that made us laugh. It took America a little longer to catch onto the joke. Alan Ladd Jr was the head of 20th Century Fox by the time we went into production and he wanted to ditch it; he didn’t want the studio to make Rocky Horror. However it was too late for him to make that call. He came to the set a disgruntled unhappy man and then the film was released and they didn’t know where their target audience was, how they were to sell it, who to sell it to, they had no idea. It kind of went down the tubes and Alan Ladd Jr felt vindicated, and said ‘I told you.’ And then it started doing that late-night business, played for 25/30 years and became one of the most successful movies in 20th Century Fox’s history.