50 years of Rocky Horror, Gore Vidal and Deadpool : Lunch with the brilliantly creative Richard O’Brien

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Rocky Horror Show creator to premier new show in Tauranga

Half a century ago The Rocky Horror Show was first unveiled in London, and since then its continued to be a cult hit for both young and old.

Now creator and mastermind, Richard O’Brien, is about to premier his new show Kingdom of Bling with a cast of talented students from two schools that the 81-year-old attended as a pupil.

“The Kingdom of Bling is a satirical fairytale using the political situation in America as a basis for the whole sha-bang,” he said.

Students from Tauranga Boys’ College and Tauranga Primary make up the cast with Richard O’Brien narrating in his signature way.

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“A glimmering, shimmering not much of fun thing,” he quipped.

I turn 50 next January.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is 50 years old this year.

I remember the awe older, far cooler people would whisper about the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a kid, and I think I was 10 years old when someone told me that Riff Raff was not only a Kiwi, but actually wrote the musical, the screenplay and the book.

That shockwave for me as a 10 year old, learning that this insane, radical, revolutionary musical was created by a New Zealander shifted my entire horizon and I know that happened for an entire Generation of kiwis.

In my mind, in the pantheon of NZ cultural icons: Katherine Mansfield, Peter Jackson, Split Enz and Taika Waititi are your peer group.

How on earth did a humble Kiwi who had immigrated here from England to a Tauranga sheep farm in the 50s manage to spark off such a global cultural revolutionary musical?

I caught up with Richard for lunch earlier this year for lunch.

I don’t want to embarrass you with the comparison, but Katherine Mansfield felt should could only write critically about NZ when she was in England, could you have written Rocky Horror Show in frumpy conservative 1960s NZ or did you have to leave?

I think my teenage upbringing in NZ is writ large in Rocky. Small town mid west America and NZ in the 50’s was not a million miles apart. The world changed after the Second World War, that sense it was the only just war and the boys who came home didn’t get treated as well as they should which all slammed into the 50s with the working classes gaining access to refrigerators and washing machines and cars. Suddenly working class kids are going to University. In the 1950s, the American dream became true for many. Gore Vidal said the American Dream became reality in 1958, and I think he was absolutely right. What Rocky does is take 2 kids from the 50s and pops them into a future that is uncertain.

When Queen wrote ‘We will Rock you’, they wrote it specifically to create audience participation,  when you started hearing people were dressing up, dancing in the aisles and answering back to the movie at midnight screenings, did you know then that you had created something culturally transformational?  

I thought it was amusing.

It’s weird because all it really because all it is is a collection of my adolescent growing up themes, so it’s odd. It’s derivative in so many ways and is a collage of things from the past that I didn’t create, I just pasted it in. Someone once said we put Pop Art on stage, and I liked that as an idea.

Critics initially slammed the film and it was being dumped by cinema chains when it launched, yet the midnight screenings created something utterly different – did you suspect a late night audience that the mainstream couldn’t see?

It was misunderstood and outside the normal schedule. It was actually a chap who worked for Fox and it was his suggestion to test the midnight audience idea and it started to pick up people returning. I remember the speed with which new lines people used during the performances would spread to other performances and this was all pre internet. 

Many British and American comedians point to your original performance of Rocky Horror as an existential moment of creativity in their careers and you can see that aranachy in many threads of popular culture throughout the 80s. How does it feel as a creator of art to see that influence reflected?

I never think in these terms, I just turn up and do the job. I never saw myself as an artist. There is no art without craft and I always focused on the craft. There isn’t enough focus on the craft.

This year is also the 40th Anniversary of Blackadder and Ben Elton seems to have been heavily influenced by The Rocky Horror Show, did you see the same glorious anarchy in Blackadder that Rocky Horror channeled?

I do like Blackadder but again I never thought of myself in these terms. Ben was always far more intelligent and erudite than me. I never considered myself an intellectual because I always feared being seen as pretentious.

Ben Elton has written  We will Rock you and there is a surge of what they call ‘jukebox musicals’, what do you think of current musical theatre and have you had a chance to see Hamilton? 

I saw the performers doing the opening for Hamilton and I saw how that worked, it came at you like a tsunami. The musical hasn’t had its day but it is a phenomena of the 20th Century, I’d put West Side Story as the number one musical. I watch a lot of movies and TV now, I really like Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool. 

How did you get Robert Muldoon to agree to playing the Narrator in Rocky?

He asked how much we were paying to do it, we told him the fee, he immediately said yes and I said, “We should have offered him less’.

When you wrote this half a century ago, did you ever see imagine it’s global impact?

No because it’s a little bit of nonsense really. It’s the strange thing about all of this because Rocky is just trivia.  

On the way home Richard retells a glorious story, complete with perfect mimicry, of a lunch he had with Gore Vidal and Howard Austen at their apartment. I won’t repeat it here, but sweet Jesus it was hilarious and a wonderful reminder of the scope and breadth of Richard as a human cultural icon who has rubbed shoulders with some of the Global cultural greats of the 20th Century.

The transvestitism and fluidity of sexuality was radical and revolutionary while remaining accessible to everyone who ever felt marginalised – The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t a parade of circus freaks to be laughed at, it’s a song of celebration and honouring the individual – it’s mind boggling success is because it taps into that human need to honour the self.

NZ has ‘recognised’ one of its most creative and paradigm shifting sons with a bloody Riff Raff statue in Hamilton!

Don’t get me wrong, I love that statute, but it should be in Te Papa as a national treasure!

Isn’t it time we honoured Richard with something for more meaningful, hasn’t Richard earned a New Zealand Order of Merit?

He’s way too cool to ever accept a knighthood, but a New Zealand Order of Merit to the Arts surely?

We Generation Xers have so few heroes we are allowed to enjoy now, can’t we salute this one?

In the 50th anniversary of this paradigm shifting global cultural phenomena, wouldn’t Ricahrd getting an Order of Merit be fitting for an incredibly humble creative genius?

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3 COMMENTS

  1. My girl friend dragged me along to the movie in 1977. The opening scene where Tim Curry’s stockinged legs appear in the elevator, how many actresses wanted legs like that? Then Susan Sarandon, wow! What young man could fail to be impressed?

    After years of hating Muldoon he turned up at a party where likely nobody there had ever voted National. Undeterred he became the life of the party, a very different character than the politician. Can’t help thinking Rob and Big Norm were both outsiders who really didn’t fit their respective parties of the time.

    Got to say Rob left his ultimate fekk you to National in the form of Winston Peters. Pure ironic genius.

  2. Well done Martyn on this piece, Richard O’Brien is a true Kiwi creative genius and deserves this praise. It’s a nice change from your usual foul-mouthed screaming at people in general and New Zealanders in particular. I know it’s your schtick, but anger like that, performative or not just makes people bitter and miserable.
    however, I think you are seriously wrong about some important points of Richard O’Brien’s great work “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the 50th anniversary would be a good point to look at it more closely.
    Frank ‘N Furter, is clearly the villain of the piece, he’s a rapist and a murderer. This isn’t a fun celebration of the sexually fluid individual, stay until the end and you get to see where all that leads to.
    The exact pose that Hamilton city chose for their statue isn’t Riff Raff as the creepy hunchbacked butler doing the time warp, it’s Riff Raff standing up tall and straight, in the traditional military uniform of his people, with a weapon in his hand, taking back control from his sexually degenerate master.

    “Frank ‘n Furter it’s all over,
    your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extreme,
    I’m your new commander, you now are my prisoner,
    We return to Transylvanian prepare the transit beam.”

    (I can quote that from memory)
    That’s not revolutionary that’s reactionary. Frank ‘N Furter must die for his crimes, it’s the only possible way the show can end. The sex slave Rocky and Frank’s lovers Eddie and Colombia are also dead. Brad, Janet and Doctor Scott are left totally wrecked by their experiences with the sexual revolution. Only the reactionaries Riff Raff and his sister Magenta succeed and escape by throwing off the libertine lifestyle.
    Thank you Richard O’Brien, well done.

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