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Richard O’Brien

Published April 17, 2008

At 64, The Rocky Horror Show creator, actor, performer and presenter Richard O'Brien knows what he likes and what he doesn't like, and he's not afraid of saying so. Among the likes is, controversially, Marmite on toast. At the Groucho Club on a chilly winter's morning, the combination of yeasty topping on cooked bread is just what he wants. When they buy Marmite in especially, he is very appreciative. Matthew Amer, on the other hand, is none too convinced, preferring just a coffee.

"There are times when I've left the theatre and wept in the car park," O'Brien says of his three decades watching various productions of The Rocky Horror Show around the world. "Directors let it get too sleazy. People looking up each other's frocks every five seconds as if that's funny, not understanding that the less you do, the better it is, the funnier it is and the more tension you create. 'I might look up your frock' is much funnier than 'I will' or 'I have' because that tension is built. It's not a tacky sex show; it's actually a very funny, witty show if it's done properly. Thankfully they’ve got it right."

The 'they' to which O'Brien refers is the cast and crew of the production currently in residence at the Comedy, which includes David Bedella as sweet transvestite Frank – "beautiful to look at in his high heels and flyaway wig, sings like a dream and is completely in control" – and former Hear'Say singer Suzanne Shaw.

This production has stripped the show back to its original state of 33 years ago, when it was first performed at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. At the time, the story of college sweethearts Brad and Janet, who stumble into a creepy house on a dark and stormy night, was an unexpected success. With time that success has grown and grown. Now fans arrive in costume, complete with props and ready to shout complimentary and not so complimentary lines at the actors. While O'Brien welcomes the popularity, he is slightly wary of the consequences. "Absolute filth some of them [the audience members] shout," he states with a mixture of disgust and depression. "You must never forget that aficionados are very welcome to sit in the seat and enjoy the show, but they haven't been in rehearsals, the timing isn't the same. Being funny is a clever business."

"I'm bright enough to know that I'm not very smart"

It's something of a paradox then that though O'Brien wrote The Rocky Horror Show and he thinks it is funny, he does not think he is very clever. He recently considered a role in King Lear, but turned it down because: "I don't think I'm bright enough, quite frankly. I'm bright enough to know that I'm not very smart; that's pretty f***ing smart." He tells a story of an advert in a newspaper which promised that if you could solve its simple equation you could be a member of MENSA. "I used to turn the page, and with that one motion of turning the page thought that that gave me entry to MENSA far more quickly than the person who sat down and filled the boxes in, because that was the smarter move in my opinion."

The more important reason for turning down the role in King Lear was that later this year, when Lear will be touring, he is hoping to bring his new musical to the West End. The Stripper is "copular, it's populace, and there's rudeness. The song that closes the first act is exceptionally rude and intentionally so, in fact it goes out of its way to explain why," O'Brien laughs. It's a detective tale which is an "absolute marathon" for the leading man. "We'd like to get someone really hefty into the role," says O’Brien, "someone that's got a lot of box office clout, a key name… that can do eight shows a week." Not asking for much then.

In 1952, at the age of 10 and then still known as Richard Smith, O'Brien left England with his family to move to New Zealand. It is a country that is right at the top of his 'likes pile'. "To run barefoot along a river bank with the sun shining and dappled light through the ferns; it was wonderful," he says, dropping three lumps of sugar into his hot chocolate before realising his mistake and hooking them out again.

He wasn't a fan of the England he left behind, which he describes as "black and white, monochromatic, class-ridden, strapped, repressed". In New Zealand he found a place where everyone seemed ordinary – "like our mums and dads" – and you could get a good cup of tea – "which I think is essentially very important."

It is only when he discusses emigrating aged 10 in 1952 that his age is made clear. His face, which seems to have stayed the same for at least the last two decades, does not give away the fact that he is in his mid-60s. It is only when he smiles or laughs and his eyes crinkle with more pronounced lines that the years show.

"Manipulative, duplicitous, socially superior, awful people"

O'Brien still doesn't really like England as a country. He doesn't like New Labour: "they're middle management for the multinationals". He never liked the Conservatives: "manipulative, duplicitous, socially superior, awful people". He doesn't like the lack of talk: "We don’t discuss issues in Great Britain, I don't know why. I think probably because we're marginalised and pushed around and bullied too much". In fact, when his daughter is old enough – she is 18 this month – he will be back off down under in a shot to "put me feet up, do a little bit of writing, painting and drawing". There is, in fact, already a statue of him in Hamilton, so in a sense he has never left.

All this prompts the question 'Why come back?' In his early 20s O'Brien, who didn't enjoy his adolescence and had been stuck in jobs he didn't enjoy since the age of 16, decided he no longer enjoyed what he was doing so would try something else. With grandparents in Cheltenham he had a ready-made base in England. During a trip to the cinema – a place O’Brien had always found solace in New Zealand – he recognised a travelling companion from the boat trip over, starring in an advert. He tracked him down and together they auditioned to ride horses in films. O'Brien got the gig. His friend – 6'4", attractive, blonde hair – who had boasted about his horsemanship but fell off during the audition, did not. "That's how my entry into the wacky old world of showbiz began," he concludes.

For people of a certain age – mid to late 20s I'd say – O'Brien is not known so much for his prowess as a writer of musicals, but for his outrageous presenting of the fantasy game show The Crystal Maze, in which teams adventured through different themed zones, taking on physical and mental challenges. O'Brien would often be seen chatting to camera while the contestants were desperately trying to achieve their aims, telling tales of 'Mumsy' and 'Ralph the butler', or playing his harmonica. It turns out that at the time the producers did not know what he was up to; they were too busy watching film of the contestants competing. It was only when they came to cut the shows together that they found video of O'Brien passing the time by trying to make the cameraman – "Dave, as I remember" – laugh.

"I wasted five years of my life"

O'Brien comes alive when he talks about the show: "I remember putting some jewels in the sand in the Aztec level; tripping over a Spanish conquistador's helmet. All that stuff just helped the kids that were watching. It just took this game show into a different kind of world; there was a story there, you cared about the people even though they didn't really exist."

The Rocky Horror Show and The Crystal Maze are set in a world of fantasy, where aliens come to earth, men can be created and treasures lie hidden, waiting to be uncovered. It is no mistake that the majority of O'Brien's work lies in this realm; his acting credits include roles in Flash Gordon, Robin Of Sherwood, Dark City, Ever After and Dungeons And Dragons. For him: "The whole idea of acting is not so much an intellectual exercise as a childish game. I like that. I like the childish game; let's make believe.

"Making believe is lying, basically, isn't it?" he explains. "I'd much rather be making believe and lying in a more fantastic world because it's more fun." Backseat psychologists might point to O'Brien's unhappy adolescence – "It wasn't happy. I wouldn't want to go through it again." – as the root of a need to escape the real world, but O'Brien sees fantasy and science fiction rather more as a way to "examine the philosophy of mankind."

To talk to Richard O'Brien is to meet someone who very clearly knows his mind; someone who likes to be entertaining, but doesn't like the pressure of having to entertain; someone who loves liberal ideals, but also has a heart in middle England. Though the interview is littered with joke telling and warm-hearted interruptions – O'Brien chats to other people on three separate occasions and mock-chastises me when I point out his sugar/hot chocolate error – there is also a sadness that creeps in. The lack of respect for comedy as a genre in comparison to drama is one such frustration as is the elevation of might over compassion. But the greatest sadness comes with regret about his late teenage years.

"It was very difficult for me to make choices at 20 with my mother," he says. "I would have got into theatre a lot earlier. I wish I had been more at ease in the classroom, less trouble in the classroom. My teenage years were very troubled and I wasn't able to fulfil my academic desires. I would have liked to have done English Lit and theatre. I doubt that I could have gone very far with it in New Zealand anyway, but I think I would have liked that. I think I wasted five years of my life going through an apprenticeship from 16 to 20, 21, just wasting time cutting hair. To have been acting at the age of 18 and 19; I'd have liked that. I think I've got the ability to be quite a fine actor, but I don't think I've ever reached the pinnacle; I don't think I've ever done my best work… yet. It's something to look forward to… for me anyway." He laughs as he finishes the sentence; a full-bodied laugh at a self-depreciating line to blow the sadness away, before shouting to the barman: "The Marmite was splendid. Excellent stuff."

MA

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