Richard O'Brien on The Rocky Horror Show, Transgenderism and The Horror of Glee

Thirty five years after it was first written The Rocky Horror Picture Show has just received the 'Glee' treatment - introducing it to a new generation. I caught up with the writer Richard O'Brien to break a few conversational taboos.
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What a lovely chap Richard O’ Brien is. When answering the telephone to discuss the interview, one could be forgiven for thinking it was royalty on the other end. His relaxed but in no way complacent articulation is infectious and elegant, and could make even Gordon Ramsay calm down.

It’s been over 35 years now since the original Rocky Horror Picture Show film was released, and Richard’s legacy is still reigning the world of theatre. He’s just returned from New Zealand where his masterpiece has consistently sold out to audiences who don’t stop clapping even when the final curtain draws.  Why, then, are his memories of making the film version not so fondly thought of? And how personally important was the boundary-breaking gender-bending? But most importantly of all, why did he stop hosting The Crystal Maze? Read on to discover more of the transgender genius behind the Transylvanian transsexual. Try saying that after a few drinks.

When posed with the possibility of discussing the Rocky Horror Picture Show film, Richard O’ Brien stutters cautiously and is somewhat apprehensive. “I don’t like talking about the movie. I don’t like drumming up more business for 20th Century Fox you see”. What could they have done to leave such a bad impression? “I think Jim Sharman [director of the film] and myself were slightly short-changed there. And it wouldn’t interest me if they made another movie because I don’t make any money out of it and you know, I’m happy with what we’ve done with the stage show, it’s the better show”. And in parody of one of Rocky Horror’s influences he says with an eery sense of glee of the stage version: “It’s ALIVE!” To contextualise his experiences with the film, Richard has mentioned in several television interviews that he received very little credit for it in comparison to how much the producers received, despite the fact that he wrote it.

But before he elaborates on his initial writing of Rocky Horror, some distant music is on in the background of our conversation and he excuses himself while he goes to turn it off. “I’d been in Jesus Christ Superstar and they’d let me go. They didn’t want me to take over the role and so they gave me three hundred quid, I went home and I wrote a musical that I wanted to go and see. And it was just a bit of fun”. It was originally only intended to be a small show at The Royal Court theatre in London’s Sloane Square, running for three weeks to never be seen or heard of again. Considering its content which would have been thought of as risqué at the time, nobody involved thought it would last any more than that. “Jim Sharman cast me in a play at the Court straight after Superstar. I talked to him about writing this little thing that I was thinking of. He came round and listened to some of the songs and moved along with it. The nicest thing about the whole thing is that it was never intended to make money – nobody approached it with ‘we’re writing a hit’”.

The original intentions really were just to have a laugh. “I was surprised when Jim wanted to run with it. I really just thought I was entertaining myself”. It is now that Richard is in his element – clear from his increasingly quick diction, he excitably describes the origins of Rocky Horror: “The essence of it still permeates its way through the performances on stage now. It’s childish and puerile, and wonderful because of that [he giggles naughtily]. I’ve just got back from New Zealand from touring it onstage and the noise from the audience, you know, it just works. We don’t really know why either because it really is just a childish pursuit. It’s very naughty isn’t it?” Indeed it is, and apparently it’s “not a million miles away from Carry On!” An unexpected comparison if there ever was one.

“I don’t like talking about the movie. I don’t like drumming up more business for 20th Century Fox you see”.

Any doubts about this almost oxymoronic description are cleared instantly, as well as finding out that the film was made at the same studio as Rocky Horror’s main influence: Hammer Horror films. “We made the movie at Bray Studios, and it was odd because John Goldstone [producer of the film] asked me ‘Do you understand what the two most successful British movies are?’ I made a couple of guesses but no, it was Carry On and Hammer House of Horror. I thought that Rocky’s actually a bit like a mixture of them both”. Most definitely a case of unintentional irony, this was a formula which worked against Richard’s and everyone else’s expectations and it is plain to see why Rocky Horror is still enjoying unprecedented success today. With the aforementioned dearly-loved British institutions coursing through its veins its position in our culture remains firmly cemented. “Rocky is now, it’s almost a permanent fixture isn’t it? That sounds very arrogant of me to say so. But you know, when the final chord is struck, the roar of the audience is unimaginable. It’s fantastic!”

Moving on from discussing Rocky Horror’s cultural success, Richard is now posed with how he considers former conversational taboos like transgenderism, as epitomised in Rocky Horror, have changed in the public sphere and in mainstream cinema. “Well in our western world, England, Australia and the United States etc, there are still strongholds of dinosaur thinking. But, you know, I am a trans myself and I know it’s easier for me now. I can be wherever I want, whatever I want and however I want. And I suppose to some extent, a very small extent, my attitudes in Rocky Horror have helped make the climate a little warmer for people who have been marginalised, so that’s definitely not a bad thing”. Richard is being very modest – without Rocky Horror there would be very little happening at the theatre where people can openly dress in stockings and suspenders without fear of ridicule. He continues, “I’m not saying we’re totally responsible for any of this but we are indeed part of a journey of shifting boundaries. You know, to be transgender is not a choice, to be gay is not a choice, to be heterosexual is not a choice, it’s just the way we’re made. And we hopefully got that message across with a lot of fun along the way. Rocky’s allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to express themselves have that chance to be more open and to free themselves.” This is a very close and personal topic for Richard, as he is finally living in an age which, in general, fully accepts people like him for having a wholly legitimate lifestyle. His passionate voice has never been so powerful and moving as it has just been, whilst describing something so blatantly relevant and clearly dear to him.

It’s intriguing to discover why it was important to cast well known stars like Meat Loaf and Susan Sarandon in something that was originally so independently precious. “Well Meatloaf was perfect for Eddie. The casting of Susan and Barry Bostwick was interesting but that was the condition of the £1.25 million budget. That was driven by the imperative from the studios that we cast two Americans. It actually became perfect for Brad and Janet because they were two outsiders [in the film], and they [Susan and Barry] truly came in and we were a unit. They really did come in as kind of two strange people in to our world.”

And how happy would Richard be if Rocky Horror was remade in the current Hollywood trend for remaking everything in existence? “You see, once again it doesn’t interest me because I don’t see any money out of it. I think I caught a clip on Youtube of Glee, but I haven’t seen the whole show.” Probably best left untouched? “That’s right. I mean if the band is cooking and if the audience is laughing then I’m kind of happy.” But what about if he was indeed paid for it? And would he consider reprising his role as Riff Raff if he was offered? “I’m going to be 70 soon, I’m 69. I can’t keep my legs up any more, I used to be able to kick my legs up very high!” So, unfortunately, for physical reasons we won’t be seeing Richard donning the straggly hair and infamous leg-contortions once again.

Finally, regardless of his affiliations with Rocky Horror, it has to be said that he is almost as fondly remembered for being the first (and best) host of The Crystal Maze. Why did he throw in the towel? “I didn’t want to get to the point where they said goodbye before I did. The show went on for 2 or 3 more years and it began to dip, and my credibility goes down doesn’t it? So I left. Although, I don’t mean to be talking about money all the time, but sometimes you do think - wouldn’t it be cool if they gave me a pound every time it was rerun? It has to be said, I wouldn’t say no. Just as acknowledgment.”

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