FEATURE RICHARD O’BRIEN
NE HINY LIT
The man behind The Rocky Horror Show, the kinkiest cross-dressing
show on earth, is back with a new devilish persona, Mephistopheles Smith. Thom Dibdin compares frocks with Richard O’Brien and discovers his demonic side.
‘ on’t worry. we like a bit of ﬂesh- filled lyera around here.’ says Richard O’Brien with a mock-camp pose. First impressions of the creator of The Rocky Horror Show are exactly as expected. Except that his wiry. horribly healthy frame is a lot smaller than you might imagine. Perhaps it’s all those overhead shots from The Crystal Maze: television is such a tlatterer.
The lycra is because of a hot and sweaty cycle to O’Brien’s London lair. Although he has a house in the country. this is where he spends the week. just a bone’s throw from Battersea Dogs Home. The decor belies the laughing denial which accompanies his answer when I ask what his pleasure is.
‘Paganism.’ is his instant retort. before humming and hawing about less arcane pursuits as if they were his true pleasure. Although obsessively neat. the sitting room is crammed with miniature goats and devils. There is a wonderfully androgynous statue with a tiny penis and breasts. On the table by the TV is a copy ofthe Fortean Times: the bible of the distinctly odd.
For those who don’t know. Richard O’Brien is 53. He lived his first ten years in London before emigrating with his parents to New Zealand. Back in London he tried to break into films and wrote The Rocky Horror Show while resting over the Christmas of I972. ‘lt wasjust something to while away the winter evenings.’ he claims: “‘Throw another log on the fire mother.” and write another page.’
The Rocky Horror Show was to be his triumph. A cross-dressing. rock ’n’ roll fest of kinky sex and deviance. it took a mere five weeks to transfer from a fringe London theatre to a 3()()-seater venue. Ironically. this second home was a cinema: the film of the show has grossed over $160 million. It’s a regular on the late night circuit and holds the world record for a continuous run: at the Museum Lichtspiele in Munich. where it even has its own auditorium. decked out with statues of Rocky.
The film is unique in that. like the stage show. it invites interaction with audience. It is a kind of cinematic pantomime with a transvestite dame whose full ﬁshnet and corsetted attire is mimicked by half the male members of the audience.
‘Rocky Horror is a very liberating and therapeutic show.‘ observes O’Brien. ‘which is a rather joyful kind of thought.’ It gives some men a legitimate space in which to act out the transvestic side of their nature.
So was O’Brien aware of any latent transvestism when he wrote Rocky Horror? Was it for his own fun? ‘l’ve always had a transvestic nature myself.’ he replies. ‘It is an area of life I have taken a great interest in. As Eddie lzzard says. you don’t ask to be what you
10 The List l8-24 Aug 1995
are. youjust are. lfyou have an enquiring mind. you want to know why. If I was gay. I would want to know to some extent why I was gay. what moved me in that direction.
‘Why certain men should have a strong feminine nature is interesting.’ he continues. ‘Whether it is there in all males and repressed. or whether it is more prevalent in some males than others I don’t know. There is an interesting book out at the moment called Vested Interests [by Marjorie Garber]. She says that a transvestic
nature is inherent in mankind and the power of
that transvestic nature was understood by
shamens in the past. The only two positions of
power where it still manifests itself and is still retained to this very present day are in the church and the law courts.’
O’Brien argues that it is not only cross- dressers who are transvestic. ‘Someone like Dolly Parton is a transvestite.’ he says. ‘Once she puts on the heels and gets the tits up. puts on the makeup and the lipstick and bouffants the hair she has become an idea of a woman. She is just as transvestic as a man doing the same thing.’
Such intellectual analysis about the nature of Rocky Horror came after the event. It was conceived as a piece of fun. However. it gives some indication of the radical liberal which is
alive and kicking in the O’Brien psyche. His zeal. when not in pursuit of hedonistic activity. is for vitriolic attacks on those zealots who would interfere with our lives.
Perhaps it’s a result of being a child of the 50s. He still loves the rebellious breakaway of rock‘n’roll for its direct challenge to the repressed. structured and regimentalised society of that post-war decade. Rocky Horror is a continuation of that erosion of the spartan and work ethics of those who had been involved in the Second World War and were wanting to build their brave new world.
"l’hose changes have been quite prevalent and powerful.’ he says. launching into a long excursion about the way that macho peer pressure has changed. Having given up the booze for nine weeks. he knows all about being able to drink bottled water in the pub. something he feels that men would have been unable to do even five years ago.
Instead of enforcement. O’Brien uses mockery to drive people forward. Consider the persona he created for the games master in The Crystal Maze. Although he was never truly nasty he constantly chided those who weren’t quite managing to get it right. ‘That kind of needling is not unpleasant to anybody.’ he says. with a devilish twinkle in his eye.
The role of provocateur is one which O’Brien clearly relishes. Not with the stinging hurt ofthe gadfly. but with the mockery of a revealing mirror. His latest play. Disgracefu/ly Yours. in which he plays a demon Mephistopheles Smith. reflects the homogenisation of modern Britain where Blair and Major are being sucked inexorably into the centre.
‘Heaven and Hell are in the same kind of situation now.’ he says. ‘That division. that polarisation is breaking down because God hasn’t manifested Himself in the real world often enough to stop the injustices and the iniquity of the atrocities from happening. He doesn’t appear to be any better than the Devil in that sense.’
So hell has been restructured. The deadbeats. the winos. the losers and the psychos have been kicked out. leaving the nice people. ‘Now. when you pop your cloggs.’ as O’Brien puts it. ‘if you choose to come to us. it depends on whether you come up to standard. It is a party place for people who like to party for ever really. We like a bit of childish behaviour: wicked wit. cynicism. that kind of stuff. The Prozac personalities go elsewhere.’
So is this trying to do for religion what Rocky Horror did for sexuality?
O’Brien looks scandalised at the thought. ‘I am not into didactic proselytism.’ he says. ‘lt is a glib and frivolous approach to the afterlife. Especially to hell. I have always said that ifl am going to spend eternity somewhere. I would rather spend it with my kind of people. where you are sitting around having a drink at a bar forever and a natter and a bit of sex.’
Disgrace/“idly Yours, is a! The Pleasance ( Venue 33) 556 6550 until 28 August. 10:30pm. £6.50/£5.50 (£7.50/£6.00)