Category Archives: Cult

There’s more to Richard O’Brien than the Rocky Horror Show’s Riff Raff…

Three weeks ago in this blog I mentioned the sad death of Douglas Gray of The Alberts, the extraordinary surreal brothers little remembered by ordinary punters now but whose influence on British comedy was so great that Douglas got a full-page obituary in The Times.

Richard O’Brien – creator of The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – commented on the blog: “I had the great pleasure of working with Tony and Douglas, plus Tony’s son Sinbad, in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid theatre in 1969. Each day was a delightful excursion into organised chaos…”

So obviously, I had to ask him about it. He now lives in New Zealand…


Richard O’Brien with a statue of him as Riff Raff erected in Hamilton, New Zealand, at the site of the barber shop where he cut hair in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

JOHN: New Zealand? Why on earth New Zealand?

RICHARD: Well, my parents emigrated to New Zealand in 1952 when I was ten and I was brought up there – went through puberty, adolescence, all that kind of stuff – the BIG bit of growing-up, basically.

JOHN: New Zealand seems a very sensible place. Not surreal or anarchic or OTT…

RICHARD: What was really nice about it was that it was a middle classless society. Nobody was your social superior. It was an egalitarian meritocracy, about as good as it could get. Not ideal but still wonderful.

JOHN: So when you came back to Britain in 1964, you found they couldn’t socially classify you because you had not been brought up here?

RICHARD: I had a great card to play. If I was with people who were a bit snobby, I was out of the equation. I had a go-anywhere card because England at that time was a deeply class-ridden society – still is to an extent – look at Boris and his chums.

BBC reported that Richard “delighted in shaking up the conservative sexual attitudes of the 1970s”

It was wonderful. I could go absolutely anywhere and I was not on any level of their thinking. So it was wonderful.

Being under-educated and unsophisticated, I kept my mouth shut and I wasn’t a bad-looking boy, so I was invited to places because, well, we ARE so fucking shallow, aren’t we? And, as long as I was well-mannered and a good listener, I was welcome anywhere. It was great.

JOHN: One of the first things you did over here was work as a stuntman on the movie Carry On Cowboy… Whaaat? 

RICHARD: It was simply because, in 1965, there was an opening to do that. I did three movies in 1965: Carry On Cowboy, The Fighting Prince of Donegal and that early version of Casino Royale which nobody understands. But I didn’t really want to be a stuntman. I wanted to be an actor.

JOHN: Which you became…

“Delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: And, in 1968, Sean Kenny decided to direct and design Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid Theatre and he got together an incredible cast. A huge range of actors. It was quite wonderful. Some real ‘characters’. And, of course, The Alberts were part of that.

JOHN: You said that the Mermaid show experience with The Alberts was “a delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: Douglas would turn up in a kilt and in all kinds of uniforms. They might come on stage with a wheelbarrow but there was bound to be an explosion somewhere. They would wear pinafores with naked bodies painted on the front. Quite childish; very childish. You couldn’t really call it professional. It was like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick. But it was delightful.

“I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs” (Photograph c 1964)

JOHN: You are an actor/writer/musician/TV person. Which one did you want to be when you were 16?

RICHARD: I am ‘musical’. I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I play the guitar a little and I sing and I have a good ear.

I wrote songs when I was in my teenage years: mostly derivative rock n roll stuff. I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs.

I wouldn’t have minded singing folk songs – going round the world learning different countries’ folk songs.

I like writing songs, but mostly because I like storytelling. I love narrative poetry. I think probably my strength more than anything else is writing lyrics. Dressing-up and making-believe was always a kind of joy. Acting is not really a job for grown-ups. It’s a childish kind of thing to want to dress up and make-believe. But it’s a very enjoyable one.

…as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show…

JOHN: Your obituary in The Times is inevitably going to have “Rocky Horror” in the headline. 

RICHARD: Well, of course it will. It’s one of the longest-running movies ever in movie history. It’s a silly piece of adolescent fun and nonsense. You can’t take it seriously and yet it’s had an incredible effect on a lot of people. It’s given a lot of people hope in their world if they’re lonely and lost. Rocky Horror’s got a sense of Well, you’re not alone.

It would be perverse for me not to acknowledge Rocky Horror.

JOHN: Rocky Horror re-routed your career?

RICHARD: It probably took me away from acting. I maybe thought I should stay at home and be writing more. The nice thing was I was successful without anybody knowing who I was if I walked down the street.

Willie Rushton was a lovely man whom I got to know – he was in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid. He was on television all the time and I would walk down the street with him and everybody would come up to him and I would stand beside him and, in monetary terms and in theatrical terms, I was doing as well as he was but nobody knew who I was. I had this wonderful anonymity… but that disappeared when I started doing The Crystal Maze on TV. The anonymity all went out the window.

Richard’s anonymity disappeared doing The Crystal Maze

JOHN: Everyone wants fame and fortune…

RICHARD: I didn’t want to be famous. Honestly. And I didn’t want to have a lot of money. Luckily, something went wrong and I achieved both those ends. But I wasn’t searching for it. Never was.

JOHN: What is the least known or least appreciated creative thing you have been involved in that you are most proud of?

RICHARD: Proud of? I don’t like pride. It comes before a fall. 

Even with Gay Pride… I think it’s really silly to be proud of something which you are by default… Be glad. Over the moon. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes. Deliriously happy. Fantastic. Yes. 

Proud to be black? Proud to be white? Proud to be straight? Proud to be what you are by default?… Proud to be blond? – How stupid would that be?

JOHN: But, if I pushed you on what is most underestimated…

RICHARD: I adapted The Dancing Years by Ivor Novello which we did with Gillian Lynne (the choreographer of Cats and Phantom of The Opera). I think we did a wonderful job on it and we had two stagings of it upstairs in a rehearsal room at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London – lots and lots of people there – and grown men were crying at the end. They were weeping. I think we did that very well but we weren’t allowed to go further with it, which was a great, great shame.

JOHN: You’re knocking on a bit. Old blokes cannot be creative…

RICHARD: Well, I’m 78, I’ve just had a stroke, but I’m still working… 

JOHN: On what?

RICHARD: A satirical fairy tale.

JOHN: And then?

RICHARD: I’m going to go and have a sit-down and maybe a cup of tea.

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Filed under Acting, Cult, Movies, Theatre

Comedy, Christ, Ronnie Biggs’ lively funeral and Glasgow gangland aggro

Yesterday, I went to church to see (again) Juliette Burton’s wonderfully enjoyable and emotional show When I Grow Up. Yet again life-enhancing. Yet again funny, fast-moving, uplifting and joyous and – yet again – the body punch of the coup de théâtre sting-in-its tail had me with tears in my eyes. I was watching the audience reaction and their emotions turned on a sixpence from laughter to stunned shock when the narrative carpet was pulled from under them and (far more difficult for a performer to pull off) back to laughter again.

Juliette Burton & Frankie Lowe rehearse yesterday for her February-May tour of Australia

Juliette Burton and Frankie Lowe yesterday rehearse for February-May tour of Australia

When I Grow Up is also a technically very complicated show with constant audio and video cues to hit, fast-moving PowerPoint presentation changes and, at one point, Juliette interacting with a Skype screen. Yesterday, the techie on the show was Frankie Lowe, who composed Juliette’s pop song Dreamers (When I Grow Up)The show was flawless and was, in effect, a rehearsal for next month’s two-night run at the Leicester Square Theatre which is, itself, a dry run for Juliette’s Australian shows in February-May, which Frankie will also be teching.

Almost as interesting as the show, though, was the location – a church.

The vicar – Dave – arrived close to showtime because he had been conducting the funeral service for Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs at Golders Green Crematorium, where the eco-friendly wicker coffin had, the Guardian reports today, been draped in the flags of the UK & Brazil and an Arsenal football scarf. The coffin was escorted by Hell’s Angels with the London Dixieland Jazz Band playing Just a Closer Walk and it left to the strains of The Stripper. The Daily Mirror today reported that “as the hearse carrying his coffin passed through the streets of north London, a white floral wreath in the shape of a two-fingered salute was visible.”

Dave the vicar had also conducted the funeral service last year for Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds.

Dave’s book

Dave the vicar’s 2012 book of advice…

He is clearly an interesting vicar. He has published several books including How To Be a Bad Christian.

That book’s blurb explains Dave lays down “some key practices for how to be a ‘bad’ Christian, including how to talk to God without worrying about prayer, how to read the Bible without turning off your brain, and how to think with your soul rather than trying to follow rules.”

This August, he will be publishing How To Reinvent God (and Other Modest Proposals).

Everyone seems to be publishing books at the moment, except me.

William Lobban, now a published author

William Lobban, now a  bestselling author

Last November, I had a chat with Glasgow gangland ‘enforcer’ William Lobban about his autobiography The Glasgow Curse. This morning, he told me it had gone straight to No 4 in Amazon Kindle’s True Crime bestsellers and No 3 in Waterstone’s crime bestsellers.

Yesterday, STV reported that “former Glasgow gangster” Paul Ferris , who has written his own true crime autobiography, “is considering taking legal action” against William Lobban’s publisher over what is written in the book. STV did not say what the problem was, but it somehow involves the highly-publicised shooting of Glasgow Godfather Arthur Thompson’s son ‘Fat Boy’ outside their family home ‘The Ponderosa’ in 1991.

The Wee Man – a fascinating film based on Paul Ferris’ version of his exploits – was released last year.

This morning, I asked William Lobban for his reaction to the report that Paul Ferris is “considering taking legal action”. He told me: “Ferris has been sending me (@TheGlasgowCurse) naughty tweets. Check out his Twitter feed (@PaulFerris_Gla) and see for yourself… quite malicious!… It’s all wind. He’s basically letting off steam and there’s no way he will take things further. There isn’t a judge in the land who would agree that anyone could blacken or defame his character – Impossible!”

The move from villain to media anti-hero or even sometimes hero is interesting.

Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, like Buster Edwards before him, had mostly achieved the move from criminal to perceived cheeky chappie.

The Great Train Robbery happened in 1963.

Buster - from villain to hero

Buster – He moved from villain to hero in less than 25 years

The movie Buster was released in 1988 – just 25 years later – with loveable Phil Collins as Great Train Robber Buster Edwards. Fellow robber Ronnie Biggs’ death coincidentally occurred just hours before the first broadcast of a two-part BBC TV drama series The Great Train Robbery.

In their time (if they ever existed) Robin Hood and Dick Turpin were criminal robbers. Now Robin is a hero and Dick a hero, anti-hero or whatever you want to make of him.

They, like others after them, have moved from being reviled criminals to legends.

Billy The Kid was shot dead in 1881. Jesse James was shot dead in 1882. The move from criminal to legend had started by the time the first Billy The Kid movie was made in 1911 and the first Jesse James movie was made in 1921 – just 30 to 40 years after the events they portrayed.

The Kray Twins’ exploits were in the 1960s. By the time The Krays movie was released in 1990, they were already well-established as legendary cultural anti-heroes (or, to some, heroes).

In movies, dark heroes are always more interesting to act and to watch than whiter-than-white heroes.

The interlinking of showbiz, the media and crime. The making of legends.

’Twas ever thus.

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Nazis from the dark side of the Moon and ultra film violence from Indonesia

Prince Charles Cinema: home of lateral thinking marketing

London would be a duller place if the Prince Charles Cinema did not exist.

A few weeks ago, the management were asking what their market position was. I said I thought the cinema filled a gap between the mainstream and art house cinemas. In among some cult commercial films, the Prince Charles screens movies the National Film Theatre seldom if ever shows.

The Prince Charles screens cult, schlock, under-the-radar and often extraordinarily quirky movies. Amid special events like Sing-a-long-a-Grease, the Bugsy Malone Sing-Along, Swear-Along-With-South-Park and a screening of ‘The Die Hard Trilogy’ (they are not including Die Hard 4.0 because they say it is not a ‘real’ Die Hard film…. they will soon be screening the little-heard-of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and God Bless America (with free hot dogs) as well as an all-night marathon of Friday the 13th Parts I-VIII.

They also yesterday screened two films extraordinary even by their standards – Iron Sky and The Raid both of which, I suspect, have been held back by titles less vivid than they should be. Iron Sky should, I think, really have been called Nazis From The Dark Side of The Moon… or Space Nazis… because the plot runs thus:

Iron Sky: Nazis are not a waste of space

In 1945, some Nazis escaped to the Moon, where they built a giant secret base in the shape of a swastika. Since then, they have been watching us and waiting for the right time to mount an invasion of Earth in their meteor-towing zeppelin-shaped spacecraft and take their revenge. The date is now 2018 and the time is right…

Admittedly I got in for free, but THAT is a movie I would pay good money to see and the strange thing about it is that the visuals and the special effects are excellent, as are the sound, the direction and the acting. And the acting is difficult to pull off, because all the lines are (quite rightly) delivered totally straight-faced, so the acting style has to be in that difficult region between realistic and slightly stylised cartoon – If you have a central Negro character whom the Nazis turn white and a sequence in which the vacuum of space pulls off a female Nazi’s clothes yet she is still somehow able to breathe, there is a credibility risk unless you have everything spot-on.

They get away with lines like (I paraphrase):

“I was black but now I’m white. I went to the dark side of the Moon but now I’m back. And the space Nazis are coming!”

(To a taxi driver) “Take us upState – We need to get back to the Moon”

and

“The Nazis are the only guys the US managed to beat in a fair fight”

Alright, the last line is not actually so odd; it is the truth (if you exclude the British in 1776).

Iron Sky has its faults – it would be a much better film with less ponderous, less Wagnerian music – oddly from Slovenian avant-garde group Laibach – but it is 93 minutes long and never less than interesting.

It is good clean Nazi fun and has a fair stab at satire with a cynical political PR lady who sees the benefits of having a Nazi invasion of Earth and a not-too-far-removed-from-reality Sarah Palin type female US President in 2018 who says: “All Presidents who start a war in their first term get re-elected”.

With an unsurprisingly complicated production history, it is basically a Finnish film with English and German dialogue (sub-titled) which was shot for an estimated 7.5 million Euros in Australia, Finland, Germany and New York and partly financed by ‘crowd funding’ from fan investors.

Iron Sky is well worth seeing on the big screen – something that is highly unlikely in the UK now, as distributors Revolver are putting it straight to DVD.

The Raid: wall-to-wall high-rise violence

The Raid is another film championed by the Prince Charles Cinema though, unlike Iron Sky, it did get a decent UK release.

It is a visceral, staggeringly-violent Indonesian action film directed by Welsh film-maker Gareth Evans (allegedly only 27-years-old) with jaw-dropping martial arts sequences.

I am no martial arts aficionado, but the action is amazing – it showcases the unknown-to-me Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat.

The movie won the Midnight Madness Award at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival and that sounds a pretty well-titled award.

The plot is token – more a MacGuffin than a plot.

A less-than-elite SWAT team mount an attack on the strangely run-down Jakarta tower block base of a crime lord who has rented rooms in the block out to the city’s most dangerous murderers, killers and gangsters… and, inexplicably, to one ordinary good guy and his pregnant wife.

Running 101 minutes, it could usefully have about 10 minutes trimmed off it, but it is astonishingly gripping throughout, especially given that it is simply wall-to-wall violence. Very well edited and with vivid Dolby Stereo, it is like being in a firefight. You have no idea what is going to happen next.

And the violence is relentless.

There are a couple of half-hearted attempts to give the movie depth and a late attempt to create personal sympathy with one of the characters, but this is pointless.

Watching it reminded me of the original reviews of Reservoir Dogs, which said that film was mindlessly violent, staggeringly bloody and was simply violence for the sake of violence.

Reservoir Dogs was not.

The Raid is.

And I loved it.

Director Gareth Evans could be the new Quentin Tarantino.

Uniquely different. That is what you get at the Prince Charles Cinema.

Nazis from the Dark Side of the Moon for 93 minutes and mindless martial art violence from Indonesia for 101 minutes.

Now that is what I call entertainment.

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