Tag Archives: Dancing Years

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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