Tag Archives: Rocky Horror Show

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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In Paul Boyd’s wonderful Molly Wobbly musical, one Tit has been chopped off

Molly Wobbly’s wonderful Tit Factory at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe

Paul Boyd’s “astonishing” show at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe

Paul Boyd wrote the intro and outro music for my chum Janey Godley and Ashley Storrie’s weekly podcast.

He has also written 22 musicals. So he is an interesting man.

When I saw his musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe, I wrote in my blog that it was “astonishing. It has more catchy tunes in it than all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals combined… It is a combination of Rocky Horror style exuberance, British music hall jollity and the best of West End musicals… Its effervescent vitality is quite something to behold.”

Now the show is about to start at the Leicester Square Theatre with a week of previews starting on 27th January, followed by an initial six-week run. The cast now includes Spike Milligan’s daughter Jane.

Paul outside the Leicester Square Theatre

Paul outside the Leicester Square Theatre

I had a chat with Paul Boyd in Leicester Square this week.

“I see,” I told him, “that the title has lost the words Tit Factory. It is now just called Molly Wobbly. Is that for commercial reasons?”

“Yes,” admitted Paul. “The pressures of commercial theatre. Not so much for London but, if it ever ended up touring the regions, you would never get the original title into a brochure. The one thing I always fought for was the title, but I finally gave up last year when I had a fight with Transport For London who would not advertise it. They wouldn’t advertise Molly Wobbly’s T*t Factory and they said: We wouldn’t even advertise Molly Wobbly’s *** Factory.

“I thought: Well, if I’ve got those sort of problems in London, imagine what it will be like in Bridlington or Bath. At Leicester Square, they are selling it as Rocky Horror meets Carry On meets Little Shop of Horrors. That’s fine. If you can sell it as that, do it.”

“Well,” I said, “my view on most things is: Write it as Art. Sell it as baked beans.

“Well, that’s it,” said Paul. “And, if you can sell that title…”

“I think it’s a really good title,” I said. “And pure kitsch is saleable.”

Molly Wobbly Leicester Square flyers

Flyers for upcoming Leicester Square Theatre’s production

“That’s how you market it,” said Paul. “But, if you sit down to write it, you have to be prepared not to tie up loose ends. You have to think: I’m just going to go completely off the wall. All my other shows are very neat. When I sat down to write Molly Wobbly, I had no idea where it was going or how it was going to end. With Molly, I didn’t even know what a Tit Factory was when I started.”

“You thought of the title first?” I asked.

“Yes. Because it was for a competition I did not want to win. In 2006, Cameron Macintosh ran a competition to write a musical for a theatre which was opening in Inverness.”

“The Eden Court?” I asked.

“Yes. I was asked if I would submit an entry, but I didn’t have time to write a musical. I was touring South Korea or Taiwan with another musical and had loads on. The rules for the competition said you could submit ‘up to ten minutes’ of material from the full-length show. I didn’t have the full-length show, so I wrote a 10-minute musical and made it sound like an extract, and, to make sure they would never ask for the rest of it, I decided to call it something that no-one would ever produce and the words just came into my mind: Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory. And, inevitably, it got short-listed. I had to pull out of the competition because I had no time to write it and no idea what it was about.

“It stayed as a 10-minute musical for about four years and then the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, heard the 10-minute extract and wanted to commission a full-length show and they twisted my arm and convinced me and I sat down thinking: What the hell is a Tit Factory and what happens there?”

A song from the original Lyric, Belfast production is on YouTube:

“What was your elevator pitch for Molly?” I asked.

“I’ve never found a succinct way of selling it. It’s about giving a woman a makeover and, by the end, the town of Little Happening has got a makeover. It’s about people bettering themselves and getting their ideals, whether or not that’s everybody’s ideal – and people, under the influence of a potion, deciding how they can be sexier or more beautiful.”

“With laughs,” I said.

“Lots of titters,” said Paul.

“How does anyone decide they want to write musicals?” I asked.

“Well,” said Paul, “I did Gilbert & Sullivan at school in Belfast and I’m a big G&S fan to this day. I had a good music teacher called John Ross Dallas – JR Dallas.”

“Like me,” I said. “I had a music teacher at school who loved G&S – They are SO clever and SO funny.”

Gilbert & Sullivan

G & S + Carry OnRocky Horror Show = Molly Wobbly

“At the age of 16,” Paul told me, “I played Coco in The Mikado and, at 17, I played Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance. I performed those things and I suddenly realised that there was something I was good at. All my teachers who had ignored me, because I was useless in all of their classes, were suddenly talking to me. I remember the Physical Education teacher came and congratulated me. I hadn’t spoken to him about anything other than chilblains for about seven years.

“Then I went to the University of Ulster to do a History degree and changed subjects to Theatre Studies. I ended up doing a terrible course which was so bad I decided the only way I was going to have fun was to write a musical. I was 19 and wrote a show called Macbeth: The Musical in 1992. A producer came to see it, bought the rights and toured it all round Ireland. So I had a show touring at the age of 20 and I haven’t stopped since, maybe because I’m afraid of trying anything else.

“Originally, writing musicals was an accident – a way of having something to do as an actor. Then I stopped acting in them and just wrote them.”

“You’ve written rather a lot of musicals,” I said.

Molly Wobbly was No 18 or 19. I’ve done 22 now.”

“But not,” I said, “without problems in Molly’s case…”

Molly Wobbly Hackney Empire Gary Wilmott

Gary Wilmott in unseen Hackney Molly Wobbly

“2013 was a very strange year,” said Paul. “The show had been a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012. The Leicester Square Theatre wanted to put it on at Christmas 2012, but it wasn’t my call in those days: the show was owned by other people. There was this idea that it would go to the Hackney Empire and it was happening and then suddenly it wasn’t happening. It fell through at a day’s notice.”

There is a promo on YouTube for the unseen Hackney Empire production.

“We had rehearsed the show for three weeks,” explained Paul. “We had a fabulous cast and had wonderful production team – we had decades and centuries of experience. It was Friday morning and we were due to open that night. Then the finance all fell through on the day we were due to open. The money suddenly wasn’t there.

“Then, in 2014, I got the rights back and I was free to do what I wanted with it. So last year, we did a stage concert of it at the Phoenix Artists’ Club and then we were invited to take it to the Leicester Square Theatre.

Paul Boyd - Things are looking up now

Things – very much looking up this week for Paul Boyd

“There was a guy called Christopher Malcolm, who has now passed away. He was involved in the Rocky Horror company – he played the original Brad, directed all the big Rocky Horror shows in the 1990s and, in 2012, he started working with me on Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory and helped me shape it from the 2011 one-Act version to the Edinburgh Fringe shows which you saw in 2012.

“Christopher’s plan for the show was always to start it small, like they did with Rocky Horror – to start it as a cult thing. He was always wary of the plans to take it to the Hackney Empire or anywhere that big – not because it was Hackney, but because it was a 1,200-seater theatre.

“He passed away in February 2014, so he never got to see it at the Phoenix, but that was very much in keeping with his plan. The Lyric in Belfast was 300 and the Edinburgh Fringe venue was 400. The Phoenix Artists’ Club was 40 or 50.

“Where we are going to be in the Leicester Square Theatre sits 70. So it has the right feel. You’re actually sitting in Mammary Lane. It’s almost immersive. It feels like an undergroundy show with room to grow. If it grows, fine; if it always stays a little cult show, also fine.”

The YouTube promo for the original Lyric Theatre/Edinburgh Fringe shows gives a good flavour of the show:

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