Richard O’Brien loves populist things. “I really am a small-brained human being, and adolescence formed all of my fantasies and my journey,” he says. “I love the simplicity of pulp fiction.”
The actor and writer is talking to me down the line from his home in New Zealand about the creative impetus behind his 1982 musical, The Stripper, which has just opened at the St James Theatre in London.
O’Brien discovered the novels of Carter Brown, including his 1961 work, The Stripper, as a schoolboy. “There was something a bit naughty about them,” he says, acknowledging that by today’s standards, they’re very tame indeed.
“This wise-cracking detective solving crimes and girls turning up, who were always curvaceous. It just appeals to the eternal adolescence. It’s delightful because it’s so simplistic.”
It was this same nostalgia that inspired the musical that first launched O’Brien’s writing career a decade before he adapted The Stripper for the Sydney Theatre Company in 1982.
“The plot and dialogue for The Rocky Horror Show are raids on populist things: from advertising, from comics, from B movies, from sci-fi,” he says. It’s a complete and utter raid upon all those elements; a joyous raid.”
O’Brien had been writing songs since he was 15-years-old – “derivative rock’n’roll: three chords, a middle eight and a chorus” – but it was being let go from the original London production of Jesus Christ Superstar after a difference of opinion over how to play the role of King Herod, which he was due to take over, that led him to Rocky.
“I went home and thought, ‘I’d like to write a musical that I’d like to go and see: something that appeals to me’,” he says.
The result, a show about an innocent young couple’s eye-opening experiences at the mansion of a mad transvestite scientist, turned out to appeal to a lot of other people, too. Rocky opened at the Royal Court in summer 1973, ran for years at a series of venues in London and has been produced all over the world in the decades since. The 1975 film version of the musical, meanwhile, has become a cult classic – in 2005 it was added to the National Film Registry at the US Library of Congress, an honour only afforded to 25 movies per year.
The massive and ongoing success of this “simplistic little piece of nonsense”, says O’Brien, is partly down to its fairytale qualities. “It’s full of archetypes, so it’s very easy for us to relate to because it’s all very recognisable.”
The show also resonates with audiences, the writer believes, because it charts the end of the American dream. Rocky’s central characters have certain ideas of the way their lives will unfold that are blown apart by their encounter with Dr Frank-N-Furter and his band of misfits.
“They’re going to have two and a half children and two cars in the garage and jobs, and they go into that house and their entire world changes. She gets stronger, he becomes weaker, because, as the hunter gatherer, Brad has no idea how he’s supposed to operate any longer. At the beginning he’s very patronising and at the end he’s a little bit gay and a bit lost.”
It sounds like O’Brien was a bit lost, too, working through his own issues around gender and sexuality in those Rocky years. “I was a young person that was living entirely inside my head in those days. The person that went out was sociable and seemed to be all there, but truthfully wasn’t all there.”
Q&A: Richard O’Brien
What was your first non-theatre job? Glazing windows at 16.
What was your first professional theatre job? Riding horses in British movies, 1965.
What’s your next job? A small role in a friend’s movie entitled The Stolen, out here in New Zealand.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Never trust anyone in Hollywood.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Great craftsmen and women.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be honest.
If you hadn’t been an actor and writer, what would you have been? Anything, I am pragmatic.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Not at all.
He loved working with the composer Richard Hartley, though, whom he met while performing in the Sam Shepard play The Unseen Hand at the Royal Court immediately after leaving Jesus Christ Superstar. Rocky came together in an almost “organic” way, he says – “it was nice because nobody was trying to force anything” – and that’s the way their relationship has been ever since.
“You meet someone and you know immediately it’s going to work. It’s so easy. We’ve never had a row in our entire lives. It’s just delightful.”
The pair have worked together a number of times since, including on The Stripper, and are writing a piece called Alive on Arrival “about a girl that goes to the land of the dead”.
He continues: “The big question down there is: ‘Is there life before death?’ She comes in as kind of empirical proof. It might have some legs, but we’re fooling around with it.”
O’Brien’s strength, when it comes to the writing game, is “rhythm and words”, he believes, “the mechanics of running words together”. He’s very musical, he says, but is no great musician, better at holding notation in his head than committing it to paper.
Talking about his creative processes, however, is not something O’Brien is all that keen to do. “Dear God. One can start to be a bit luvvie, if you’re not careful. Do stop me if I go down that path,” he implores.
He’s similarly no-nonsense when it comes to discussing his motivations as an actor. “I’ve no high ideals,” he says. “The truth is dressing up and making believe. I remember as a child in the garden and you find something – a stick – and it becomes a sword. I adore the simple journey.”
That’s not to say he isn’t concerned with craft. Having moved to New Zealand with his parents at the age of 10, O’Brien came back to the UK and attended evening classes based on the method acting approach of the Actors Studio in New York City. He loved it. “You learn your craft and then at the best times, when epiphany happens, you let your craft go because you’ve learnt it.”
No matter how well prepared he is, however, O’Brien is still plagued by stage fright. “I will sweat and I lose nights before going in to do something,” he says, whether that’s a bit part in a film such as Flash Gordon (1980), performing in his one-man revue show Disgracefully Yours (1996) or originating the role of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End (2002).
“I don’t know what that fear is – fear of performing in a foolish manner in front of your peers, all that kind of stuff. I think I could call myself a seasoned professional, but I still get the butterflies. God, I hate it.”
“Seasoned” is right – O’Brien certainly has experience across a wide spread of the entertainment business. He’s probably best known, in fact, among a certain generation of the British populace, not as an actor or writer, but as the kooky presenter of the 1990s Channel 4 game show The Crystal Maze. The programme doesn’t have quite the cult status enjoyed by O’Brien’s other big hit, but is still so well-loved, over 20 years after it went off-air, that the launch of a live ‘experience’ of the game in London this spring was greeted with dizzying excitement.
O’Brien has no regrets about the rather unorthodox course that his career has taken. “It was a different journey and it is a different journey” from that pursued by many of his peers, he says. But that’s okay.
“I guess some people have a game plan. I would imagine they’re rather humourless. Most of us get an opportunity and we wing it. Luck plays an awfully big part in our lives. You should never underestimate that.”
CV: Richard O’Brien
Born: 1942, Cheltenham – “at home, severely premature and not expected to last the night”
Training: Actors Workshop, London
Landmark productions: Gulliver’s Travels, Mermaid Theatre, London (1969), Hair, Shaftesbury Theatre, London (1970), The Unseen Hand, Royal Court, London (1973), The Rocky Horror Show, Royal Court (1973), The Stripper, Sydney Theatre Company (1982), The Crystal Maze, Channel 4 (1990-1993), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, London Palladium (2002)
Agent: Helen Filmer, Jonathan Altaras Associates
The Stripper runs at the St James Theatre, London,  until August 13