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Rocky Horror at 50: ‘A place for the marginalised’

As the world takes a worrying step to the right, we need The Rocky Horror Show more than ever. Fifty years on, Richard O’Brien reviews its legacy

Richard O’Brien has always seen his seminal, naughty musical The Rocky Horror Show as “just a piece of silly nonsense”. That’s what he thought when, as an unemployed actor in the early ’70s, he created “sweet transvestite” Dr Frank-N-Furter and his crew of glorious misfits.

It’s what he thought when, 50 years ago this week, Tim Curry stepped into the lead role and the stage show became a hit. He still believed it when the movie version – The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring O’Brien, Curry and a young Susan Sarandon – became the longest-running cinema release of all time. It’s what he told curious fans, reporters, and pop historians over the decades as the show cemented its place as the cultiest of cult hits.

This has, of course, put him at odds with fans and critics alike. Shockingly ahead of its time, The Rocky Horror Show tackled the hottest-button topics of 2023… back in the early ’70s. Sexuality and sex positivity, gender identity, sexism, toxic masculinity – many of the subjects that fuel today’s ever-raging culture wars – it’s all in there, served up with a wink. It’s no surprise then, that generations of young LGBT+ viewers have been drawn to its gleefully schlocky charms. It’s also little wonder that it has triggered conservatives. Too transgressive for Apartheid-era censors, the movie was banned in South Africa; the unedited version wasn’t available until the ’90s.

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O’Brien remembers the moment in 1973 when, after the first few weeks of packed houses, producer Michael White told him he thought they may have a success on their hands. “I said, ‘Oh really? OK,’ and walked away, got in the car and drove home. I never gave it a second thought. I couldn’t get excited about these things,” he says. “I’ve watched dispassionately for many, many years, this show go on and on and on. It’s an entertainment, little more than that. Or that’s what I would have said.”

Observing global politics from his porch 10 miles outside Katikati in northern New Zealand, O’Brien sees dark clouds forming. And so, when he joins The Big Issue for a WhatsApp call to celebrate The Rocky Horror Show’s upcoming anniversary and the accompanying theatre tour, the veteran writer, performer and former host of The Crystal Maze has had a change of heart.

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“Now, I’m going to rethink that,” says O’Brien, and pauses. His usual spiel audibly jumps the rails. “Up until very recently, I’ve argued that it is just a piece of silly nonsense. But the religious right has started becoming vocal and horrible. Nationalism in America is terrifying. The lack of kindness towards the LGBT+ [community] is astonishing. And we’re taking steps backwards. So, I think maybe Rocky is becoming more important by default.”

When The Rocky Horror Show first stomped out in fishnets, the UK was a very much less permissive place than it is today – particularly if you were gay or a woman. Sex between men had only been legalised for those living in England and Wales six years previously. Those in Scotland would have to wait until 1980, Northern Ireland until the European Court of Human Rights intervened in 1982. Homosexuality was still listed as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Explicit LGBT+ representation in mass media was almost non-existent. Modern legislative breakthroughs like same-sex marriage, employment equality and equal rights for adoption were decades away.

Meanwhile, women didn’t have the right to open a bank account in their own name and working women were routinely refused mortgages of their own. Contraception was not yet available through the NHS.

But the tide was turning. A year earlier, the UK’s first Pride rally had marched through London. A month before that, Cabaret – lauded by novelist and activist Armistead Maupin as “the first film that really celebrated homosexuality” – had been released. Laws in 1975 protected women from discrimination at work because of their sex, and gave them the first maternity rights.

This was the atmosphere into which Rocky was born, hip-thrustingly subverting everything heteronormative, patriarchal, prudish. Though admittedly a villain, Dr Frank-N-Furter is also a strutting, proud, deeply sexy man-alien in suspenders, heels and full (glorious) makeup. He seduces men and women alike and has a riot doing it.

Richard O’Brien. Image: supplied

Brad and Janet, the naive young couple who stumble into Frank-N-Furter’s lair, start out as icons of
heteronormativity – before both discover that there’s more to existence than life as a dutiful, ’50s-style husband or wife. “I wanna be dirty,” sings Janet, “thrill me, chill me, fulfil me, creature of the night.” Meanwhile her previously strait-laced hubby-to-be parades around in pants and a loosely laced corset. There’s even a queer wedding. 

So, yes, much of what’s shown in The Rocky Horror Show was way beyond the social norms of the time, if not downright illegal. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then. But as the overturning of Roe v Wade showed, no victory is immutable. As regressive forces (“the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and the [Lauren] Boeberts”) attempt to turn back the progress we’ve achieved since then, O’Brien is glad to have created a rallying point.

“It’s a place for the marginalised. I see Rocky, now, as a rainbow event,” he explains. “I’m not a flag waver. Patriotism is the final refuge of the scoundrel. Trump is always on about patriotism, and we know he’s the most unpatriotic person in the world. He divided America, set nice people against each other, and demonised kindness and gentleness and civility. But the flag I would stand by is the rainbow flag. And I think Rocky is important in that respect.” 

Slender and almost hairless, O’Brien has always cocked a snook at gender norms, wearing makeup and jewellery, heels and ‘women’s’ clothes. At almost 81 (we speak just a couple of days before his birthday) his distinctive voice remains an almost Eartha Kitt purr, his lexicon sprinkled with luvvy-ish “terribly”s. He’s a father-of-three in a very happy marriage to his third wife and “dearest friend”, Sabrina. In recent years he’s been described as trans and has previously said he’s a “third sex… maybe about 70 per cent male, 30 per cent female” but he doesn’t seem hugely keen on labels.

Jason Donovan in The Rocky Horror Show
Nearly 25 years on, Jason Donovan (centre) will step into Frank-N-Furter ‘s platforms once more for an Australian production marking its 50th anniversary. Image: Richard Milnes/Alamy Live News

“I’m very lucky that I’m supported,” he says, when asked where he thinks he fits under that rainbow flag. “I have a darling wife who would die for me, kill for me. My children would kill for me. So I’m very happy. I’m very secure and safe. 

And I’m also someone who always marched to the beat of his own drum, in many ways. I am what I am, because I’ve allowed myself to be what I am. I won’t allow anybody else to decide who I should be.” 

O’Brien is undeniably a trailblazer, but has previously got in hot water for saying he didn’t think trans women could become “natural” women – though he has always vocally supported everybody’s right to be safe, happy and fulfilled. People are too easily hurt today, he says: “I worry about the fact that we have to walk on eggshells around everybody, you know, and that’s annoying.” 

He blames social media for “screwing us up” and says he doesn’t know if something like The Rocky Horror Show could exist today. Modern critics have taken issue with the portrayal of consent in the musical, as well as perceived stereotypes in how LGBT+ people are shown. 

Richard O’Brien and Rocky Horror Show fans attempt to break the world record for most dancers doing the Time Warp
Richard O’Brien and Rocky Horror Show fans attempt to break the world record for most dancers doing the Time Warp. Image: Howard Davies / Alamy Stock Photo

“I think my problem, as the author, would be when I start to overthink myself,” says O’Brien. “You’re so busy being worried about what you can do and what you can’t do, you won’t do it at all. You’re stuck. Don’t get me wrong – #MeToo is exactly right. And people that bang on about cancel culture are lying. It isn’t cancel culture, it’s cultural evolution. Let’s grow up and move on and get better.” 

Today O’Brien prefers to emphasise the real enemy standing in the way of a society based on kindness, acceptance (and a bit of sexiness). “The big problem for us in the world as human beings is religion. It’s become very dangerous,” he argues. “Of course, they’ve fucked themselves up because we are animals. And the one thing that enslaves us, I would say, is sex, because it’s the primal animal drive. They try to take the moral high ground. And the next minute, we discover this person who’s getting millions of dollars through their followers, his wife is screwing the pool boy and he is watching.” A throaty laugh follows, then a very Rocky, non-religious commandment: “Empower women and let people do what they want in the bedroom. It has nothing to do with you.” 

The Rocky Horror Show 50th Anniversary Tour runs across the UK until October. For more information see rockyhorror.co.uk

The Rocky Horror Show: Let’s do the timeline again

Rocky Horror Show wins the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical
Rocky Horror Show wins the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical. Image: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1973The Rocky Horror Show opens upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It wins the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical

1974 Makes its US debut at the Roxy Theatre in LA for nine months of celebrity-packed crowds. Meat Loaf recalls meeting Elvis at a show  

1975 A rocky year for Rocky. The musical opens on Broadway, anticipated to be as big as Jesus Christ Superstar. It flops. The film – The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring O’Brien, Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Meat Loaf – opens in the UK and US to negative reaction

Elvis and Meat Loaf
Elvis and Meat Loaf. Images: Alamy

1976The Rocky Horror Picture Show eventually finds its audience in midnight screenings, where audiences begin the tradition of interacting with the film

1978 The movie plays in South Africa before being swiftly banned. The musical premieres in Richard O’Brien’s native New Zealand

1979/80 Extensive UK and Ireland tour starts with a month-long run at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre. Initial London theatre run ends after 2,960 performances

1986 Princess Diana tells Tim Curry that watching Rocky “quite completed my education”

Rocky Horror Picture Show
Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Image: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

1990 Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Company revives the musical in London’s West End. The musical has toured the UK regularly since

1999 Former Neighbours star Jason Donovan dons his stockings to play Frank-N-Furter in the UK. He will return to the show in 2023 in Sydney for the 50th anniversary tour  

2005The Rocky Horror Picture Show is selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry

2006 Richard O’Brien hosts a benefit concert of the musical to raise money for Amnesty International. The cast features Anthony Head, Michael Ball, Ade Edmondson, Toyah Willcox and Steve Pemberton

Richard O'Brien and Emma Bunton
Richard O’Brien and Emma Bunton. Image: See Li / Alamy Stock Photo

2009  Richard O’Brien and Rocky Horror Show fans attempt to break the world record for most dancers doing the Time Warp in Brighton

2014The Rocky Horror Show is voted eighth on BBC Radio 2’s list of the nation’s favourite musicals

2015 The stage show is broadcast live across European cinemas. A charity gala features Stephen Fry and former Spice Girl Emma Bunton

Laverne Cox in the Rocky Horror Show
2016. Image: Steve Wilkie Fox

2016 Fox remakes The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a US TV movie, starring Laverne Cox as Dr Frank-N-Furter

2023The Rocky Horror Show celebrates its 50th anniversary with a sell-out world tour. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still in cinemas, making it the longest running theatrical release in film history 

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