Ockerism, Conservatism and The Rocky Horror Show

With everyone having seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show film, how do you convince them to see another live production? Anne-Marie Peard asked its creator, Richard O’Brien, when he was in Melbourne on his way to play the Narrator in the Adelaide season of the current touring show.

“It’s fast and sexy and snappy and it’s live. You can’t beat the live experience. It’s like the difference between real sex and porno. You can’t beat the real. So I’m told!”

Craig McLachlan and Brendan Irving with Richard O'Brien
Craig McLachlan and Brendan Irving with Richard O’Brien. Image by Jeff Busby

The Rocky Horror Show opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London in June 1973. They had no idea what they were starting! Last year, Rocky turned 40 and a new UK production celebrated with a year-long tour and the Australian cast version – with Craig McLachlan as Frank N Furter – opened in January in Brisbane. It opens this week in Melbourne.

The Rocky Horror Show, 1973, Royal Court Theatre, photo Douglas Jeffery
The Rocky Horror Show, 1973, Royal Court Theatre, photo Douglas Jeffery

“The Time Warp” in 1980

At 71 O’Brien still looks like Riff Raff (the character he played in the original production and the film) but less pervy and unnervingly charming. He put down his glass of wine, took my hand and casually sung “Ahh, Anne-Marie”.

Richard O’Brien sung my name! My 1980’s teen self can die happy.

In 1980 Australia, teen life revolved around the top 10 on Sunday night’s Countdown. Being a just-teen, I was an expert in all things chart related but was unsure about ‘Ashes to Ashes’ beating ‘The Time Warp’ to number one. Having just discovered Rocky Horror and Bowie, I was torn. 

Being too young to have seen Reg Livermore’s 1970s Frank in Australia, it was the film that brought me into the Rocky world; a world that was so different from my conservative church-school life in conservative Adelaide.

Here was a world where difference was celebrated, a world where men in heels and fishnets were as sexy as all go get, masculinity and femininity weren’t assumptions of gender, and sex was fun. And fun and funny is what O’Brien still wants this show to be.

My signed "Time Warp" 45 from 1980
My signed “Time Warp” 45 from 1980

“It was never ever ever meant to be a sex show. It was never ever meant to titillate in that sense. In fact, I hate when it starts to get into that area. We have had productions where Frank and the bedroom scenes start to move into a different ground and I get … No, it’s got to be always funny, not salacious and rude. That’s not what it’s about and I don’t want it to ever be like that.”

Rocky is clearly still a work that he loves and, quite rightly, has a protective ownership of. He’s still involved in the granting of production rights and told me that Australian amateur rights aren’t going to be released in the near future.

Forty years on, it’s still THE show that everyone wants to perform and we talked about what it is about Rocky that let it reach so beyond its intent and to have been, and still is, so loved in Australia.

“It’s interesting isn’t it? I think Australia was a fairly repressed society – not in a fascistic way or totalitarian way – but it was just part of the fabric of Australian mentality.

“We might have said we were open and outgoing and all the rest of it, but the truth of the matter is that ocker mentality seems to strike about 70 percent of the Australian male population – and still does to this day.

“That 30 percent of genial, nice, ordinary middleclassless [his wonderful word] human beings, like ourselves, make up the big swell of Australians, but inside that 30 percent was a strong church element who saw Rocky as a bit, you know, ‘mm-mmm’ and, of course, there was the homophobic kind of thing that runs through them. But put that together with the ocker and put Rocky into that society and you have something that is quite volatile and consequently very entertaining.

“It’s against itself and in spite of themselves and somehow or other it works terribly well inside these kinds of societies.”

Tim Maddren, Christie Whelan Browne and Craig McLachlan in Rocky Horror Show. Image by Jeff Busby
Tim Maddren, Christie Whelan Browne and Craig McLachlan in the Rocky Horror Show. Image by Jeff Busby

He said as an aside that when they went to Amsterdam the show was “a damp squib”.

“What were we bringing them? They take drugs, do rock and roll and have sex with men like that all the time.”

The film

It was in the USA, in cities similar to Australia’s, that the 1975 Rocky Horror Picture Show found its popularity – after initially flopping – and developed its midnight-screening, dress-up, act-out cult status that transferred the ownership of the film firmly to its audience.

The midnight screenings started in 1976 at the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York – the 1980 film Fame includes a screening at the Waverly – and at about the same time in Austin, Texas. Austin is a university town and O’Brien said how university students in the US were among the first to pick up the film as their own.

“It was the disaffected youth and the lost and awkward kids who wanted to be in show business but didn’t know how. They could join their little club and dress up and be these people each night and they didn’t have to worry too much because the films rolling on relentlessly, so it doesn’t matter if they trip up. It’s all included in the fun and they were very much making it their own.”

Richard O'Brien & Patricia Quinn. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"
Richard O’Brien & Patricia Quinn. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

O’Brien also admits to not being as enthused about the film.

“Well, the film is good, but it’s slow. When I first watched it, we didn’t pick up the cues. It’s not soporific but has a kind of dream-like somnolence quality that I find rather disappointing in a way.”

But as it found its place and its fans, the slowness found its purpose as he was often asked (and said in his best mid-American accent), “Did you make the gaps between the lines so you we could say our lines?”.

He always answers, “Yes”.

Shock Treatment

After the film’s unexpected success, O’Brien wrote another film: 1981’s Shock Treatment.

Bringing back Rocky’s Australian director, Jim Sharman, and designer Brian Thomson (who won a Tony for his design for The King and I that’s just opened in Brisbane), Shocky followed Brad and Janet’s story once they were married back in Denton. It featured O’Brien, Patricia Quinn (original and film Magenta), Nell Campbell (original and film Columbia) and included Barry Humphries and Ruby Wax.

"Shock Treatment"
“Shock Treatment”

It also flopped.

It was about people living in a tv studio where the prize was celebrity and fame. This was unheard of in 1981.

“We predicted the ‘wanna be’ generation, which the Spice Girls kind of exemplified when they came along. That’s exactly what we were talking about. And then Big Brother came along and they go into the house and are living in a world of TV. And then The Truman Show. We were 25 years ahead of that and not necessarily even attempting to view the future.”

So what about a remake or a stage version that puts it in the now?

SHOCK TREATMENT, Barry Humphries, Richard O'Brien, 1981. TM and Copyright ©20th Century-Fox Film Corp.
“Shock Treatment”. Barry Humphries, Richard O’Brien, 1981. TM and Copyright ©20th Century-Fox Film Corp.

“I think it’s deeply flawed through the story line and I don’t know what to do about that. I think the soundtrack’s cool and certain journeys are good, but I think it needs somebody else to sit down with it.

“In the last 20 years I’ve been asked at least 10 times – generally by well-intentioned young people. If somebody were there with a fine brain and a track record …”

Or maybe it’s time to have another look at the film (cough, YouTube if you can’t find the DVD).

The Time Warp of 2014

It’s nice to think that Australia was a different place in the 1980s. I know that Rocky Horror, live and film, had a huge influence on its fans from that time and I like to think that we grew into adulthood without a lot of the prejudices that continue to shock us today. (It also made me see everything Sharman directed at the SA State Theatre Co – and discover Shakespeare – and made me read John Wyndham to find out what a “Triffid that spits poison and kills” was.)

 Richard O'Brien & Anne-Marie PeardBut all these years on, we seem to have found ourselves in a politically regressive time warp where ockerism and conservatism are combining to force us to leap to the right and hurtle backwards. Perhaps we really do need another dose of Rocky.

As O’Brien said, “It’s an antidote to all those pre-conceived ideas and preconceptions of what the world should be about and it has a liberating joyous feeling.”

“And we must never remember that all those guys out being butch are still putting on a pair of fish nets occasionally.”

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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