Deemed very risqué at the time, The Rocky Horror Show captured the zeitgeist and became a sensation. Forty years after that June 19 premiere in a 63-seater theatre in London, the show continues to delight both critics and audiences.
That night upstairs at the Royal Court, (where the godfather of horror B-movies, Vincent Price, was quite aptly in attendance) spawned a longer run and then a move to the West End, a cast album and film.
High-profile fans who saw it in the early days included Mick Jagger (who, it was said, wanted to play the part of Frank N Furter in the film version), Tennessee Williams, Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Rudolf Nureyev and Keith Moon.
From a few songs strummed on his guitar and a generous helping of science fiction, rock ’n’ roll and B-movie influences, Richard O’Brien had little idea that all the things he had loved when he was growing up would still resonate across the globe 40 years later.
Despite the intervening four decades the show and film are still popular. The stage show has been seen around the world, and was even a success in South Korea, Japan and Israel.
The Rocky Horror Show follows a seemingly respectable couple, Brad and Janet, seeking help at a nearby castle when their car breaks down. There they meet Dr Frank N Furter, who sings that he’s a “sweet Transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” and claims to have the secret to life itself and reveals his creation, the hunky Rocky.
Brad and Janet become embroiled in the wild antics that take place including cross dressing, eccentricity, fabulous songs such as The Time Warp and Sweet Transvestite and sheer, unadulterated fun.
From the stage show came the film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is thought to be the longest-running limited release film in cinema history.
So what is the secret of its success and how does it remain as fresh as its first performance? “Rocky is a fairy tale so it will always have resonance,” says British-born O’Brien from his home in New Zealand.
“It’s fun and you leave the theatre feeling a little better than when you went in. It is three-chord juvenile rock ’n’ roll writing. And as Noel Coward once said you should never underestimate the potency of cheap music. Simplicity is good. I’m a complete child. Maturity was never my strong suit.”
O’Brien, who married for the third time this April, remains astonished at the success of the show: “For this piece of juvenilia?” he says, laughing. “For this little lightweight three-week bit of fun? It’s quite astonishing isn’t it? It never ceases to amaze me.
“If you stand right at the back of a show, as I sometimes do, and you hear the audience laughing and enjoying the songs I am in heaven. The sound of laughter is astonishingly rejuvenating.”
Those who recall that first production upstairs at the Royal Court remember a very special time. For Rayner Bourton, who played Rocky in that show, it is still a hugely important part of his life. “Because it was so different and unique there was a tremendous pulling together of all the cast,” he says. “It is one of the best experiences I have ever had. I felt there was a huge amount of love there.”
O’Brien, who is now 71, credits the actor Tim Curry, who has suffered ill health in recent years (and who recently had a stroke), as a big part of the show’s success: “I think it’s arguable that had he not been in the role of Frank from the outset, the show might not have had the success that it had,” he says.
“He was definitive, he did bring a bravura to the stage as Frank which people have since copied to some extent. It is arguable that the show wouldn’t have been the hit that it became had he not been at the helm.”
Bourton, who has collected his memories in the book The Rocky Horror Show: As I Remember It, admits his decision to leave the show to return to classical acting was perhaps a little hasty. He insists the show’s longevity has, in part, been fed by the film’s audience participation as well as people’s love of dressing up as the characters for the shows and the film screenings.
“The Rocky Horror Show these days isn’t about the people in it, it is about the people watching it,” he says. Some of those people are certainly devoted fans. Stephanie Freeman met her future husband, David, through her love of the show and the film and has been running the official UK Rocky Horror fan Club since 1988, first with friend Amanda Langley and now with David.
When she first got hooked on Rocky she admits it was the ability to escape for a couple of hours which appealed. “It gave us a sense of freedom away from reality and your nine-to-five job,” says Stephanie who lives in Tonbridge, Kent, and has two children, Illya, 11 and Dana, 17.
“People are going there to have a good time,” she says. “The maxim is don’t dream it, be it. You can make it what you like.”
For Rob Bagnall and Phil Barden, who got in contact through the Timewarp’s forum, their love of the show led them to write the book, Still the Beast Is Feeding: Forty Years Of Rocky Horror. It is clear how much The Rocky Horror Show has influenced Rob, 45, who works at Alton Towers as an actor and lives in Staffordshire. He met his fiancé e, Carol, through the show, and says: “It made me who I am. I was quite shy when I was young and it brought me out of myself.”
Rob has a vast collection of Rocky Horror memorabilia and is known to friends as “Rocky Rob”, while Phil, 53, who is a management consultant and lives in St Albans, Hertfordshire, says the how’s appeal is that Rocky fans feel like one big family.
“It really is a community,” says Phil. “Everybody is friendly. People from all different walks of life are united by Rocky. It is almost like a football club and instead of wearing the team shirt they are wearing fishnets.”
The Rocky Horror Show’s 40th Anniversary Tour includes a week of events at The Palace Theatre in Manchester along with a party night on June 19. For details and tickets, go to rockyhorror.co.uk.