Richard O'Brien: A nasty business
He's still best known for his self-penned cult classic 'The Rocky Horror Show'. But now, at 60, Richard O'Brien tells Robert Hanks he's ready to take on a new grotesque - 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Child Catcher
As I'm waiting at the stage door of the Palladium to be shown up to Richard O'Brien's dressing-room, a young woman walks in and pipes to the doorkeeper in a tiny, childish voice "Hello, it's me again." In reply, the doorkeeper adopts a mock-military bark, to which she responds in deep, Mike Reid cockney; and I cringe slightly and remember why I don't spend time hanging around theatres...
And then I am welcomed in by Richard O'Brien, and we sit down and within two minutes he is telling me how lucky he is to be working on this show and particularly in this theatre, this wonderful space, and I start to wonder whether next time it wouldn't be worth interviewing a tax accountant or perhaps somebody in local government, sterling fellows whose work deserves more recognition.
It soon turns out that I have gravely underestimated him, though, as he comes out with some acerbic and rather funny and penetrating comments about the show he is so lucky to be in. This is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang , which has been adapted for the stage from the much-loved children's film by the multi-talented Jeremy Sams, and is being directed by Adrian Noble. With that pedigree it all sounds very promising, and so far, O'Brien says, the audiences have loved it: "I've never known audiences like this." At the first public preview - which was only the third time they had run through the entire show - it was clear as soon as the audience came into the auditorium and sat down that they had decided to like it, and it would have taken a determined effort by the cast to stop them.
And so it has gone on. O'Brien is not expecting an easy ride from the critics when the show opens next Tuesday; but neither is he expecting the critics to make a blind bit of difference. The point about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang , he thinks, is that it works at a level that defies analysis.
"In terms of the 100 greatest musicals, it isn't even going to chart," he says. "I mean, 'Truly Scrumptious' - a number which, truly, if you suffer from diabetes you shouldn't be allowed to watch." He trills out a couple of lines by way of demonstration - "'Troooly Scrumptious, you're truly, truly scrumptious - scrumptious as the wind acrawss the baaaaaay' - or something like that."
He widens his eyes and bares his teeth in a manic parody of innocence and joy, and with his bald head and gaunt figure and tremulous falsetto the effect is, in all honesty, quite sinister; but you take his point: when the motherless Potts children, Jeremy and Jemima, are singing it to the beautiful and strangely maternal Miss Truly Scrumptious, it could seem sugary.
But, he goes on, "it doesn't cloy, at the end of the day". He attributes that fact to the genius of the Sherman brothers, who wrote the songs for this, as for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book : "They do tread the path of the truly awful, and win. 'Feed the birds, tuppence a bag' - another song that should make us cringe." They are masters, he thinks, of "the great art of simplicity - ego-free simplicity is when greatness takes place."
O'Brien, you will be relieved to hear, has not been cast as Truly Scrumptious. He is the Child Catcher, the evil functionary who keeps the Mitteleuropean barony of Vulgaria child-free, and who since the film was first released in 1968 has been responsible for a good deal of behind-the-sofa quivering and middle-of-the-night moaning and screaming. For O'Brien, Robert Helpmann's twinkle-toed sadist is definitive, and it is his duty to stick closely to the spirit of it; but he doesn't attempt a straight imitation. Apart from anything else, he doesn't think he could dance that well. But, he says, "I bring a kind of spidery movement. I'm not unaware that - I sound as if I'm blowing my own trumpet here - I have the ability to move in a dance-like manner. I exploit that ability as much as I can. I know what the character needs and I try to provide it. I think that so far I'm 90 per cent there. There's another 10 or 15 per cent to go on top of what I'm doing at the moment."
The Shermans have given him a new song, "Kiddy Widdy Winkies": "I can't see or hear them, but smell that I'm near them, those dear, sweet kiddy widdy winkies... I sense their presence, I smell their essence..." He doesn't have Helpmann's battered top hat, but instead a peculiar flick of hair at the front and what he describes as a strange sort of comb-over. This is something of a come-down for a man who, by his own account, helped to make baldness acceptable: when he first shaved his head in the late Sixties, the only well-known baldies were Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas. Thirty years on, the look has served him well. It was his birthday a couple of weeks ago, and the homepage of his fan-club, The New Richard O'Brien Crusade, offers this tribute: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, though you've just turned 60 you look 32!" Well, a bit more than that; but he does look remarkably youthful, in a chemo-therapy kind of a way.
The Child Catcher is, he points out, a kind of Nazi functionary, a Mengele or an Eichmann - part of the charm of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is that it appeals to British xenophobia: "Nothing wrong with that, it's a much-maligned, primal activity that everybody's engaged in one way or another, it's innate, it's in the nature of the beast." But he has also tried to bring to the part "the fetid air of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari - all that German Expressionist stuff", as well as Arthur Rackham. After all, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a very traditional fairy tale - the flying car is the seven-league boots or the magic carpet; the Child Catcher is the wicked witch, Truly Scrumptious is the good fairy; and, of course, there is the pair of lost children - like Hansel and Gretel, I suggest. "Which is a re-telling of Eden," he comes back, "which is what I did in Rocky Horror with Brad and Janet."
I'm relieved that he brings up this subject himself, saving me the trouble: I had thought that after nearly 30 years of being defined purely as Mr Rocky Horror Show , he might feel that it was an albatross round his neck. But he looks surprised: "If you had written a best-selling novel, and it meant that any time you wanted five minutes of somebody's time the doors were open and the royalties kept coming in year after year, why would you be anything but proud?" People, he sighs, are so ready to piss on their own parties. He has no sympathy: "To wake up, be a sentient being - you cannot get a greater gift than this." A well-adjusted human being, I thought; and interesting. Next time I want some children scaring, I would be happy to send for him.