The Watchers

The Watchers

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Forty years ago today saw the UK premiere of a film that is a bona fide cult classic. A film that revamped the midnight matinee. A film that has a very deep and personal meaning for me. That film: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A tribute to the sci-fi and horror B-movies of the 1940s and 1950s, the film sees newly-engaged, clean-cut, all-American couple Brad Majors and Janet Weiss take a road trip to see a former tutor, only to suffer a blow-out on the way. In the pouring down rain, they trek to an old castle, home to the eccentric Dr Frank-n-Furter and his equally eccentric coterie of servants, groupies and conventionalists. It is a night Brad and Janet will remember for a very long time...

The Rocky Horror Show started life as a stage musical, written by Richard O'Brien and directed by Jim Sharman, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 19th June 1973. The original London cast included Julie Covington, Christopher Malcolm, Tim Curry, Richard O'Brien, Patricia Quinn, 'Little' Nell Campbell, Rayner Bourton and Jonathan Adams. American producer Lou Adler saw the show in the winter of 1973 and immediately purchased the U.S. theatrical rights, with the US premiere taking place at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles in 1974. The film deal followed shortly afterwards.

Sharman directed and Curry, O'Brien, Quinn and Campbell reprised their stage roles as Dr Frank n Furter, Riff-Raff, Magenta and Columbia. Jonathan Adams, who played the Narrator onstage in London, was cast as Dr Everett Scott whilst Meat Loaf (who'd been part of the Roxy cast) was cast in the role of Eddie the delivery boy. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon took the roles of Brad and Janet and Charles Gray played the Narrator.

However, the film almost had a very different look to it with Mick Jagger playing Frank, Steve Martin playing Brad and- something that would have been utterly wonderful- Vincent Price as the Narrator! 

The film was shot at Bray Studios with location shooting at Oakley Court in Berkshire, an old country house that had been used in Hammer horror films such as The Brides Of Dracula and The Plague Of The Zombies (and which is now a luxury hotel). However, at the time, Oakley Court was a bit run down, leaking and damp. In an often-repeated story, Susan Sarandon caught pneumonia whilst filming there.

The film opens with 'Science Fiction Double Feature' which name-checks everything from King Kong to The Day The Earth Stood Still, Dana Andrews to Leo G. Carroll. On stage, the song is performed by an old-style cinema usherette (usually played by the same actress who plays Magenta). For the film, it is sung by a disembodied pair of bright red lips which have become one of the film's most iconic images (inspired by the surrealist artist Man Ray). The lips belong to Patricia Quinn, but the voice is that of Richard O'Brien.

One of the things everybody knows from The Rocky Horror Show (aside from the cross-dressing) is the Time Warp. Originally added to the stage show to pad out a modest running time of 40 minutes, the Time Warp has become something done at every school disco, birthday party or wedding reception. Even if people don't know it's originally from Rocky Horror, everybody knows the dance. 

In the film, it forms a brilliant prelude to Frank's first entrance and there's something really quite joyful in seeing Charles Gray's buttoned-up Narrator become more and more enthusiastic as it goes on:

And for added strangeness, here's the late, great Christopher Lee telling us how to do The Time Warp:


This was the first film for several cast members, including Tim Curry and, for a time, he became defined as Frank-n-Furter, something he wasn't entirely comfortable with. Despite an impressive filmography, including things such as Legend, Clue, IT and Muppet Treasure Island, for many people he will always be Frank. 

Quinn, O'Brien, Campbell and Gray also appeared together in Shock Treatment, the 1981 sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show which features Brad and Janet (now played by Cliff de Young and Jessica Harper) as contestants on a twisted game show. 

Whilst the original cinema run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn't do too well, it became a classic on the midnight matinee circuit with shadow casts performing along with the film, the encouragement of callbacks and the throwing of various items (toilet roll, rice, hotdogs). The first midnight showing was held on April Fools' Day 1976 at the Waverly Theatre in New York. It is a truly indescribable feeling to be sat in a cinema with a couple of hundred people- mostly dressed up- shouting various obscenities at the screen as the film trundles on.

In 2005, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was selected by the US Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry. This honour is given to films considered 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'.

* * *

I wrote at the start that The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a very deep and personal meaning for me. 

I first saw the film during the summer of 1995 at a time in my life when I was still figuring out who I was. Sitting in my friend's nan's front room one hot August day to watch the film is one of my abiding memories of that summer. The film was campy, frothy, funny and... dare I say it? sexy. And not just the rippling muscles of Peter Hinwood either; there is something achingly sexy about Tim Curry (maybe that's just me?) Anyway, it was a seminal moment for me. Things weren't rigid, defined in black and white. There could be shades of grey. You could be attracted to whoever you were attracted to and that was OK. You weren't wrong or broken or needing to be fixed. 
For someone with major body confidence issues and a crippling lack of self-esteem, the film and the stage show have been a real lifesaver. By going to see the show or going to a midnight matinee of the film, you enter a place where it doesn't matter what you are or what you look like; you can embrace yourself fully in whatever way that manifests itself and nobody else would criticise or belittle you for it. I'm a big lad and wouldn't ever dream of going out in just a pair of gold lame underwear but I have seen people bigger than me who have and there's been no bullying, no cat-calling, just support and friendship for those few hours. 

Ultimately, the film's central philosophy of 'don't dream it, be it' is not a bad way to live your life. However, sometimes it's easier said than done and it's something that I still struggle with. But I'm trying to live my life how I want to live it, trying to be it instead of just dreaming it. And I have this wonderfully eccentric, camp and glorious film to thank for showing me the way.


On Thursday September 17th 2015, there will be a live cinema broadcast of The Rocky Horror Show from London's Playhouse Theatre in aid of Amnesty International. David Bedella, Ben Forster and Haley Flaherty will take the roles of Frank, Brad and Janet respectively whilst Richard O'Brien, Stephen Fry, Emma Bunton and Mel Giedroyc will share the role of the Narrator. Tickets for this screening can be purchased here.

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