Scott is a senior reporter at the Bay of Plenty Times

From Rocky Horror to Katikati - Richard O'Brien speaks

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TIME WARPED: Richard O'Brien will celebrate his 75th birthday with a charity event in Tauranga. PHOTO / FILE
TIME WARPED: Richard O'Brien will celebrate his 75th birthday with a charity event in Tauranga. PHOTO / FILE

Richard O'Brien is waving at us like a man bent on dismissing two unwelcome blowflies.

We're walking up the front steps of a white, wide homestead and the man behind the Rocky Horror franchise is gesticulating at us dramatically from within the frame of his front door.

"No photos, no photos," he says. "You never said you were bringing a photographer."

This transgression must be negotiated before entry is granted to O'Brien's home in the back-blocks of Aongatete, a half-hour drive up the coast from Tauranga.

The handshake seems reluctant and, when we make it to the sofa, O'Brien says he can spare just 20 minutes for an interview because he is expecting a phone call.

Our vampirish host is thin, pale and almost hairless. He's wearing a pink blouse, pinkish tights, high-heeled ankle boots and a pearl necklace.

With photography barred, I ask O'Brien to describe his attire for our readers.

"A shirt and boots," he says. "But you wouldn't ask that question if I were a woman."

"I think I would," I say.

We're interviewing O'Brien because he's one of the Bay's most famous residents and because he's about to celebrate his 75th birthday with a charity event at Baycourt.

I ask him to begin with childhood memories of moving here from England.

"My parents were not the happiest of married couples and we have to pay for that later in our lives," O'Brien says.

"My father was an accountant who never helped me with my maths, but at the end of his days he grew very mellow and would reach out and hold me. I fancy mortality makes people like that.

"My mother wanted to be a lady, and it ruined our lives living with a snob. It was rather tragic. She wasn't a bad woman - just incredibly silly."

O'Brien went to Tauranga Primary School and left what was then called Tauranga College at age 15.

"I used to bike to school along dirt roads, gravel roads, and I learned to ride horses," he says. "Tauranga was terribly tiny in those days and it's a big, vibrant city now, isn't it? People sit in their retirement homes, and that doesn't help the city grow, does it?"

O'Brien tried his hand at farming in Putaruru and cutting hair in Hamilton before moving back to England aged 22.

"I don't really know why I went," he says. "I think I wanted to be a performer - a dream that many young people have."

O'Brien's English manner of speech is strong, almost affected, and he uses words like 'fancy' and 'rather' quite a lot. But he insists that his Kiwi upbringing instilled him with egalitarian ideals that helped him transcend British class restrictions.

"The New Zealand card really helped. Nobody here had any time for snobs. Nobody felt superior. England was class-ridden beyond belief and I didn't let anyone be my superior."

It also helped him in practical ways - his horse riding skills landed him an uncredited role in the 1965 film Carry On Cowboy that helped launch his acting career.

We're less than a third of the way through the life of O'Brien when a phone rings. High heels clomp across wooden floorboards and disappear outside.

We are left sitting on a couch in a long and very tall room in front of a coffee table littered with comics and magazines. Prominent are a Rocky Horror CD and a Phantom comic. The shelves hold items as eclectic as books, theatre props and a large Buzz Lightyear doll. Behind us is a framed board covered with various currency notes and the slogan "the root of all evil".

In many ways, the home reflects O'Brien himself - lofty, angular, unnaturally white, embodying Gothic elements, scattered with mementos and memories.

The most recent of O'Brien's three wives, Sabrina, appears with biscuits and good coffee. She's 30-odd years younger than her husband. They married in 2013, after knowing each other a decade.

"I met him outside a stage door in London," she says. "He was on stage with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and I knew someone in the production team."

Her smile is slight but warm, and she is at ease with herself. Her accent, hard to place, is Bavarian. She says she first came to the Bay in 2012 and that the couple moved here permanently in February 2013.

She tells us how much they enjoy entertaining friends, although they do this with less energy than in the past.

"We've both become such Kiwis now," she says. "By 10 o'clock we're ..."

The door swings open and O'Brien returns, phone call finished. Will the interview continue?

It does, although his wife soon departs.

"My transgendered nature was from out of the womb," O'Brien says. "I knew at age 6 that I wanted to be a girl, but in those days any hint of being a poof ... so I think a lot of my life was lived in my head. And there was always a soundtrack in my head as well, even as a kid."

O'Brien describes himself as 70 per cent male and 30 per cent female.

This brings us to the transgendered, musical stage version of the Rocky Horror Show. O'Brien says he started writing it after acting in the musical Hair and receiving a 300 pound payout for an abortive role in Jesus Christ Superstar.

"A lot of the songs and dialogue were written in rehearsal. Magenta was written in at the request of Marianne Faithfull, who then went off to India to see a guru and left me with this role, for which I'm rather glad."

O'Brien says Rocky Horror Show opened to an audience of 62 and was notable for a single suspended microphone which imperilled the cast as it swung across the stage.

Word of mouth turned Rocky Horror Show into a monster that ran for years and led to the $1.25 million film version that made O'Brien famous.

"It bombed at first because they didn't know who to sell it to," O'Brien says of the film. "Then it started doing the late night circuit, and boy did it take off."

O'Brien had other triumphs, although none greater, until he decided to return to a place he'd always considered home.

"I'd been planning to come back to New Zealand since the day I left," he says. "I've always considered myself a Kiwi. Always."

He was granted citizenship in 2011. But why live at Aongatete, so far from the limelight?

"I used to do haymaking and cutting lambs' tails off round here as a kid."

Plans for the future?

"I love being lazy and I love to doodle."

O'Brien jumps up and leads us across the room to a stack of framed pictures, mostly of people.

"Pastels," he says, holding one up. "You get all this softness. This is how I spend my time. And I drink lots of wine. That's time-consuming."

O'Brien is animated now, and friendly, but it is time to go.

We part with smiles, and handshakes given freely.

As we walk to the car, the photographer checks the time.

Our 20-minute interview has lasted two hours.

75 Years of Frock 'n' Roll

When: Friday, March 24, 8pm-11pm
Where: Baycourt Community and Arts Theatre, Tauranga
Who: Richard O'Brien, Mark Sainsbury, Kokomo, Grant Winterburn
Tickets: $38-$78

All proceeds to Starship Hospital

- Bay of Plenty Times

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