I’m very proud to interview this Month an old Rocky Friend, M. Rob Bagnall, for his book (co-written with Phil Barden). I rarely met someone with so much passion for Rocky Horror, and his book is a so precious source of information about Rocky Horror, and especially the musical. Let’s talk about It!
Julien: Hi Rob, Thanks so much for accepting this interview, So first at all, was it great when it all begun: When and How have you discovered RHPS? What was you first impression?
Rob: My interest in Rocky Horror started with my childhood love of old science fiction films and B-movies. A child of the 1970s (I was born in 1968), I would often stay up late with my dad to watch these old 1950s monster movies on British television. From the age of about 7, my favourite films included the original King Kong, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Night Of The Demon and Tarantula.
Reading old science fiction and horror magazines in the mid-late ‘70s, I would sometimes see the title The Rocky Horror Picture Show mentioned in articles and, even without knowing anything about the film itself, the title intrigued me.
I then read the novelisation of Alan Parker’s 1980 movie Fame when I was about 12. In one scene, two of the characters (Ralph and Doris) attended a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at New York’s 8th Street Playhouse. The novelisation included a brief history of Rocky Horror (stage and screen), which was how I learned that Rocky Horror began life as a rock ‘n’ roll stage musical in London before it became a movie. I got my first glimpse of Rocky itself (including a portion of ‘The Time Warp’) during a UK television screening of Fame a couple of years later, and I knew I had to see it.
A local theatre company – The Theatre Royal Hanley – was touring The Rocky Horror Show (‘Alive on Stage’) around the UK during the mid-1980s, and, one evening in April 1985, my dad purchased tickets for himself, me, my brother and one of my school friends.
My life changed that very night.
Imagine the thrill I felt hearing the lyrics to ‘Science Fiction – Double Feature’ for the first time. With the titles of many of my favourite late night science fiction monster movies being name-checked in the opening song, I was hooked right away. The show was funny, sexy, moving and clever. The music was brilliant; there wasn’t one weak number in the whole show. The characters, dialogue and story were compelling. It was like nothing I had ever seen or heard before. I couldn’t believe anything could be so geeky and sexy in equal measure.
Having fallen instantly in love with the stage show, I was eager to see the classic film version. The movie had been officially released on VHS and BetaMax in the UK in 1984, but none of our local video rental libraries had the film in stock. In the end, dad took out a membership at a video store several miles away in order to rent the VHS edition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a weekend. I watched the film at home eight times during that weekend, and learned the entire script by heart. It immediately became my favourite film of all time (and it still is). When that very special weekend was over, we returned the video to the store, and never went there again. I bought my own VHS copy of the film (the first of many) shortly afterwards.
Me as Frank 2006
What is your best moment related to RHPS?
I have many memorable moments related to Rocky Horror (both stage and screen). My proudest moment was probably at the Memorabilia (Birmingham Comic Con) event in November 2013. I asked Barry Bostwick to sign a copy of the book Still The Beast Is Feeding – I have a copy that I carry around in order to get it signed by anyone I meet who has ever been in the show or the film – and he asked, “Wait; you wrote this?”
“Yes,” I answered, unsure where he was going with this question.
“Then you need to sign my copy,” he replied. He then produced a copy of the book from his bag, and revealed that he had been reading it on the plane on his way over to England. I therefore have a photo of me signing Barry Bostwick’s personal copy of the book that I wrote. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Other unique and exciting memories have included being amongst a small group of UK fan club members invited to watch a rehearsal of the (then upcoming) new UK production of the stage show in March 2006, and being asked to give feedback to the cast and crew; seeing Anthony Head’s fabulous performance as Frank-n-Furter in the 1990/91 West End revival of the show; witnessing Patricia Quinn reprising her original role of Usherette/Magenta (and still looking just as amazing) in the 1994 21st Anniversary tour; and watching the film being screened at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in November 2014 (seeing my favourite film of all time – a film which flopped on its original 1975 cinema release – almost filling this enormous, prestigious London venue was quite an emotional experience).
Another fond memory was attending the one-night-only Rocky Horror Tribute Show at London’s Royal Court Theatre (the show’s original 1973 home) in 2006, with Little Nell hanging out with the fans (and taking photos) outside the theatre until mere minutes before the performance was due to commence.
Me with Tim Curry in 2006
What is your favourite character and Why?
I genuinely love every character in Rocky Horror – every one of them is essential to the story (a perfectly balanced ensemble) – but, when asked for my favourite, I usually say Janet. Her character arc is probably the most well defined of any character in the show. Also, it is quite a challenging role for an actress because the subtlety of her underlying sexuality is rather complex. Unlike Sandy in Grease, Janet Weiss is not an innocent goody-two-shoes who suddenly becomes a man-eating slut at the end for comic effect. Janet’s sexuality should always be palpable, even when she appears to be the sweet Eisenhower era girl next door. This can be seen in her obvious momentary enjoyment (and subsequent embarrassment) of the line, “I’m a muscle fan” during ‘I Can Make You A Man (reprise)’. Though her small town upbringing and outmoded ideas of gender pigeon-holing have taught her that it’s wrong, Janet is secretly excited by Frank’s hedonistic attitude and the unveiling of Rocky; whereas Brad, with his hunter-gather caveman role threatened for the first time in his life, is appalled and frightened by that which confronts him.
Her encounter with Frank does not change Janet into someone else; it liberates her and brings out what was there all along. Her existing, though repressed, sexuality is allowed to flourish. By the end of the story and the nature of their experiences, Janet has become the stronger of the two. This is even emphasised by her section of the ‘Floorshow’ and her verse of ‘Superheroes’ which has a more powerful percussion and a stronger bass line than Brad’s more timid verse.
I have seen a number of excellent actresses perform the role very effectively on stage, and of course Susan Sarandon nailed the character perfectly in the movie and infused her with just the right amount of understated humour.
Me as Frank at Oakley Court in August 2010.
What represents RHPS in your life?
Not a day goes by without me talking about Rocky Horror (I’m sure I can be a complete and total bore when I get started) or quoting its dialogue in my everyday speech. The ring-tone on my ‘phone is ‘The Time Warp’ from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ soundtrack; while the voice of Richard O’Brien (as Riff Raff) says, “Master. Master, we have a visitor,” whenever I receive a text.
My walls are adorned with framed Rocky Horror posters and flyers, and my ever-growing collection of Rocky Horror Show and Rocky Horror Picture Show merchandise takes up much of my room. I search eBay and other sites every night for new (and old) items to add to my beloved collection – programmes, brochures, cast albums, posters, flyers, badges, anything – and I always get a thrill when I find something I haven’t already got.
Me signing Barry Bostwick’s personal copy of the book Still The Beast Is Feeding in November 2013
Can you tell us about your book? How much time have you need to write it down? Lots of book have been written about Rocky Horror, what is specific in your approach? Did you have a funny story from the book that is not so known you could share.
The book happened through my acquaintance with Phil Barden. Phil had seen the original production of The Rocky Horror Show in the King’s Road many times, and he began to share his memories on the fan forums of TimeWarp (the official UK Rocky Horror fan club). I devoured his stories and we began to e-mail each other back and forth with our own personal Rocky tales and recollections. Phil had also started to interview a few of the show’s previous cast members, just to satisfy his own nostalgic cravings. When I said I’d like to see a book which told the entire history of the Rocky Horror phenomenon in detail – taking in the show’s B-movie influences, its development from a small rock ‘n’ roll show into a full blown mainstream musical, the film’s initial failure and subsequent midnight cult following, major West End, Broadway and international revivals, spin-offs, tributes and its enduring legacy – he suggested that I have a go at writing it myself. Initially I took a lot of persuading, through fear that I would not be able to do the story justice, but Phil continued with his interviews and assured me that I could use them exclusively for the book.
Phil did the leg-work, searching for a suitable and willing publisher (no easy task), conducting interviews and making suggestions, while I did the actual writing.
Being a devoted Rocky enthusiast – as well as a lover of science fiction, old monster movies, Hammer Horror and the rock ‘n’ roll music of the ‘50s and ‘60s which had inspired Richard O’Brien in his youth – my favourite Rocky Horror books were those which attempted to explain the history and creation of the show and the film in detail. Those I like particularly were Jim Whittaker’s Cosmic Light: The Birth of a Cult Classic and Rayner Bourton’s The Rocky Horror Show: As I Remember It.
I did feel, however, that, while these books brilliantly told the story of Rocky Horror’s inception – the creation of the original London, Los Angeles and Sydney productions, and the making of the film – their stories concluded once the movie became a belated midnight success in the late 1970s. I felt that The Rocky Horror Show had continued to grow and evolve – from a raw small budgeted cult rock ‘n’ roll show into a mainstream musical theatre favourite – throughout the 1980s, ‘90s and beyond – as had the way in which audiences responded to it. Even the script had been tweaked and adapted on a couple of occasions. Things such as ‘Sweet Transvestite’ and ‘The Time Warp’ had switched around (somewhat controversially in the eyes of the show’s purists) during the 1990s to match their order in the movie version, and the way in which the show was staged had to develop from its minimal scaffolding and Odeon style set (as seen in Brian Thomson’s original 1973 designs) in order to compete with some of the West End and Broadway’s long-running musical extravaganzas. I wanted to tell this story in detail – with enthusiasm and reverence – and bring it completely up to date. We even held back the final chapter until I had seen the opening night of the 40th anniversary tour in December 2012, so that it could be appropriately mentioned within the book’s conclusion.
Phil and I also agreed that, while the likes of Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman, Sue Blane, Brian Thomson, Richard Hartley and most of the film’s cast had, quite rightly been allowed to share their memories and opinions over the years, many of the show’s other contributors – those who’d had the difficult task of taking on the roles in the King’s Road and other productions once Curry, O’Brien, Quinn and Nell had left the production to recreate their roles on film – had not been heard. I wanted to hear from Ziggy Byfield, Peter Blake and Daniel Abineri – as well as those who came to Rocky in the ‘80s and ‘90s once audience participation had changed the way audiences viewed the piece – and share their Rocky Horror memories with fans who might not even know of their place in Rocky history.
It was interesting to hear the, often quite passionate, “Rocky then versus Rocky now” attitude which some of the show’s early contributors felt strongly about.
All in all, with rewrites and a certain amount of restructuring, it took four and a half years to complete a final draft we were happy with. The timing could not have been better. At the suggestion of my friend (and fellow Rocky fan) Kev McEwen, Phil approached Telos Publishing. We had almost given up hope of getting the book published in time for the show’s 40th anniversary; but Telos liked and understood what we were doing, and they gave us a contract. Their speciality is cult TV, movies and science fiction, so they fully understood the geeky side of what we were doing. They told us that they were a small publishing house, so not to expect a massive print run or a bestseller; but our only goal was to see the book in print and for the fans to like what we’d done, so Telos actually suited us perfectly.
The first time I actually saw the book, bound and in print (the week it came out), it was on sale in the foyer with the Rocky Horror Show tour merchandise at my local theatre. I cannot describe the feeling of achievement that I felt.
Seeing my own published work on my shelf – next to the other books in my treasured Rocky collection – is still quite surreal; and I hope that I have, in some small way, made a contribution to the Rocky Horror legend and paid suitable tribute to the show and the film that has given me so much genuine pleasure over the years.
Me with Little Nell and Patricia Quinn in November 2013.