Friday, 5 April 2013

Frank N Furter at 40!

Tim Curry (centre) and Richard O'Brien (right)
Now here’s an astonishing thing: this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first stage performances of The Rocky Horror Show. The film followed in 1975.

As with so many other things in life, I was late to the game with Rocky, not seeing it in any shape or form until 1990, when I was sent to review the first major West End revival at a packed-out and boisterous Piccadilly Theatre.

It starred Adrian Edmondson, Tim McInnerny and Edward Tudor-Pole amongst others, with Jonathan Adams reprising the role he’d created in the original version, as the narrator. He played Dr Scott in the film version and, oddly enough, I had met and chatted with him some years earlier in Leicester, when he was appearing in David Pownalls’s play, Master Class. A very fine actor.

Anyway, I loved Rocky instantly: the sheer glorious naughtiness appealed to me straight away – it was just exactly as had happened some years earlier when I first saw Victor/Victoria. Love at first sight.

And, if possible, it got even better when I finally saw the film version with Tim Curry as Frank N Furter.

In some ways, the role has been a mixed blessing for Curry – a far more talented actor than he has, in effect, been allowed to be since simply blowing the world away with his seminal stage and screen performances.

I’ve long been rather amused that Curry’s father was a Methodist Navy chaplain.

Some years ago, I sang at St Mary’s, Henley, as the female relief in a concert given by a local male voice choir.

My father, who had decided I was doing it (an act of self-promotion for himself, rather than of me, I tend to believe), was deeply disappointed that I didn’t sing hymns.

Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria.
Mind, both my parents were always disappointed that I wouldn’t sing hymns whenever I was in any sort of festival – although songs like Cherry Ripe (which played a role in Victor/Victoria) would have been considered acceptable. My mother approved of such ditties, many of which were contained in a large, leather-clad collection of English songs that fell to me when I was teaching myself to play the piano.

I opted, on that Henley occasion however, for show songs, culminating in the absolutely wonderful Cole Porter classic, Everytime We Say Goodbye. A masterpiece of popular songwriting, which I’d only discovered shortly before and which, though I say so myself, I executed rather well.

But that's as may be. The relevant point here was that both my practice and concert accompanists were clergy children themselves. Which made three of us. And each of us, spanning a generation or three, regarded ourselves as “reprobates”, with our background as the cause of that.

So I allow myself to feel a little affinity with Curry, the son of a Methodist chaplain.

I also love the idea of him being a “mixture of Joan Crawford and Burt Lancaster”, as one critic apparently put it: it’s not only deliciously camp, but it equally suggests something delightfully subversive.

And Rocky is subversive – even now: a ribald anthem for anyone who feels that they don’t quite fit into the confines of sex and gender that our society expects and is most comfortable with.

All of which meant that it was hardly a major surprise to read, a short while ago, an interview in which Rocky creator Richard O’Brien threw open the door on the subject of sex and gender, and blew it clean off its hinges and into the middle of next week.

In it, O’Brien described himself as 70% male and 30% female.

“It’s my belief that we are on a continuum between male and female,” he told the BBC.

“There are people who are hardwired male and there are people who are hardwired female, but most of us are on that continuum and I believe myself probably to be about 70% male, 30% female.”

This is sex as a spectrum – just as sexuality is a spectrum.

This is not gender dysphoria, but something quite different.

Some people use the phrase ‘third sex’ to categorise the experience that O’Brien was discussing.

But even that somehow doesn’t quite seem to grasp what I think O’Brien was trying to explain. It almost seems to defy the idea of a spectrum by being something rather more concrete.

Marlene – and you didn't think girls do drag?
However we define sex, though, O’Brien’s comments and his openness were exhilarating.

For so many people, life is just that bit more complex than feeling strictly one thing or the other. And with culturally-determined gender roles thrown into the mix, it can be even more difficult.

I remember, back in the 1970s, in Mossley, praying to be changed into a boy – mostly because I wanted to play football. And indeed, quite specifically, for Manchester City.

And boy, we’ve come a long way since then – girls and women playing football is no longer viewed as ‘wrong’, while the possibilities to actually do so now exist. Perhaps that may also explain why I am delighted to sponsor Manchester City's ladies' team these days ...

I’ve long been aware that I am a ‘masculine’ woman – if we really have to slap labels on the matter.

When I showed my mother the self portrait that os my avatar – and which I personally see as very much reflecting how I am to myself – she was slightly shocked. "It's very masculine," she observed. Had she really not noticed before?

Anyway, I’m a woman – all the right bits in the right places – but I seem to have a huge range of attitudes and even interests that are more characteristically ‘male’.

I have always struggled to dress and feel comfortable in what might be seen as conventionally ‘female’ attire. Only this last week, in a dire panic about my upcoming trip to the Baltic and taking account of the weather, I realised that I needed additional warm gear.

Now, I’m entirely capable of thinking in terms of self image, so I was absolutely considering what image I wanted to create – and, hey presto, although I didn’t sit down going: ‘what would be ‘masculine’ here?’ the styling is pretty 'masculine'.

We're talking cords and sweaters and cravats, which – I think – will work well with my leather jacket and my DMs and whatever hats I don.

But most importantly, it’s stuff that I’ll feel comfortable in – that I’ll feel like me in.

Which is ultimately the only thing that matters – isn’t it?

Much as my mother might have hoped, I really am not a frilly person. I may be a woman – and I’ve never felt any serious desire to undergo treatment – but I was never cast from some ‘feminine’ template.

Now I don’t mind that, but there are still moments when I see people’s surprise at my ‘male’ interests and it is disconcerting.

But to take a different note, a few days ago, we heard the sad news that author Iain Banks has terminal cancer. Although most highly acclaimed for his literary fiction, as Iain M Banks he has created a series of top notch sci-fi novels, most of which feature a civilisation known as The Culture.

Highly advanced and egalitarian, with wage slavery a thing of the past and medical technology meaning great longevity and, in effect, an end to traditional ageing, The Culture’s citizens even have the time and opportunity to change sex once or twice in their lifetimes.

It could be a sci-fi version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, where the eponymous heroine/hero changes sex down the centuries.

It seems quite extraordinary that, in the 21st century, we can go – and look – into space, and yet we are still so locked into limiting ideas of sex and gender.

Both men and women face societal pressure to conform to what are still viewed as ‘natural’ behaviours that are defined purely on the basis of gender roles – something that many people don’t really seem to understand is a construct but appear to believe is a direct consequence of nature.

There is no rational reason that a boy should not wear pink and a girl blue.

The ideas of sex and gender in The Culture, in Orlando and in Rocky have the potential to be unsettling, but offer not simply so much more variety, but also so much more potential for individual growth and productivity.

And aren’t there just a few of us who just love the idea of doing the Time Warp – and more – with Frank and co? Go on – be honest!

So, on this 40th anniversary, thank you Richard O’Brien: not just for The Rocky Horror Show – but for your remarkable openness about your experience of being human. It helps many of us.

• The full BBC interview with Richard O'Brien is here.

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