Tag Archives: documentary

Rocky Horror Picture Show: Magenta on Prince Charles in fishnets, and Richard O’Brien on the secret Frank N Furter

14 Nov
The Rocky Horror Royal box at the Albert Hall. Bottom row, left to right: Rocky Horror Show producer Michael White with his carer Salem; Henry Woolf, producer of Harold Pinter's plays and also the photographer at the start of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with his wife Susan, a famous coach; and Kevin Whitney, Olympic artist and director of Syd Barrett film Psychedelia. Middle row, l to r: film-maker Marcus Campbell Sinclair; the inimitable Lady Stephens ("Magenta"), and her ex-husband, director Don Hawkins; architect Michael Davis, who designed the Glasshouse for himself and Andrew Logan. Top row, l to r: artist and Alternative Miss World impresario Andrew Logan; rock star Adam Ant; and talent manager Gregor Gee.

The Rocky Horror royal box at the Albert Hall. Bottom left: Rocky Horror Show producer Michael White with his carer Salem. Middle row, left to right: film-maker Marcus Campbell Sinclair; the inimitable Lady Stephens (“Magenta”), and her ex-husband, director Don Hawkins; Henry Woolf, producer of Harold Pinter’s plays and also the photographer at the start of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with his wife Susan, a famous coach; and Kevin Whitney, Olympic artist and director of Syd Barrett film Psychedelia. Top row, l to r: artist and Alternative Miss World impresario Andrew Logan; the rock star Adam Ant; talent manager Gregor Gee; architect Michael Davis, who designed the Glasshouse for himself and Andrew Logan. Photo by Sam Mardon.

It’s astounding. Time is fleeting. Can it really be 40 years since The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened? Actually, technically, the 40th anniversary is next year; but with a bit of a mind-flip, we were into the time-slip, and celebrated a couple of months early.

I arrived on a rather special night: yesterday The Rocky Horror Picture Show played at the Royal Albert Hall, on a giant screen, introduced by Lady Stephens, the actress formerly known as Patricia Quinn – or as all the unconventional conventionalists who dressed up for the occasion would know her, throaty-voiced Magenta from the planet of Transsexual, Land of Night.

Inspired by the Albert Hall’s royal connections, she told the audience of her own links with royalty. “I went back to playing in The Rocky Horror Show 21 years later,” she said, “and at the time my husband Robert Stephens was playing Lear. Yes, I know. And he received an invitation to Sandringham from Prince Charles. So Magenta hung up her fishnets and Lear hung up his crown and off we went.

“Robert found out Charles was going to be in Sheffield at the same time I was playing in Rocky Horror there, and tried to persuade him to go. The Prince said to me after, ‘Frightfully sorry Pat, but I couldn’t very well turn up in garters and fishnets.’ I said to him, ‘You could have turned up as Brad the nerd!’

“Tomorrow is the Prince of Wales’s birthday, so I sent him a card covered in lips which said, ‘Put on your fishnets tonight and come on down to the Royal Albert Hall.’ So, can we do a search of the Royal box? [Looking up] Ooh, nice calves, sir!”

Prince Charles wasn’t really in the Royal box. But I was.

Rocky Horror Albert HallWhen it all began, I was a regular Frankie fan: I’d sneak off in my teens to the midnight screenings in Ottawa and then New York where audiences would squirt water in the rain scene, and hurl toast across the cinema when Frank N Furter announced “a toast to absent friends”. And now, in one of those dreams/reality confusions that perplexed Dougal in Father Ted, there I was up in the box with Lady Pat and her famous friends (see main picture caption), including Adam Ant and Michael White, the maverick producer and original backer of The Rocky Horror Show – frail following another stroke but stubbornly waving away all offers of a wheelchair, and getting the biggest cheer of the night.

Andrew Logan was there, too. He created the Alternative Miss World, which Marcus Campbell Sinclair is making a documentary about, as well as a doc about the last days of Logan’s famous Glasshouse home/studio (“Like” the Facebook page here). When I spoke to Logan’s partner Michael, he recalled how the Alternative Miss World launched the year before The Rocky Horror Show. “Together we changed the world,” he said, which sounds like a large boast, until you recall that Glam Rock came out of the same creative camp. As Riff-Raff presciently put it, “Nothing will ever be the same.”

Richard O'Brien as Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

“I think perhaps you’d better both come inside.” Richard O’Brien as Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Speaking of Riff-Raff, I’ve interviewed Richard O’Brien three times, the first way back in 1987. The most recent was for The Times, in 2009, and it was a doozy. This was the first time he had discussed publicly his pain and confusion at feeling “transgender”. He cried as he described how, in the grip of near-insanity, he finally plucked up the courage to confess this to his son, only to be told, “yeah, Dad, we know”. (Presumably, The Rocky Horror Show itself gave some clue!) He’s been taking oestrogen for the last ten years, though it doesn’t stop him standing up to homophobes in the street: “You’re f***ing with the wrong drag addict!”

But there was more — a revelation that, as a lifelong Rocky Horror fan, knocked me sideways. We were talking about Frank N Furter, and what a complicated character he is. On the one hand charismatic, seductive, brilliant, talented; on the other the sort of psychopath who would kill anyone who interfered with his pleasure, and create new life only for the purpose of being his sexual plaything. It’s an astonishing post-‘60s parable – how the hippie ideals of free love and hedonism can so easily be painted black when pursued without regard for the happiness of others.

“He’s a drama queen, really,” O’Brien said of Frank. “He’s a hedonistic, self-indulgent voluptuary, and that’s his downfall. He’s an ego-driven . . . um . . .” and here his voice lowers to a stage whisper, “I was going to say, a bit like my mother.”

Wait – what was that? Is O’Brien really revealing after all these years that the inspiration for Dr. Frank N. Furter was his own mother?

Tim Curry as Frank N Furter: inspired by Richard O'Brien's mum

Tim Curry as Frank N Furter: amazingly, inspired by Richard O’Brien’s mum

“My mother was an unpleasant woman,” O’Brien continued, with sudden venom. “She came from a working-class family: wonderful people, not much money, undereducated but honest, a great moral centre of honesty and probity. And she disowned them. She wanted to be a lady. And consequently became a person who was racist, anti-Semitic . . . It’s such a tragedy to see someone throwing their lives away on this empty journey, and at the same time believing herself superior to other people.

“She was an emotional bully. And sadly all of us, my siblings and I, are all damaged by this. She was bonkers, my mother, and I think by saying that I’m allowing her to be as horrible as she was without condemning her too much.

“I loved her, but stupid, stupid woman, she wouldn’t understand the value of that.”

I have always been struck by the passion with which Riff-Raff suddenly cries out at the end, about Frank, “He didn’t like me! He never liked me!!” It sounds like it’s ripped from somewhere deep down inside of him; gives me goose-bumps every time I see the film (and that’s close on 50 times). Now I know that Frank is inspired by O’Brien’s loveless mother, it makes heartbreaking sense.

Lady Pat Stephens posing with Rocky Horror fans, plus me (second from right) and film-maker Marcus Campbell Sinclair

Lady Pat Stephens posing with Rocky Horror fans, plus me (second from right) and film-maker Marcus Campbell Sinclair

After the screening, a bunch of us decamped to the Royal Albert Hall’s one open bar. Marcus was a little nervous: “Pat’s going to get mobbed,” he said. And he was right. But she loved it. “Darlings, don’t you look fabulous!” cried Lady Stephens, much more welcoming than Magenta ever was, as she disappeared into a mass of fishnet stockings and maid’s outfits, and people literally ran to fetch friends and cameras.

Most of these fans were kids, barely into their twenties, who weren’t even alive in the ‘80s, let alone the ‘70s. What an extraordinary film The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, to arouse such a passionate following after all this time.

Don’t dream it. Be it.

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Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD, at the BFI tonight

28 Oct
2000AD characters

A rogue’s gallery of 2000AD heroes, anti-heroes and villains. If you can name most of them, you’re a true “Squaxx Dek Thargo”.

2000AD is the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. It says so on the masthead. Tonight, as part of the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder sci-fi season, a new documentary goes a long way to proving that’s no idle boast.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD gathers an impressive array of interviewees from the comic’s history: founder Pat Mills, editor David Bishop, a wide array of artists and writers (Alan Moore, predictably, is the only no-show), plus fans such as Anthrax’s Scott Ian, who wrote a song about Judge Dredd; Portishead’s Geoff Barrow; and screenwriter Alex Garland, who penned the Karl Urban Judge Dredd movie. The documentary is a master-class in editing: though it’s pretty much all talking heads, apart from some semi-animated stills from the comic (“Gaze into the fist of Dredd!”), the interviewees speak with such passion and eloquence that it’s never dull.

Some of the ins and outs, and the admirable frankness with which the loss of direction in the ‘90s is addressed, may appeal more to the 2000AD devotee (or “Squaxx Dek Thargo”, as we are known). But the key points will be of interest to anyone who loves comics:

1. 2000AD was born in 1977 out of punk and a feeling of revolution. It was Pat Mills’s follow-up to Action, the comic that was too violent to live. It used science-fiction not as escapism, but as a device for satirising the present without getting sued or banned (though they came close sometimes, which is why “Burger Wars” is never reprinted). It had four or five different strips in each issue, allowing room for experimentation and the nurturing of new writers and artists, but its one constant was Judge Dredd – a futuristic reboot of Dirty Harry whose brand of legally sanctioned vigilante justice made him popular with lefties who could see the satire, as well as, uncomfortably, others who couldn’t.

2. 2000AD changed the face of American comics. With the honourable exceptions of Warrior (home of V for Vendetta), Deadline (home of Tank Girl) and the odd Marvel UK or Doctor Who comic, 2000AD was pretty much the only game in town. If you were a Brit, and you wanted to work in comics, this is where you did it. The talent pool, therefore, was incredible. America’s DC Comics, under the editorship of Karen Berger, set up the Vertigo imprint specifically to tap into that pool. Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Brendan McCarthy, Pete Milligan – Brits such as these brought a humour, an anarchy, a rule-breaking, risk-taking mentality that shook up American comics and created a new golden age.

3. 2000AD had, and is continuing to have, a big impact on Hollywood. The only two official 2000AD movies so far are both of Judge Dredd, and neither set the box office alight. But the comic’s influence is far-reaching. The sci-fi film Hardware was based on a 2000AD Future Shock (it wasn’t credited at first, until I put two and two together in Time Out magazine and the producers had to settle out of court, full story here). RoboCop was a rip-off of Judge Dredd – the early version of his helmet, shown in the documentary, was an exact copy. The Book of Eli is, to all intents and purposes, set in the Cursed Earth. And it’s wormed its way into the DNA: a whole generation of Hollywood film-makers grew up reading 2000AD, and have absorbed its world-view.

I could go on – but why not see for yourself? There are still a few tickets available now for tonight’s screening, which includes a Q&A with 2000AD founder Pat Mills, artist Kevin O’Neill, and the documentary’s director Paul Goodwin and producers Helen Mullane and Sean Hogan.

The Last Impresario: Michael White’s life, from Pythons to Rocky Horror to Kate Moss

25 Sep

Who is Michael White? In The Last Impresario, the documentary about his star-cross’d and star-making life which opens in London tomorrow, and which I saw last night with a Q&A between the BBC’s Alan Yentob and the film’s young director, Gracie Otto, he is described as “the most famous person you’ve never heard of”. Otto herself hadn’t, when she attended the Cannes Film festival in 2010 as a recent film studies graduate, and noticed a mischievous, nattily dressed septuagenarian with an eye for the ladies (including herself) towards whom everyone seemed to gravitate at parties.

The more she found out about Michael White, the more convinced she became that she had the subject of her first film. White launched the careers of both the Pythons and the Goodies when he discovered a Cambridge Footlights show of unusual talent, and put it on in the West End. “It was extraordinary,” reflects John Cleese in the film. “I mean, this student show, in the West End! Unheard of. It allowed me to pay off my student debts in three months.” Bill Oddie, later of the Goodies, was another member of the revue: “Michael White was a bit like a Bond villain,” he recalls. “Always had a glamorous blonde on his arm.”

White put on Kenneth Tynan’s infamous avant-garde, fully nude erotic revue Oh! Calcutta!, which in 1970 didn’t so much push the envelope of acceptability as tear it into tiny pieces. It was only two years earlier that the centuries-old requirement for all plays to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office had been scrapped. Despite (or because of) scandalised and negative reviews, the show became the longest-running in Broadway at the time.

White was the first to bring Dame Edna to London, though he lost a fortune with “her” on Broadway. He made The Rocky Horror Show a hit, then signed away the rights for a song to a hard-nosed American producer while distracted by drugs and women. In film, he produced such cult hits as Monty Python And The Holy Grail, My Dinner With Andre, and Polyester by John Waters, “the Pope of Trash”. The Cannes screening was presented in “Odorama” – scratch-and-sniff cards with scents such as fart and dirty socks. Waters recalls, “They broke the glass on the doors, people were so keen to get in.”

Oh, and lest you think White had a talent only for spotting actors, during the Q&A Otto mentioned one bit she hadn’t managed to fit into the film: White once attended a dinner bringing a friend whom he predicted “would be big in computers”. The friend was Steve Jobs.

Jobs, of course, is no longer available to interview, but Otto tracked down some heavyweight talking heads in The Last Impresario. Here’s a small sample:

Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue: “He was one of those extraordinary people who seem to know everyone on the planet. He was certainly by far the first person to talk to me about Kate Moss, before any agent.”

Kate Moss, supermodel: “When we first met, we ended up talking on and on, and then it was ‘let’s go to another club’. He was the only one who could really keep up with me.”

John Waters, cult film-maker: “He wasn’t a suit. Or if he was, he always had a great one on.”

Yoko Ono, whose art show White put on in pre-Lennon days: “Michael’s an interesting guy, a visionary. Very cool and visionary.”

Jim Sharman, director of The Rocky Horror Show: “Michael was one of the few producers who were prepared to take a punt, a gamble, on risky ventures that challenged the status quo.”

Michael White

Michael White in San Tropez

But for every party, there’s a hangover. And when your whole life is a party, that’s one doozy of a come-down.

By the time Otto catches up with White, he has suffered three strokes. The second, according to Peter Richardson of the seminal ‘80s comedy troupe The Comic Strip (yes, White produced them, too), came hot on the heels of the first.

“Imagine: you’ve had a stroke, then you go out partying with Jack [Nicholson, natch]. Jack saved him, I think, and got him to the best hospital.”

White is also broke, and somewhat tearfully packing up his memorabilia for sale at auction. In particular he has an extraordinary collection of 30,000-odd candid pics of the stars (see above) – at any social function, he’d be snapping away. An ex-partner felt it was his way of dealing with people, keeping them close and yet simultaneously at arm’s length. Sent to a boarding school in Switzerland at seven to cure his asthma, he was terribly lonely. Ever since, he liked to cocoon himself in a whirl of fascinating, dynamic people, while keeping his emotions and real feelings to himself.

In the end, White remains a charming enigma, the calm at the heart of the storm. He is not a loquacious interview, as a result of the strokes, but he seems not much given to self-analysis anyway. Who is Michael White? This fascinating documentary gets as close as anyone is likely to.

Anarchy in the UK! Exclusive: join the arty political party for a new Malcolm McLaren doc

19 Feb

A lot of you may know by now that the Sex Pistols were, effectively, the One Direction of their day: a boy band put together by Malcom McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood from youths they met at their King’s Road shop for the express purpose of showcasing Westwood’s fashion designs; just as Adam and the Ants were after them. The story has been told before, but never better than in CHAOS!, Phil Strongman’s last documentary on the Sex Pistols.

Phil takes the story a step further in his wide-reaching new documentary Anarchist: The Malcolm McLaren Generation, which has a launch party at the Vibe Bar on Brick Lane on Thursday. There will be clips and stills, fund-raising for flak jackets for Kiev students, and Phil’s celebrated DJ brother Jay Strongman manning the decks. It’s free. Go! Details here.

The film has, bizarrely, yet to attract distribution. I know Phil from way back when, and so saw it at an informal screening in an East London warehouse loft a few weeks back, and it’s absolutely riveting. I realised when the lights came back up that a) I had filled eight pages of my notebook, writing down only the interesting stuff; and b) the screening had gone on for nearly three hours, but I’d never been bored.

Phil makes great use of a candid interview he conducted with Malcolm in Paris, not long before he died. There’s all the good Sex Pistols stuff in there, but also some extraordinary, never-before-heard stuff about Malcolm’s childhood and personal life, including interviews with close friends and Malcolm’s own son.

Born to a very young mother, Malcolm was brought up by his grandmother Rose – Alan Yentob describes her in the documentary, in Citizen Kane terms, as Malcolm’s ‘Rosebud’. She still had a foot in the Victorian era, and home-schooled her favourite grandson (as Malcolm’s brother describes him with evidently lingering bitterness) for greatness, drumming Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde into him. His art-school teacher was another huge influence, teaching him that “it’s better to be a glorious failure than any kind of benign success”.

But as the title of the film suggests, Anarchist: The Malcolm McLaren Generation also sets Malcolm within the arty-political framework of the time. He narrowly missed spending May 1968 in Paris with his friend during the student revolts, and was heavily influenced by the Situationist movement. As one friend recalls, “It was what you did at the weekend. You went to a party, but you went to a demo beforehand.” The creation of the Sex Pistols and the attendant birth of punk is contextualised in the documentary as a kind of giant anti-Capitalist art-school prank (their first gigs, indeed, were in art schools).

I could fill a thousand words with all the good stuff from the film, from what Vivienne got up to with her school class to Malcolm’s subsequent career as Bow Wow Wow Svengali and hip-hop pioneer, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises; instead, let’s hope someone picks it up for distribution so you can watch it for yourselves. If it has a fault, it’s that it’s perhaps too wide-ranging and therefore hard to categorise, almost three films in one: it’s a history of Anarchism in Europe; a personal biography of Malcolm; and a compelling exposé of the real birth of the Sex Pistols. (Sample: Malcolm originally wanted Sid Vicious rather than Johnny Rotten as lead singer, but, he says, “People didn’t have phones in those days. They didn’t have addresses. They didn’t even homes. Sid didn’t show up when I was anxiously looking, so John got the job… (fronting) a band who couldn’t play as a singer who couldn’t sing.”)

But then since when was being too packed full of good stuff a major flaw?

David Bowie Is at the V&A: it really is the freakiest show

16 Apr

Image

I’ve just returned from what is, in my thoroughly unobjective opinion as a Bowiefreak, the best exhibition ever mounted. The V&A’s David Bowie Is deserves the hype. But since tickets have been selling out quicker than a rock star clutching a can of Pepsi, and you’re unlikely to get to go for a while yet, let me guide you through it in song…

ImageCh-ch-ch-changes. Bowie, the exhibition makes clear, changed the image of every band he joined, even before he started his solo career.

The ever-circling skeletal family. The headset commentary offers snatches of song and interview, and amazingly it “knows” where you are, switching back and forth depending on which exhibit you are standing in front of. It’s like being inside a living documentary.

ImageCracked Actor. As well as selling over 140 million albums, Bowie has acted in over a dozen feature films including Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (right). There’s a separate screening space for clips from the likes of Labyrinth and Basquiat, as well as the loin cloth he wore while playing the Elephant Man, to no small acclaim, on stage in New York.

ImageThe hand that wrote this letter. In addition to the cut-up lyrics for Blackout (left) there are loads of handwritten song lyrics, most of which, sadly, are pristine, with none of the crossings-out and rewriting that usually make handwritten songs and poems so fascinating. Did they spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus? Or, more likely, are these just write-ups of the final versions? There are a couple of kooks, however. Most striking is a deleted verse from Fashion: “Hell up ahead – burn a play – start a fight/If you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right.” There’s also a glimpse into how Heroes could have been very much worse: “And we kissed/And you felt called” is crossed out and replaced with “And we kissed/As though nothing could fall.”

ImageHang him on my wa-wa-wa-wall. Bowie’s interest in art goes back to his teens: a school sketchbook is here, along with sketches for album covers (such as his self-portrait for Heroes, right), costumes, stage sets, and characters and backdrops for a projected film set in Hunger City. He’s no draughtsman, but he has the vision for others to follow. Most poignant are two canvases from his Berlin period (including a bug-eyed Iggy Pop), with a bit of an Egon Schiele vibe. He has said that painting helped him to kick his drug addictions.

Return of the (Very) Thin White Duke. As well as loads of stage costumes, his measurements are written out in detail. His waist size in the early ‘70s is given as 26.5in!!

ImageSpace Oddity. The V&A show is vast, full of nooks and corners and booths. At the end is a cavernous space dominated by a vast screen pumping out supersized videos, and costumed mannequins stacked up in see-through boxes four storeys high.

Five years. The V&A has collaborated with the BBC on a documentary entitled Five Years, covering 1971, 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983. It will be broadcast sometime next month.

He’s a star, man. I went round the exhibition with a Bowie neophyte, who previously had no interest in him or his songs. Afterwards she spent hours watching past videos and interviews on YouTube.

Click here for my blog on David Bowie’s Where Are We Now?

Click here for my 1995 interview with Bowie and Eno