Richard O’Brien: Meet ‘The Barren Author’!

❉ The cult icon chats with We Are Cult about entertainment, escapism, elitism and evolution…

“I’ve always liked the idea of this fantasist being who just displays his own reality with such arrogance and such belief in himself that it’s rather wonderful! And from an actor’s point of view what’s better than make-believe and becoming somebody else, I mean that’s the whole purpose of it, isn’t it?”

A full 45 years after cult musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its cinematic debut, the iconic show’s creator, the mercurial Richard O’Brien, is back in the spotlight with a new venture, and a rare acting role, in six-part audio series The Barren Author, released to much fanfare two weeks ago. It’s a witty and fantastical, modern re-imagining of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s tales of the legendary Baron Munchausen, here recast as Brigadier Baron Munchausen, and written by Paul Birch.

O’Brien plays the adventurer-explorer of the title, recounting his larger-than-life story to the mysterious Smith, played by Sophie Aldred – no stranger to audio drama, having played Doctor Who’s streetwise companion Ace in Big Finish Production’s audio dramas since 1999.

Producer Barnaby Eaton-Jones (Robin of Sherwood, The Goodies, Jeepers Creepers, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again…Again, Passport To Oblivion and Up Pompeii), describes The Barren Author as “a lovely, surreal shaggy dog tale… and just to hear the Brigadier/Baron do his thing is a joy”.

We Are Cult’s Eoghan Lyng recently spoke to Sophie about her involvement in the audio drama, and this time we follow in Sophie’s footsteps as the Baron’s interlocuter, for a virtual audience (via Zoom) with O’Brien, speaking from his home in New Zealand and with plenty to say…

How are you, Richard?

I’m fine, thank you! I had a little stroke not so long ago, and I’ve done exceptionally well; in fact I’m kind of like a, er, medical miracle! However, sadly, I’m not allowed to drink any more, and I was a bottle of red a day man – I really enjoy a nice, rounded, full-bodied bottle of red wine, you know, sitting on the back porch with a jazz cigarette and a bottle of wine, that was my day! And now I’m not allowed to drink.. What. Do. You. Do. Instead?! What replaces it? Cup of tea, I don’t think so! It’s so annoying (laughs). A slice of cake, maybe?

I suppose the opening question is, what drew you to this project?

Simply, I was asked! I get asked to do things, and I’m a lazy person, I don’t like working! But I found that this was intriguing, I liked the Munchausen character – I liked that idea, and the fact that I could come into my friend’s studio and do it without any interference. If you do voiceovers, generally speaking, a producer’s generally online somewhere saying:

‘Could you just do that a bit rounder, Richard?’
‘What does that mean, rounder?’
‘It’s not as DARK as it should be…’
‘What do you mean, DARK?’

You’ve got those people in the background generally, but that hasn’t happened here. We do it without any interference whatsoever. Nobody’s interfering and that’s rather lovely! I could say it’s a bit take-it-or-leave-it but that sounds a bit cavalier and a bit rude! But it’s very close to that! (laughs) It edges close to that!

Illustration and Graphic Design by Robert Hammond.

How familiar were you with the tales of Baron Munchausen prior to the project?

As a child I’d come across Munchausen one way or another through school, at some point or another you’re introduced to him at school, and then of course the Terry Gilliam movie (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1988) which was wonderful. I’ve always been aware of Munchausen, and I’ve always liked the idea of this fantasist being who just displays his own reality with such arrogance and such belief in himself that it’s rather wonderful! We’ve all come across fantasists in our lives, and some of them are very engaging and very entertaining, and some of them… less so! So it’s interesting, and from an actor’s point of view what’s better than dressing-up and make-believe and becoming somebody else, I mean that’s the whole purpose of it, isn’t it?

One of the episodes offers some damning reflections on the internet which we all frequent, was that an aspect of the script that appealed to you? Criticisms of the internet?

We live in a lovely time, actually, a terrible time and a lovely time, and we’ve got social evolution going on all around us, the #MeToo movement is social evolution, because over time we were brought up in a world where we were inured to misogynism – James Bond, the Carry On movies, mother-in-law jokes was the world we grew up in, and there’s very few men my age that couldn’t at some stage or other have a finger pointed at them for being arrogant and rude. Now we’ve got #MeToo and it’s gonna make people a bit more careful about how they approach women. Why we’ve demeaned 50% of sentient beings as being less viable – that’s womenfolk – I’ve got no idea. And also the pulling down of statues, the rediscovery of Black Lives Matter, this is social evolution and it’s well overdue! But I don’t think anything we’re doing in this series is screwing up anybody’s ideas of where we should be going, it’s not a political piece – I don’t think it’s a political piece.

Talk to us about working with Sophie Aldred.

Sophie and I are working independently of one another; I do the main voice, most of the dialogue, and leave a gap for her to fill in. so she fills in and responds to a voice rather than us interacting.

BE-J: I have to say, one of the things Sophie did say was how she had to stop trying to laugh! She absolutely loved it and said it’s just been a joy, she loved it. And oddly, although it’s remote, the chemistry, because Richard and Sophie are both so good, is genuinely brilliant and it does seem like they are chatting. Really, the direction is in the edit, so that’s what I do, is try and make sure they are connecting even though they’re not connecting in real life.

RO’B: We’re very grateful for that, Barnaby.

Considering the high calibre of your own individual writing, how easy is it to embrace another person’s script?

I find this very easy to read, and one of the things you first do, or should do, as an actor – deconstructing a script is essential in your early days as an actor. You do it less as you get older, I suppose a certain amount of ease comes into it, but when you start as an actor deconstructing a script is essential, breaking down your character’s needs is essential, at the top of each page the five W’s: Who Am I, What Am I, Where Am I, What Am I Doing, and Why Am I Doing It? Answering these five questions is essential. As you get older, you’ve got your craft under your belt, you need to do that intellectually less, you just approach it in an easier manner I suppose. So if there had been a difficulty reading Script #1, we wouldn’t have gone on to Script #2. It flowed. It was entertaining!

Entertainment is sometimes perceived as ‘bad’ – pomposity, pretentiousness invades art, people take things too seriously, take themselves too seriously… I’ve been to many workshops and sat there with directors and writers at the Royal Court Theatre, they used to hold these symposiums from time to time, and people would be there banging on about how ‘the audience has to work too’ and.. I don’t get it. I don’t care if you’re doing Othello. It has to be entertaining. If you’re doing something really deeply tragic, it still has to be entertaining, to get rid of entertainment is nonsense. Ive worked with opera singers who think, once again, the audience has to work. You go, ‘No they don’t! They have to be entertained!’ People have paid a lot of money to sit in a theatre, what they want is two hours of escapement! They want to be away from their own lives. Let’s create magic and entertain them! I don’t care if you’re doing deep tragedy or not, still at the end of the day people want to be entertained. That’s our job.

I was very deeply moved by a line in the first episode, ‘the English and their pockets’. It seemed to query the English hierarchical structure.

Well, so we should! So we should! Leadership is one thing, but Empiricism is quite another. The class-ridden society… One of the greatest things about me being brought up in New Zealand was it was a middle-classless society. Nobody was your social superior. We used to have six o’clock closing in the boozers back then, and the doctor and the mechanic would stand side by side, at the bar. Due deference was paid, but nobody was allowed to pretend that they were your social superior because we wouldn’t stand for it. When I got back to England in 1964, still deeply class-ridden, I had an access all areas card because I wasn’t impressed by somebody’s title or their background, what they’d been born into, they were either a nice person or they weren’t. So it didn’t matter. I’ve always disliked anybody that feels like they are somehow or other superior to other people, better than other people. Certainly by the privilege of birth – fuck ‘em! I couldn’t give a monkeys! So there we go!

One last one – your character enjoys saving things. What are your hobbies of choice?

Music, I suppose. I’m sometimes called a musician, but I take issue with that because I know too many musicians and it would be rude of me to join their ranks! I’m musical, I’m very musical. I have a good ear, I was blessed with a good ear – I’m not perfect pitch but not far from it – so that’s been handy, and I love writing lyrics and my greatest joy as a child was narrative poetry and I love storytelling, so sitting down and writing a song, writing the lyrics for them, hoping they’re engaging and witty and above all singable is a great joy, ‘cause it’s a craft, and winging it so that you can’t smell the midnight oil being burned is rather lovely!

Thank you very much!

Great pleasure.

Spiteful Puppet’s ‘The Barren Author’ was released 31 October 2020. Price: £3.99 each episode or £19.95 for all six if bought together via Written by Paul Birch, produced and directed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones. Sound Design by Joseph Fox. Soundtrack by Abigail Fox. Illustration and Graphic Design by Robert Hammond. 

  A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Eoghan Lyng is the author of ‘U2: Every Album, Every Song’ which is out now and available from Sonicbond Publishing, RRP £14.99 (ISBN 1789520789). Follow him on TwitterVisit his homepage. 

Header: Illustration and Graphic Design by Robert Hammond.

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