A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the early 1970s, Jay joined the cast of The Rocky Horror Show on the Kings Road – when it was still in its infancy (and the questionable joys of ‘audience participation’ weren’t even a manic gleam in their creators’ eyes).
To close our series of articles on Frankenstein, we asked him for his memories of that period in his life. He assures us that this headlong gallop through 1970s London (at the time we were in the grip of a recession that makes the current one look like a walk in the park) is the family-friendly version. Heaven alone knows what the unexpurgated one’s like then ……
Are you sitting comfortably? Seatbelts fastened? Right – then we’ll begin:-
Upon my return to London from Paris, where I’d been appearing with Zizi Jeanmaire at Le Casino De Paris for two years, I’d stumbled on a proper old-fashioned boarding house, with its dumb waiters and crumpets at 5.00 p.m. Later, whenever my landlord Felix was hard up he would whip an Augustus John off the wall to take to Sotheby’s, or rent the house out to various film companies. (It was one of those houses that was frequently shown off in glossy ‘House and Town’-type magazines.) I met Eileen Atkins, who filmed parts of “The Lady from the Sea” in the house with the late Denholm Elliot, and Michael Palin, who filmed “The Missionary “ there as well. Simon Callow and Stephen Fry used the place as a location too.
When Felix’s nephew Jean-Baptiste inherited Tite Street, he couldn’t afford the £3million in death duties required to keep it – surprise, surprise! – and he was forced to sell. A crying shame. The entire place is now a block of flats . . . and they’ve built a convent right opposite as well. Peculiar.
Colin Tennant and Bill Wyman were neighbours, but I don’t suppose they live there now, either. I used to drink in The Surprise pub with Elton John’s accountant, who was married to a German, but pretty soon came out of the closet and ran off with his boyfriend (and I DO mean the accountant), and then there was good old Christine Keeler who used to bum drinks outside in the summer.
It was 1974.
My friend Robert Longden had taken over as Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Show at the King’s Road Theatre (previously the Essoldo cinema) and urged me to join the cast. I’d seen it in 1973 and fallen in love with it, and it was still the hottest ticket in town so, I set about getting an audition.
I turned up one morning with a copy of Blue Suede Shoes under my arm, and heard a voice from the stalls asking:
“And what are you going to sing?”
It was Richard O’Brien.
I did my ‘bit’ and heard, “Thank you!” I went down into the stalls afterwards for a chat and Richard said, “You start two weeks from now, as back-up vocalist and the only male understudy”.
“Great!” I thought. Little did I realize that I’d be on practically every night, because the injury list was growing – and then Robert starting developing symptoms of weirdness, refusing to come in to the theatre ……
Needless to say, I was first on as Riff Raff. Thank God I’d taken the high heels back to Tite Street to rehearse with. One day, when I was practising in them, Weatherly – the family retainer who’d never done a day’s cleaning in his life – came unexpectedly into my room with a broom and, without batting an eyelid when I told him what I was doing, said:
“Oh yes, I remember the Essoldo all right! That’s where they used to keep the dead bodies during the war.”
The Essoldo had been a cinema, was then a theatre and now in 2008, it’s once more a cinema; but during WW2, it was a temporary morgue!!
(If I were you I’d have lost sleep over what Weatherly was doing in my room with that broom …… Ed.)
So there I was, back-up singing, standing next to Phil Kenzie the sax player every night. He did his Jimmy Stewart impressions between numbers . . . (‘Harvey….?’ ). He later went on to join Rod Stewart’s band, (no relation!). Dennis Cowan, bass guitarist and ex-Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band, was also in the line up (and Southern Comfort was the backstage drink of choice ……).
One night, Dennis just keeled over, and later died. He was just 28. I was elected to go and tell his wife/girlfriend. Horrible.
Eventually, I progressed into the audience with a mask on, freaking people out as they were sitting down. Somebody punched me one night in a fit and broke my tooth. (I’m not remotely surprised. Ed. )
Ziggy Byfield then fell ill and I moved on to playing Frank N Furter, with Richard O’Brien coming on as Riff Raff out of the blue, as Robert had gone missing. He was having terrible problems with the actress playing Columbia, who kept chasing him around the building. I think she kept getting pregnant or something ……
(I’m not even going to speculate on what the ‘or something’ could have been. Ed.)
When Ziggy got better, I went on to play Eddie/Dr Scott (a dual role) and finally played Brad when James Warwick left!
(Eddie? I’d bet good money you didn’t manage to fit in all the words of ‘Hot Patootie’. Ed.)
There are a lot of words in ‘Hot Patootie’ – it was a bit like the 100 yard dash. You just had to throw yourself into it, and do a lot with your diaphragm. Breathing is the key!
I came out of the freezer every night, climbed down the fire escape-type stairs, rushed to centre stage, grabbed the mike, sang the song, was chased back up the stairs by Frank N Furter and stabbed through the heart with the mike stand. Then he slammed the fridge door shut down on my head, and turned to the audience with,” One from the vaults” or on some nights, “A raid from the grave.” Sometimes I’d just open up the lid, to allow some of the dry ice to escape, as I literally couldn’t breathe in there, only for Frank to slam it shut again. More ad-libs …… The whole performance took about five minutes from start to finish. During the black out, I got out of the fridge, raced around backstage, undressed, put on my fishnets, and re-appeared as Dr Scott in the wheelchair.
Ahh, the wonder of Velcro™. What did the theatre do before Velcro™? Probably employed more actors ……
I was on a basic salary of £35 a week at the time with an extra fiver every time I went on – and it became apparent to the management very early on that I was more useful to them as an understudy than as a full time player – those people were getting all of £85 a week??!!
So, as fun as it was, and it was a party every night (“I’ll meet you in the Roebuck pub, wearing a pink carnation and and carrying copy of the Times” ) after six months it was time to get back to my ‘Withnail and I’ existence. (And Weatherly …… Ed.)
Our thanks to Phil Barden for his advice and help with this piece. The photograph of Frank N Furter in the lab is actually – as the more perspicacious amongst you will have spotted – a publicity shot of (a blond) Tim Curry in the original 1973 stage production, not Jay. Photographs of Jay as Frank DO exist, but not in digital form – yet. I gather he could probably blackmail James Warwick with one of them. The publicity photograph of the young J.B. ( © Geoff Shields) slightly post-dates his ‘Rocky’ period, but not by much, and it gives you the general idea …..
(Incidentally, the Administrators of Vulpes Libris would like to apologize – both to Mr Benedict and to our readers – for the completely unprofessional conduct of ‘Ed.’ The culprit will be severely dealt with as soon as he or she has been identified. Thank you. Ed.)
(Photo credits: We’ve tried valiantly to identify the copyright owner of the photograph of Tim Curry, but failed. It might have been taken by Mick Rock. If you know who the photographer is, or indeed ARE the photographer, please don’t hesitate to contact us.)