How We Met: Lionel Bart And Richard O'brien
Sunday 31 January 1999
LIONEL BART: I was very close friends and collaborators with Sean Kenny, a great set designer who did Oliver! and some of my other shows for me. He'd conceived a piece for the Mermaid Theatre entitled Gulliver's Travels. It was 1968. I went to see it with my agent, and that is the first time I cast eyes, to my knowledge, on Richard. He was in the company along with some worthies like William Rushton and Mike D'Abo. The whole thing was conceived as an ensemble piece where every actor played about six or seven roles. He was a little whirling dervish. At the time Richard was slightly thin on top with long straggly hair down to his shoulders. I went backstage afterwards for a drink with the cast, and I thought, "Hello, this is a character, this person is different." He made an impression.
He performed in the musical Hair, we had mutual friends who were involved in the show. We moved in a pack and became sort of chums. By this time I was the doyen of rock `n' roll in swinging London. Everybody kind of made a beeline to my fun palace - I lived in Fulham, where there was a party that had gone on for three and a half years.
Richard was one of the antipodeans over here, looking for something - he didn't want to be a big fish in a little puddle. I started to follow his career; I was at the very first performance of The Rocky Horror Show, staged in a tiny little annexe above the Royal Court Theatre. I thought, "This is going to break new ground" ... and my instincts were right. I also went to the next opening of the show - at a cinema in the King's Road.
I went through a very bad patch in the Seventies with drink and drugs. I did a Rip Van Winkle, went to sleep socially and professionally. I sold my house in Fulham, went to Hollywood, but kept on my mews flat in South Kensington and lived there when I came back. Richard often used to come over when I was really bankrupt. I didn't have a penny but we used to get up to madness.
A lot of my friends couldn't cope with me putting myself through that aggravation and they just stayed away. Richard didn't scare easily. I wasn't easy to handle. Richard didn't lecture me, he nurtured me. He has done his fair share of everything, as I have. The difference is he is not an addictive personality, he can handle the occasional recreational drug. In between his marriages we went potty in the clubs.
All my friends then were pretty crazy, but even today they tend to be loopy. I quit drinking 12 years ago but I'm still attracted to people who are a bit nuts. And to be creative, as Richard is, you have to be slightly off the wall. What he had then, has now and will always have, is an immense generosity of spirit - that is more than money. He does a lot for people, charities, unheralded and unspoken. But apart from those things everybody he meets is entranced by him. He makes me laugh, he's a sharp mimic, and whimsical. Anyone who makes me laugh is important in my life. I think everyone should have at least one belly laugh a day, and a hug for their health.
The O'Briens are one of my surrogate families. Along with Justin and Louie Hayward, Donovan in Ireland, I can just pitch up tent and they accept uncle Lionel is here. I'm good with the kids. I'm a godfather and an uncle many times over, and I used to send everybody presents on my birthday because I couldn't remember all theirs.
It's all very casual with us, we don't plan too far ahead. One of our favourite things is supper at Groucho's. I can level with Richard, and don't have to pretend and twinkle all the time - if I feel like a boring old fart I can be. These days I don't bother to pose at all. Ritzie is an exhibitionist and an outrageous flirt. He's got million-dollar legs. Noel Coward once said to me, "When you start losing the hair, shave it off and get a sun-tan." That's okay if you've got elfin ears like Richard but I've got old Dumbo ears. We've often been to the theatre together and he's been my date on opening night. When Ritzie and I turn up it's often as a bizarre twosome because he's always wearing exotic plumage. I've mellowed in my attire; when I first knew him I was Timothy Trendsetter, considered very flamboyant.
He collects bizarre visual things, sculptures of an overt sexuality, artefacts from his travels. He's from another planet in many ways. It's impossible to pigeon-hole Ritzie. He's into New Age alternatives - feng shui, crystals - which I don't care for at all.
We are kindred spirits, friends forever and beyond. We offer each other honesty and truth. He stayed with me through all the bad moments and the good times. I've got a handful of people like that in my life, I'm very lucky. It's such a blessing, not having to explain yourself.
RICHARD O'BRIEN: When I first set eyes on Lionel I was performing in a show called Gulliver's Travels at the Mermaid Theatre. I looked down into the audience and there was this chap with a big brown plush fedora on his head and a big scarf round his neck. Everyone went, "That's Lionel Bart," and of course I was intrigued, thought, "This is wonderful," because the first show I ever saw in London was Oliver! When I remembered to be a dutiful son and phone my mother, I finished by singing a line from the show, as part of our childish interplay.
So there was Lionel, larger than life and twice as handsome. He came backstage for a drink and was very kind and gracious, and smiled a lot. He cut a dashing figure in his regalia, like the chap in the Sandeman's Port adverts. He was the toast of swinging London and knew all the movers and shakers of the era, from the Beatles to Twiggy. We kept bumping into each other. Whenever there was a happening, or a vibe, we'd be there.
A couple of years later we met at closer quarters at a mutual friend's apartment down the bottom end of King's Road and clicked instantly. Then we started lunching together. He dined with my family. We had chemistry. I don't know how it works, all I knew was here was someone I could get on with and I liked. I've had people want-ing to be my friend and I've gone, "Back off." I can spot phoneys at 500 paces.
Of course I realised that he was an important writer. He was critical of my writing in the nicest possible way, and very helpful. A great sign of friendship is when you can phone and say, "I'm really stuck at the moment, please shine a light on it." I believe in love, kindness, gentleness and loyalty. Generosity of spirit is all those four virtues. Most of the people dear to me have it.
Lionel's background was not in the musical theatre, he was an art student originally. When he started writing, it was Noel Coward whom he turned to. Noel was very useful in giving him criticism of his lyrics and what not. I feel rather privileged that I'm part of a tradition in some way. Through Lionel I discovered the importance of internal rhymes and how to write poetic lyrics succinctly. I was thrilled when he came to the debut performance of The Rocky Horror Show - he was probably checking out the competition.
We get together as often as our schedules will allow; to lunch and touch base. We move in circles of first nights and private parties. We used to go to the movies and theatre more often but Lionel is not a well man, nor as nimble as he used to be. I love him to bits, he's like one of the family. We tell each other everything. There are no secrets between us. We just like giving each other a cuddle and having a natter. Generally jokes at our own expense make us giggle. Naturally, with such an enduring friendship, at times I've seen him wretched, but we usually argue it through.
In the aftermath of the bankruptcy Lionel didn't want to face the reality of life and found solace in the easy road, the primrose path. Many of us have enjoyed a recreational drink and the rest of it, but it became like a poison to him. It finally came to the point where he had to make a decision on where he was going and what he was doing. Thank goodness he made the right choice.
Lionel would never knowingly hurt anyone. He is serene, he knows the value of love and that permeates his dealings with others. I see it in the street - he is much loved as a London person, taxi drivers always wave to him. He returns it and never plays the big dude. One of my favourite songs of his is "Where Is Love?", from Oliver!. The sentiments melt your heart. It is a divine classic.
We are similar in that we need to work and are both fearful that our work is never going to be good enough. We are full of all those insecurities, low self-esteem, ego and bravado.
I love him more today than I did when I first met him. If the phone went at two in the morning we don't have to justify it with apologies and lengthy explanations. We are always there for one another. He's like Great Uncle Bulgaria to all of us. I'm jolly glad I met Lionel when I did. Life wouldn't have been half as much fun without him.
The jazz album `Absolute O'Brien' is out on February 14 on Medical Records
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