Little Nell as “Columbia”

Little Nell as 'Columbia'Another one from the vaults… I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the early years of adolescence, when it was first broadcast on TV, and it’s been a favourite of mine ever since. I’m not going to pretend that I understood all of the jokes and references… in fact, I’m not sure I understand them all now either, even after multiple viewings… but that was always part of its appeal. Growing up in a small grey town, it was an all-singing, all-dancing window into an alien world… a more colourful, more passionate, more fantastical world. As a drama student and wannabe writer, I ate it up with a spoon. In later years, at university, I would share a classroom with students who insisted that all fiction should be “naturalistic”, and consist of abusive alcoholics shouting at each other in dingy squats… which just strikes me as a waste of good celluloid/video. I’ve always preferred directors who toyed with reality, or ignored it altogether in favour of their own nightmares and dreamscapes. Leave the kitchen-sink stuff to TV, and embrace the phantasmagoria, dammit!

RHPS has its flaws, of course, no doubt about that… giving ‘Dr Scott’ (Jonathan Adams) a wacky German accent actually undermines a pretty good scripted gag, for instance… but plenty good jokes survive, and ultimately the songs take the curse off any draggy plot elements (no pun intended). Richard O’Brien’s wordplay is always a joy, no matter how the original arrangements age. I strongly recommend checking out his contributions to The Return of Captain Invincible… if only to witness Christopher Lee’s evil mastermind, ‘Dr Midnight’, tempting Alan Arkin’s recovering-alcoholic superhero with a wet-bar, via the medium of music! “If you don’t name your poison, I’ll have to get the boys in, and you’ll never see another tequila sunrise…” Genius. The songs in RHPS remain rock solid, no matter how many punks take a swipe at them, and how many other languages they’re translated into. It’s a crying shame that O’Brien was so naive about selling the film rights to his stage-show, and ended up earning bugger all from the midnight screenings that confirmed its cult status, and the mountain of merchandising that continues to pile up on our shelves.

The cover of "The Musical World of Little Nell (Aquatic Teenage Sex & Squalor)" (A&M, 1978)Speaking of which, the only piece of merchandising I own, aside from the published screenplay, is a figurine of ‘Columbia’, modelled after Little Nell. Obviously there are a number of very attractive women in RHPS, and Susan Sarandon was arguably the star… but for me, Little Nell was always the focal point. Frankly its hard to miss her in the gold sequin top-hat and jacket, tippety-tapping her way across the ballroom, but she’s also the most fun and exuberant character, besides having a voice that can cut through your ears like cheese-wire. And I mean that as compliment. I was delighted to discover that her solo singles were included in the boxset of CDs, but was sad to see how little material she actually recorded. If only she’d released a full album, at the very least! I could listen to her sing all day, and never get bored… someday I hope a mad scientist will create a machine that allows me to apply her striking strine to any song I choose.

RHPS was followed by a semi-sequel called Shock Treatment. Hampered by industrial action, the results are “uneven”, to put it kindly. The ratio of jokes to expositional blah is a lot lower, and the plot is far less coherent… but there are some fun performances, and thanks to the DVD player’s skip button, it’s possible to enjoy the musical set-pieces on their own merits… and there’s plenty there to enjoy. Nell gets less exposure (in every sense of the word) as a supporting character called ‘Nurse Ansalong’, but she does score a couple of good lines here and there, and another cheeky outfit to dance around in. Incidentally, Jessica Harper, who takes the lead role of ‘Janet’, would also be on my shortlist of “Singers Who Should Have Sung More Songs”. While the threat of a RHPS remake fills me with, well, horror, I wouldn’t mind someone taking another swing at ST. It had such a neat (not to mention prescient) premise, inviting us into a smug, all-American town which had been converted into a TV studio, with the citizens being drawn into life-altering “reality shows” at the whim of a shadowy sponsor. It could have been The Truman Show of its day… but funner!

Ah well, time for bye-byes…

About Dee CrowSeer

A comic book writer with an interest in feminism, philosophy, and affirmative action. He/him.
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