Nell Campbell, the star of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and All’s Nell That Ends Nell, HOTA, Home of The Arts
You will never know what opportunities you have missed saying no ...
Anyone who has seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show will probably agree with us when we say it’s one wild ride. Adapted from a successful stage show, the film version, which was released in 1975, had lofty expectations only to bomb on its debut. In the years since, however, it’s become a cult classic thanks to its larger-than-life characters, wildly eccentric costumes and, of course, a catalogue of seriously catchy tunes. Among the show’s esteemed cast was Australia’s very own Nell Campbell, who played the tap dancing servant, Columbia. Nell is coming to the Gold Coast in October to take audiences on a time warp with her one-woman show All’s Nell That Ends Nell. We caught up with Nell for a virtual cuppa to chat about all things Rocky Horror, nightclubs and always saying yes.
Take us back to pre-Rocky Horror days, what did life look like for Little Nell back then?
I lived a merry life on two shillings and sixpence. I was 20 years old, living in a squat and working as a soda jerk at Small’s cafe, Knightsbridge – a posh part of London. Dressed in 1930s attire and playing the music of that era, I sang and tap danced for the customers to stave off boredom. I also busked in the street.
We heard you once sold clothes at The Kensington Antique Market and had some close encounters with some pre-fame musical royalty. Can you tell us about that?
Prior to being a soda jerk I sold dresses made from vintage fabric in a tiny stall in The Kensington Antique Market. Freddie Mercury had a stall diagonally opposite and we would natter the day away. He was always banging on about this band he was in and I always advised he should keep his day job.
You mentioned you also spent some time busking in the streets, what were those days of street performing like?
I always busked with a close friend, Julien, which made it much more fun. I would sing and tap dance while he would mime and collect the money. I’d dress in top hat and tails, he as Pierrot, or we’d throw together fabulous outfits to keep the customers amused. I always had a ‘day job’ as well.
Scoring a role in the 1975 film adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was undoubtedly a life-changing experience. Can you tell us how the opportunity came about?
Before the film came the humble stage production. Jim Sharman saw me busking and happened upon me tap dancing on a table at Small’s cafe when he and Richard O’Brien wandered in for lunch. They had committed to doing Richard’s as-yet-unfinished musical, They Came From Denton High, at the Royal Court’s tiny Theatre Upstairs, but it was only in the early stages of casting. Jim took one look at me dancing atop the table and said to Richard, “there’s your servant”. During rehearsals, the show’s title was changed to The Rocky Horror Show. It was booked to run for three weeks. It was a huge success and 18 months later we made the very low-budget film version over a rapid five weeks.
The film, despite its initial box-office success (or lack of), was considered fairly progressive for its time. Can you take us back to 1975 and how the film was perceived?
The stage show opened in June 1973, and the film was shot in December 1974 and released in 1975. The stage show was a huge hit and ran for seven years in London, the movie bombed. It was given minimal release and everyone thought that was the end of the story.
Today, Frank-N-Furter probably wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows, but I imagine that things were pretty different back then?
I was bought up by exceptional parents in Sydney, Australia. Sophisticated, fun and open-minded. It was the 70s and it was all happening in London both in general and culturally. I wasn’t the least shocked by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was an added frisson that Tim Curry decided mid-rehearsals to give his sexy cross-dressing Frank-N-Furter a grand, upper-class accent.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has undoubtedly become a cult classic with adoring fans the world over. Even today, the mere mention of it brings a smile to people’s faces. What do you think has been the secret to its longevity?
Great songs, witty, brilliant sets and costumes with a cast of characters that curiously generations seem to relate to. It’s the first musical that embraces all sexuality – hetero, homo, bi, cross-dressing and ‘don’t dream it, be it’ … yet fun for all the family. The greatest joy of its long-running success is it becoming something of an anthem for the LGBTQ+ community, helping people accept their sexuality and meet like-minded people at the regular screenings.
You’ve lived a fascinating and wonderfully interesting life, including as the owner of a popular New York nightclub Nell’s. You must have some pretty wild stories from that particular period of your life – any you can share with us today?
I had not looked at these albums since making them decades ago. As a rule, I prefer the now and ‘morrow to the past. I couldn’t believe how amazing the photos were. I had taken photos most nights at Nell’s at a time when no one had mobile phone cameras. There were so many amazing people chillin’ in a nightclub, I felt I had to share them. The tales of both the famous and non-famous clientele drive the story.
We once read that you never say no to a proposition. Can you tell us about that?
Most people say no as it’s the easiest option. Saying no quietly shuts the door to whatever was asked. I say yes to everything as the door opens, if you like what you see, you run in. If not, you can politely retreat, but at least you have given it a go. You will never know what opportunities you have missed saying no. When it comes to hard drugs I do say no. I can not emphasise enough what a waste of time and money most drugs are. I am very anti-smoking too. No problem with the occasional pot although best as an edible to avoid inhaling smoke and perhaps a magic mushroom or two. In London I wasted years of my young life smoking hashish at night, it took away my ambition. Now I drink wine, in moderation.
You’re coming to the Gold Coast in October with your one-woman show All’s Nell That Ends Nell, can you tell us a little bit about what audiences can expect (and will you be donning your tap shoes once more)?
I am excited to share this deluge of personal photographs, explain the steps and characters that led to The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, now the longest-running film in history, as well as take folk on the wild ride of running Nell’s, NYC’s hottest nightclub of the late 80s and 90s. It’s all in the details, my aim is to entertain.
You’ve certainly had an incredible career so far! What’s been your proudest achievement?
I am not an achiever, it isn’t in my character. I was blessed with a very happy childhood thanks to my heavenly parents and siblings. I love to laugh and give people a good time. I think kindness is the most important quality and humour is my most treasured characteristic.