The Ingrid Pitt column: the making of The Wicker Man

Ingrid looks back at one of her most famous and most loved films...

If you had been steaming up the M1 on your way to a highland fling in November 1972 you might have been distracted by a flurry of unseasonal apple blossom trailing from the lorry in front of you. You would have been witnessing just one of the legends that have grown around the cult classic film, The Wicker Man (1973). The script called for the rites of Spring, naked virgins leaping with gay abandon over blazing wood fires under the thickly blossomed fruit trees to ensure a bountiful harvest. You don’t get a lot of either in Scotland in November. But at least it was relatively easy to truck in the artificial blossoms.

What wasn’t so easy was to imagine that the film would ever get finished. Practically every other day there were rumours that the production was to close down. In all, I think, the company changed hands three times during the production.

The film was generated when actor Christopher Lee, writer Anthony Shaffer and Peter Snell, producer, got together and vowed to make a film that took the genre seriously. Chris was tired of the crudity of the Hammer films and wanted something more worthy of his talents. Robin Hardy, director, was brought in and scurried off to the library and returned with the basics for a film that became The Wicker Man. Snell managed, with the aid of Lee, to sell the idea and it went into preproduction for British Lion Films which had just been bought by asset stripper John Bentley.

I heard about it and a few days before it was scheduled to shoot, rang Robin whom I had met briefly a short time before, and asked him if there was a part for me. He admitted that the main casting was complete but mentioned that the role of the Librarian was still up for grabs. I grabbed, and he directed me to Peter Snell who was just about to leave for Scotland. I didn’t hang about. Jumped into a taxi and dived across London to Swiss Cottage, where Snell was living. He gave me the job and a couple of weeks later I was freezing my bodice off in the Highlands.

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By and large we were a happy band of brothers. Admittedly, the sisterhood wasn’t up to much. Britt Ekland hated the place. Spent a lot of the time complaining about Peter Sellers and flouncing. From what I overheard Peter was being mean and outrageous and Britt was suffering because she was so calm and uncomplicated. To top it off she was pregnant.

Diane Cilento was matching her, story for story, about Sean Connery. They were in the throes of a divorce and Diane was not reticent when describing the alledged physical and abusive side of 007’s behaviour. At the time I didn’t notice any overwhelming attraction between scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer and Diane but a decade later she married him. Husbands, eh? Most of the time I just sat around thinking about the affair I wasn’t having with the producer and wondering what it was like to freeze to death. Probably the worst time came when we were all assembled to burn the Wicker Man. With Edward Woodward inside it.

It might seem a tad unnecessary that Edward, about to be cremated in the Wicker Man, should be worried about the cold, but I suppose he did have the sharp end of the icicle as far as costumes were concerned. Up on the cliff top, in the face of the stiff offshore breeze, Edward’s clothes were designed for being burned alive in, not swanning around on a cold and frosty morning. Whenever the director called ‘cut’, Edward made a beeline for me and wheedled me into allowing him to put his icy naked feet up my skirt. Am I simple or what?

Another story that does have some credence is that Christopher Lee, who played Lord Summerisle, the head honcho of the island, spent half an hour eulogising, on film, the merits of carnal love. To illustrate the subject, a couple of randy snails copulated on a ledge in front of him. Wonderful actors! It was good that scene was cut to a few seconds. Robert Hardy, the director, showed a macabre sense of humour when, later in the film, the snails are trodden on.

Christopher Lee, who has made around three hundred films, still claims that The Wicker Man was the best film he has ever appeared in. And he did it for nothing! Another fact that is often touted concerns Britt Ekland. She did the famous naked song and dance up against the bedroom wall to try and seduce Edward. When she was finished, another artist, a body-double called Lorraine Peters, I believe, was smuggled in to do the gyrations instead of Britt. There was a bit of a cock up there. A note was circulated to those concerned that the substitution was to be concealed from Britt at all costs. Unfortunately, the note was also delivered to Britt’s room at the Kirroughtree Hotel. Britt was not amused, but as I said, she was several months pregnant at the time.

The Wicker Man, basically, is based on a pagan Celtic rite to propitiate the Gods of the Harvest. Gods are keen on virgins but he/she has to submit willingly. Sergeant Howie is a policeman who flies in to look into the alleged disappearance of a local schoolgirl, Rowan Morrison. Naturally, as a devout Police Sergeant, he is intacta. After testing his moral fibre and finding him steadfast, the villagers lure him to the huge Wicker Man built on the cliff top and full of animals to provide the garnish to Howie’s barbecue. There is no last minute reprieve and Howie goes to a martyr’s death saying his prayers. Edward Woodward, who plays the Sergeant, said that although the burning didn’t faze him, he could have done without the captive animals above him. Excited by the unusual goings-on, they relieved the tension by peeing on his half naked body.

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The Wicker Man made a slow start when it was first released but was soon taken up on the college campuses of America by students looking for something different. Since then it has become one of the most discussed films of all time. Even the genre seems in doubt. Is it horror? Is it drama? Some sort of wild Sci-Fi? Or maybe a Musical? Whatever it is, it is still marching on. Which is more than can be said for the puerile attempt by Neil LaBute to muscle in on its fame. Maybe there is a soupcon of rancour at the sheer brazenness of trying to plageurise an icon. Or maybe I am just getting old and more ‘Indignant of Tonbridge’ -ish than I used to be?