The Ingrid Pitt Column: The Wicker Man lives!

Ingrid's been shooting a new BBC programme all about The Wicker Man. Here's how she got on...

Ingrid Pitt

The Wicker Man Lives! At least it has an impressive after glow. I was invited by the BBC to go up to Dumfries at the weekend, where a lot of the footage for the original film was shot, to take part in a documentary called, I think, Filming In Scotland. I quite liked the idea.

I turned down the offer of a flight up to Glasgow and opted for the train. I used to love going places by train but had been put off by the last time I went up to Glasgow in a Virgin train. It had taken 13 hours and included a long bus ride and a couple of hours standing in a packed carriage. I wanted to renew my love of train travel.

The journey was fast and comfortable but dinted a little by the two hour drive from the station to the hotel. It was the same hotel I stayed in when the film was being made. The same hotel where I flopped out a couple of years ago when I went to Wigtown for a Wicker Man festival. The Kirroughtree. Wonderful place. If you are ever wandering around Dumfries and looking for somewhere to lay your weary head, check it out. Tell them I told you to go there. Might get me a discount next time.

The Wicker Man could almost be categorised as a vampire film. Not because the undead are getting up close and personal with the man of wicker but because when it was made, way back in the dark ages of the early 70s, 1973 to be exact, it was practically still-born.

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Admired by the producer, Peter Snell, loved by the director, Robin Hardy, and adored by the leading actor, Christopher Lee, it seemed to be hated by the procession of money men and distributors on whom the success or failure of the film rested. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about it and everyone’s opinion was negative. It was destined to fail. When it was finally released it was distributed as the second feature to Don’t Look Now. Then it went all limp and disappeared for a while before reappearing as a second or third run film on the American College Campus circuit.

Fortunately, the students loved it. Like a vampire, it was reimbued with life. The alumni could see that it was more than just a cheapo horror film. In fact they didn’t see it as a horror film at all. They appreciated the amount of research Anthony Schaffer had done before writing the script, the pains taken to get authenticity and ambience by Robin Hardy, the intense passion Christopher Lee put into the role of Lord Summerisle and the motivation I brought to my bathing scene. And they told their friends. And suddenly The Wicker Man was the film to see.

By this time the film had been cut to pieces. Stories abound about what happened to the mountain of film that had been exorcised in the cutting room. Only last week at the film convention I went to in London I was approached by a man who professed to have worked in the editorial suite and seen rolls of film destined for the skip. Chris Lee’s version leans towards a surreptitious moonlit jaunt to a pile hole dug on the route of the M1 that was subsequently filled with cement.

Luckily, someone remembered that an early cut of the film had been sent to Roger Corman in the States. It had been sent to him more as a desperate attempt to get an outsider’s view of the movie than from any wish to have him supply audience winning input. Corman had done a ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ and filed it under ‘forgotten’. After a good deal of prompting, he was able to retrieve an almost complete version of the film. This was great because it was now possible to watch the whole scene in which a couple of snails copulate, slowly, instead of just a quick cutaway.

The filming for the BBC extravaganza was done in the Ellengowan Hotel in Creetown where Britt Ekland didn’t do her naked dance routine. The actual interview was in the bar where the Barman’s Daughter was sung. And standing in the corner was Ian Cutler, sawing away on his fiddle, just the way he did it 36 years ago. 36 years ago! Makes your head spin. Pauline Law, the director insisted we had something to eat before getting down to it and I was seated next to Alan Cumming, the interviewer. Not sure that was the best thing. By the time I had chewed my way through a plate of beef I had told him my life story and hadn’t held anything back for the interview.

Robin Hardy sat across from me and I saw him wince a few times as I floated my stories. I didn’t see Robin much while I was in Scotland. A brief slobber in the foyer of the hotel and a dark, cross country ride to the hotel anchored thigh to thigh in the back of the unit car. Not willing to pass up a chance, I brought up the subject of his upcoming film Cowboys For Christ and assured him I could ride. He promised to call me. C For C farms the same strip that was so successful in The Wicker Man.

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Director Pauline perched me on a stool beside the bar and I was told to act surprised when Alan strolled in. I hitched myself on the stool in the sexiest pose I can manage at my age and did my impression of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a Ferrari when Alan entered.

The chat was longer than I had expected. Mainly because I kept going off-theme. After a while, I realised that my sexy pose wasn’t the best idea I had had since I sat in the front seat of the Water Shoot at Thorpe Park. All my weight was on my left leg. It might have enhanced Lee Majors’ life being a cyborg and working for Intelligence but my hi-tech hip joint obviously wasn’t made of the same material. By the time the interview was over it was all I could do to hobble to more comfortable seating arrangements.

Filming In Scotland isn’t all about The Wicker Man. Researcher Kath Williams told me that they are working on five other projects about film that have been shot in the Highlands – or Lowlands. Naturally, being the BBC, they had to have Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, shot in black-and-white in 1945 is another. The popular rites of passage Gregory’s Girl (1981) is the fourth, then Trainspotting by the director of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle, and finally that old favourite, from 1969 starring Maggie Smith, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Can’t wait to see them? When? They didn’t tell me, but when I know, you’ll know.

The journey home wasn’t as smooth as the journey into the wilds of Scotland. For one thing, the driver, Kate Miginnis, picked me up at 8.30 am. Not a time of day I like to inhabit very often. By the time I was deposited at Dumfries Station, I wasn’t in the best of moods. I perked up a little when a young lady in a Virgin uniform introduced herself as Rachel and said she was there to see me safely onto the train. I do love a little coddling. My black mood soon returned. There was an announcer on the train who really loved her job. Every time I was about to nod off she squawked her thingy and made some unnecessary announcement like “After you use the loo, press the button behind the seat.” It sounded like some kind of Big Brother (the Orwell version) ploy to count how many times we needed to go.

A car had been promised at Euston Station. No car! It took three calls to the BBC and a lot of swearing before it arrived. When you get the chance, you have to ride it to the end, doesn’t matter how spoilt you sound.

Will I go to Scotland again? I have got an open invitation to the annual Wicker Man festival so I might go to the next one. By air!

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Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.