by Daniel Goodwin
It’s hard to believe it’s been fifty years since that giant wicker man at the end of Robin Hardy’s classic was set ablaze on the cliff tops off Burrow Head, Scotland, in what became one of the most powerful and shocking film endings ever. The Wicker Man was part of a new wave of more mature horror movies that emerged in the early ‘70s alongside The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Don’t Look Now, signalling a sea change from the gaudy genre B-pictures and Hammer films that preceded it. Sadly, most of its key cast and crew have since passed away, but STARBURST was lucky to recently catch up with lead actor Britt Ekland (who played Willow) at StudioCanal’s office in central London.
Upon arrival at the glass-walled office, in a lobby occupied by various wicker creatures, Ekland was friendly, lively, and spirited, casually commenting on the dexterity of the ballet dancers we could see through the window in the building opposite.
She was also keen to discuss her memories of the production, how The Wicker Man led to her starring in The Man With The Golden Gun, and a planned but scrapped sequel to the folk horror classic that was nearly made in the 1980s.
STARBURST: It’s been fifty years since you made the film; how do you feel looking back? Do you have any good memories of the production?
Britt Ekland: I didn’t actually realise fifty years had passed until my son said to me about a month ago that it’s his fiftieth birthday in June. Then I realised that The Wicker Man also turns fifty. Such a long time ago! I keep diaries but don’t have a good memory of specific things. The one thing that stayed in my mind from the production is this endless procession. Walking and walking and walking across the moors with nothing around us. We walked towards the sea, another time towards the Wicker Man, then towards the cave where Rowan, the missing girl, was hiding.
It looked quite a joyful production because there was a lot of singing and frivolity despite its darker moments.
It wasn’t! We were meant to be wandering around a beautiful sun-filled island that had this good fortune of bearing fruit and being beautiful and gorgeous because it was set in the summer, but instead, we were on the west coast of Scotland, wandering in the typical UK weather in October and November so it was grey, damp, and cold. We were all wearing these… indescribable summer clothes. They weren’t modern, and they weren’t old. It was actually quite a brilliant wardrobe because the outfits could have been from today, but they weren’t particularly ‘70s, either.
Do you remember how you came about the project and what first attracted you to it?
I had done quite a few films before it and my agent, who was a very close friend, said: “There is this film, it’s in Scotland, it’s low budget, not a lot of money,” but we are actors, we get paid for our work. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid, and this was the next thing that came along. I thought I could deal with the kind of nudity that I read in the script, but in the end, I only bared my breasts. They could not use my bottom, but they said it was fine, so that’s how I agreed to do the film.
Did you get on okay with the cast and crew?
We were all kind of separate people. I was pregnant and felt very alone, but I did become friendly with Diane Cilento, who played the school teacher, Miss Rose. Not so much with Ingrid Pitt, Christopher Lee, or Edward Woodward. They were all solitary people, so from that point of view, it was a very lonely project. We didn’t have a community like on The Man With The Golden Gun where Maud Adams and I became best friends and are still best friends today. Roger Moore was very open and welcoming and fun on that. Hervé Villechaize was cute and fun, but he just liked to chase girls, so we never saw him outside of filming. He was very friendly and cheeky, but the minute he saw a skirt, he was off. We didn’t have that kind of community on The Wicker Man.
How did you find working with director Robin Hardy?
I don’t think he liked me very much, but he had his own problems. The film had problems with financing. Robin had heart problems, so I think it was hard to get the insurance, but ultimately, he didn’t like me. I think Ingrid Pitt wanted my role but because she was the Queen of Hammer and Christopher Lee was the King of Hammer, and this wasn’t really that kind of horror film. I think they felt if they put Ingrid and Christopher Lee in the leading roles, it would just become another so-called Hammer Horror. I know Christopher wanted to throw off his Hammer coat and become something else, and this was his first film to give him the opportunity to do that.
The Wicker Man was part of a new wave of more serious horror films that seemed to go against what Hammer represented at the time. Did you realise while you were filming that it was becoming something special?
No, not at all. Because I was pregnant as soon as we finished filming, I did no promotion or interviews or anything like that. I should’ve checked my diaries, but I don’t remember ever even seeing the film until it was re-released, I think, in 2014, when I took my youngest son to see it. Now, when I watch it, I can see the merits, but it wasn’t a happy experience to work on.
Robin Hardy described it as a melodrama musical.
It’s a different kind of horror, for sure, but the music and beat were important. Gave it an eerie, creepy feeling.
Is it right that there were marketing and distribution issues following the production?
Oh yes, it just got buried. If we use Hammer as an example, marketing those films was easy. There were fangs, blood, and black capes with red that were very important. The Wicker Man didn’t have any of that. It did have the most shocking ending of any film ever. No one has ever done anything as spectacular as that, but I think it took a long time for the promoters to realise they could put it in a different niche. They put it in a double bill with Don’t Look Now, but I don’t think that did as well as they hoped. The Wicker Man’s reputation grew over time, and it’s fans have made it what it is today.
Did The Wicker Man open new doors for you in terms of getting more roles and job offers? We were wondering if the Christopher Lee connection may have led to you working together again on The Man With The Golden Gun?
No, not at all. Golden Gun had nothing to do with Christopher. Apparently, Cubby Brocolli saw The Wicker Man and, as I was pregnant at the time and had beautiful bosoms, he thought I would be a good Bond girl. But even before that, I read the book by Ian Flemming and dressed up as the Mary Goodnight character, who was a secretary – in those days, we called the women who did that kind of job ‘the secretary’; properly dressed with her hair up, white blouse, and covered up. No high heels, just walking shoes. So I dressed just how I thought the secretary should and walked to Cubby’s office, as I lived just around the corner. I walked in and asked if I could see him. Because I was already a well-known actress, I could do that. Cubby told me they just take the title of Flemming’s books and re-write them, but he thanked me for coming.
Then, on the way out, Roger Moore came in. I had met Roger previously when I was married to Peter Sellers, so we said hello, and then I went off to America to do a movie and thought nothing more of it until on the plane back to London six or seven weeks later. I was reading an English newspaper that said: ‘Swedish girl, the new Bond girl’. And I thought, “Oh… wonderful”. But then I heard from someone else that Maud Adams got the part. When I got home, my agent called and said I’ve got to go and see Cubby Brocolli immediately. I was so naïve I thought Cubby was just going to apologise that he had to give the part to someone else. I literally got off the plane, rushed down to his office, and when I got there, he burst open the doors with the script in his hand and said: “You are Mary Goodnight”, and he handed me the script. It was very dramatic. I ran home after, all excited, knowing that a really fun and important adventure had just started in my life.
It sounds it. Many years later, Robin Hardy made a sequel to The Wicker Man called The Wicker Tree. Were you ever asked to be involved in that at any point?
Well… let’s go back. I became very friendly with Tony Shaffer [The Wicker Man’s screenwriter]. Then in the ‘80s, when I was married to Slim Jim [Phantom, drummer of The Stray Cats], Tony came to LA and gave me a script for the second Wicker Man. There was a cocktail party with very influential people to raise money for it. So I had the script and photos of me and Tony Shaffer at this cocktail party… but nothing ever came of it. Then, in the ‘90s, I lived in London off Fulham Road by Chelsea Football Ground, and Tony’s studio was opposite Marsden Hospital, Fulham Road. We met up, and I went over to have lunch with him. We talked some more about it, but then he sadly passed away, so… I knew there was The Wicker Tree, and I was offered a role in a version set in Iceland where I had to live alone in a hut somewhere and speak a strange language that they made up. It was so far-fetched, but it never happened. After that, years later, came Robin Hardy’s film, and I said I couldn’t do that.
The original Wicker Man has since become such a cult classic and still seems to be influencing folk horror films today, like Midsommar and Enys Men. What is it about the original that has such appeal and longevity?
I think it’s the ending. A lot of people do pagan ritual horror films now with characters masquerading as people they’re not, but no one has ever topped that ending. I think even if people come to the film for the first time and already know the ending, they like to see the build-up to it so you can watch in disbelief and false hope in maybe thinking that a helicopter will come and rescue him at any moment, but that doesn’t happen. The film just leaves you in this state of total disbelief, stunned with no sense of relief. I think that is the appeal.
STUDIOCANAL has restored all three cuts of THE WICKER MAN in honour of the 50th anniversary. All three versions of the film will be released in an exclusive Collector’s Edition and on 4K UHD for the first time on September 25th. The 5-disc Collector’s Edition will also include an exclusive EP from Heavenly Records, a 64-page booklet with brand new essays, 3 ‘Postcards from Summerisle’ and 2 posters of the new and original artwork. The film will also be released as a Steelbook and on Digital.