A Pagan Double Bill + Q&A with Robin Hardy

London. Leicester Square. Five to seven. It’s raining heavily. The streets thrum with foreign school trips barring my approach to this fair city’s finest filmic emporium: The Prince Charles Cinema. I’m hungry, but there’s no time for even the fastest of food. I don’t want to be late. It is time to keep my appointment with The Wicker Man.

It wasn’t just the twiggy fella I didn’t want to keep waiting. As well as double billing the cult, British horror classic and it’s follow up, The Wicker Tree, those crazy Charlies had also managed to rope in the director of both, Robin Hardy, for a Q and A sesh. The cinema was rammed and the audience was chattering excitedly. Paul McEvoy, one of the founders of FrightFest, took to the stage and introduced Mr. Hardy to rapturous applause as well as a “woo!” from the back.

In a brief introduction to the bee-less and peerless 1973 original, Robin told us about the first time he introduced The Wicker Man in America. The film had been billed to the transatlantic audience as “the Citizen Kane of horror”, but not wanting them then, or us tonight, to take it too seriously he reassured them “that it was alright to laugh”. Then, as it was Christopher Lee’s birthday (I just checked it actually wasn’t. It’s not until the 27th of May), Rob left us with Lee’s own description of the film: “it’s comic, it’s erotic, it’s romantic and it’s horrific enough to melt the bowels of a bronze statue.”

I’m not going to waste to much time telling you how good The Wicker Man is. Everyone knows it’s fucking awesome. The late, great Ewar Woowar plays Sergeant Howie, a scowling, perma-shocked, straight-laced, party-pooper copper. Sent to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Howie finds himself up to his balls in a community of singing, dancing, shagging heathens. Tempted by the brazen and bra-less Britt Ekland and played like a 3DS by the Island’s increasingly crazy haired Lord (Christopher Lee), the poor guy never stands a chance.

The Wicker Man is considered a classic for a reason. That reason being that it’s a sinister, silly, scary and surreal masterpiece with a jaw dropping and barnstorming ending. We all enjoyed it very much and look, here comes the director to answer all our questions.

We began on the subject of Christopher Lee. Robin told us that he “was always part of the plan. I wish he could be here tonight”. After a doff of the cap to the sadly deceased Woodward, Hardy told us different he thought his two stars were. “Two extraordinary actors. Christopher is a film star. He is, to me, a screen presence. When he’s on the screen it’s very difficult to look at anyone else. Edward, on the other hand, is a consummate actor. Marvellous actor. The two of them together are a fascinating duo.”

Apparently the genesis of The Wicker Man, owes it’s, well, genesis, to pranks. Robin told us that he and the film’s writer, Anthony Shaffer, had an ever escalating “habit of playing enormously over complicated practical jokes on one another. Sometimes they were virtually fatal, but the more extreme they were, the more we enjoyed them. He wrote Sleuth, which is a marvellous, games playing play. It has two people in it and in it two people play elaborate and almost fatal practical jokes on each other. It was an enormous success. While that was happening, we thought that we would like to do the flip side of the Hammer horror films. What actually is behind witchcraft and all that. The pagan religion. We produced a film which is an elaborate game. That moment on the cliffs, when Christopher says “we’ve led you every pace of the way here”, that is his triumph. His game has worked. In this film, we have seen all the clues, all the way through the film – which we put out rather like a child’s treasure hunt. Clues in plain sight. That for us was the pleasure of making this film.”

As revered as The Wicker Man is now for being so distinctive, at the time it’s being different wasn’t quite so positive. “While the film was very unique, it was actually a disaster when it came to distribution. The distributor’s said “it’s all very fine and we enjoyed it, but how do you sell it? Is it a comedy? Is it a horror?” In the beginning we couldn’t get anybody to distribute it, so I did it myself in the United States.”

This was bound to come up. What did Robin think of the Nicolas Cage remake of The Wicker Man?

“I think the remake had wall to wall elevator music. No songs. Nothing which was relevant to paganism. I don’t know what it had, apart from a plot. The plot wasn’t even that extraordinary. Wearing the bear suit, falling downhill…” He tails off with a grin that may have a touch of grimace about it.

The Wicker Man is over thirty years old, but still rewatched and also rediscovered by many generations. Why does he think that is? “There’s a lot to chew. There’s a lot to think about and pull to pieces. There’s quite a lot of meat in the sandwich. I think that’s the reason for it enduring. It’s now A-Level for Media Studies! It’s rather like being Jane Austen for English Lit!”

One element of the film which is particularly memorable is Britt Ekland, the landlord’s sexy strumpet daughter, who spends a scene singing and writhing, while pounding on the wall dividing her room and Sergeant Howie’s in an attempt to seduce him. Does Robbo have any fond memories of that time? “I particularly like the idea of having someone in the next room, who is conjuring up for you a marvellous image, romantic or erotic, take your choice. I think that it’s something that Britt did very, very well and… I certainly enjoyed directing it!”

Over the years, there have been rumours about the authenticity of Miss. Ekland’s posterior in that fabled sequence, so, once and for all, is it Britt’s bum? Or a bum double? “When we rehearsed the scene, I showed Britt through the camera exactly what we would be seeing. She said “you can’t shoot that with me. I’ve got an arse like a ski slope!” A little unfair, but anyway, I and the First Assistant Director went down to Glasgow and trawled all the strip clubs to try and find an appropriate bottom.”

The version shown that evening had some restored footage included, but is this the definitive Director’s Cut of the film? “It’s one of the Director’s Cuts! It was mostly putting it back together again after it had been butchered by the… The main bit is the first night, with Christopher Lee, in the garden, with the snails. I had to reconstruct that. Roger Corman had a print and we reconstructed it from that print.”

Finally, having recently made the follow up, The Wicker Tree, does Hardy have any plans to make a third Wicker film? Maybe in 3D? “Certainly not in 3D, but it will happen. I think, I believe. If we find the money, we’ll make the film. I’m hoping to make it in the Shetland Islands, it will be the Gods, these Gods who’ve taken these terrible sacrifices from mankind, it will be their comeuppance. It is ver loosely musically based on the last act of The Ring Cycle.”

What a fantastic chap Robin Hardy is. Well-spoken and completely open, sitting in the same auditorium as him to watch The Wicker Man and then getting to hear him talk all about it was an absolute pleasure. An absolute pleasure that I wish had ended as he left the stage. Unfortunately I stayed to watch The Wicker Tree. I don’t want to spend much time on it as I don’t want this to end on a sour note, or to spend any more time than necessary on an absolutely terrible film.

Texan, born again Christians Beth and Steve decide to go to Scotland as missionaries. Having little luck doorstepping the city folk, they accept an offer from the clearly-going-to-kill-them-in-a-sacrificial-manner Sir Lachlan Morrison and his wife, to come to their country estate and have a pop at winning over the country bumpkins. There’s been an accident at Sir Lachlan’s nuclear power plant, which has poisoned the water table and left the local villagers infertile, so they want to get Steve to knock one of them up and Beth to be their May Queen… I’m sure that’ll work out just fine.

The film is a mess. A terribly acted mess. There is a Christopher Lee cameo, but his four line performance has obviously been shot on green screen elsewhere and then awfully inserted into a pointless and poor flashback sequence. It’s over long, it goes nowhere, every character is ridiculous and Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett (Beth and Steve) give terrible performances that would be hilarious if they weren’t inflicted upon you for ninety six minutes that feel like ninety six fucking hours.

The Wicker Tree is a baggy, badly acted embarrassment. It’s out on DVD on the 30th of April.

Thanks to The Prince Charles Cinema for having me along and putting on “the most Pagan double bill of all time”. Seeing The Wicker Man on the big screen was a big treat and Robin Hardy was a thoroughly charming gent.

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