It was in late 1972 that a film crew arrived in Scotland to make low budget film, The Wicker Man. They hoped it would reinvigorate the careers of its leading men and result in a successful cinema run.
Things soon went wrong for the production, the film becoming one of the most notorious in British cinema history. This story was the subject of Allan Brown’s 2000 book, Inside The Wicker Man, and is one he has returned to ten years on, with a revised edition.
Jonathan Melville spoke to Allan Brown at the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival about his interest in the film and reasons for returning to it after a decade.
Please note: The following interview is available in three formats: you can watch the video in HD, listen to a shorter audio version or read the full transcript below. Please be aware that the text version is not a transcript of the video, but contains the full text of a longer conversation.
View the Allan Brown interview on YouTube:
Listen to an audioboo version of this interview:
Jonathan Melville: How did you first discover The Wicker Man?
Allan Brown: My passion has always been classic British television, ITC shows particularly: The Prisoner and The Avengers were my real passions. Throughout the 1980s there were clandestine groups of people who collected old British TV, but The Wicker Man was the only movie they’d allow in.
So, you’d get a guy in Birmingham sending you a tape of The Saint taped off Australian TV because they could only be shown here three times, and they’d occasionally throw in The Wicker Man, partly because it was so cheap it’s virtually television. It was through this that I realised there was something odd about this film, something powerful and it’s always had that in its history. I wondered what this strange thing was that it had.
Many years later I read an interview with Ingrid Pitt in The Big Issue Scotland that she’d found all the missing footage from the film, something which turned out to be nonsense, but at the time I thought that if there’s an end to the story then there must be a beginning and a middle.
These days if a film has any elements of science fiction or horror in it it’s labelled a “cult”. What caused The Wicker Man to earn that reputation?
I think it was because the term “It’s all gone a bit Wicker Man” entered the language, a shorthand for cultural weirdness and around the time the first edition came out, in 2000, there were a lot of reasons to talk about the country and the city, journalists referencing The Wicker Man every other day when discussing fox hunting or whatever, and that was the real tipping point. It’s like Walter Mitty, we all know what’s meant by “a Walter Mitty character”, things bleed out of their realms into others.
Was it easy to get interviews with actors for the original book?
As far as many of the actors were concerned, they’d forgotten about it, it was like doing a commercial. Quite a few of the actors had been approached by other Wicker Man fans before me, but with my book I think I convinced them it wasn’t some sort of forgotten, scabby, cinema-into-bingo-hall trash but that it was a serious film.
It was also written by Tony Shaffer and back in the 70s he was kind of a Spielberg-character who had just come off Sleuth, which was a massive hit. That’s why it was so confusing the film went so pear-shaped.
I also think some of the actors were just happy to hear the phone ring, though that wasn’t the case with Edward Woodward or Christopher Lee, though it was with some of the lesser-known actors. None of the stories tallied, with half-remembered tales that were barnacled with time.
Edward Woodward has a memory of shooting a scene on a cart and set hands running past with fake trees…
Exactly, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like remembering a holiday you went on as a kid, you’re absolutely convinced the Osmonds appeared on the beach and it becomes a hall of mirrors. Edward was a great anecdotalist, with everything processed into a joke.
Who do you think was the most spot-on with their memories?
The one with the least agenda would, to my mind, be Tony Shaffer. I’m a bit of an acolyte of Shaffer’s and felt he was the only one who told the truth because he had no agendas. He had other successes, Frenzy and all the Agatha Christie films, he had no ground to make up but all the others kind of did.
Edward told a story of how he got the part of the Equalizer because the producer’s wife remembered him from the film, which I don’t think is likely, but I can see him telling the anecdote.
They all had something at stake, but Shaffer had Sleuth, Frenzy and the others and I think he told the truth which was obviously about Robin Hardy and how intensely he’d come to resent him.
Was he quite hurt by the way the film was treated or did he put it in the past?
Tony knew how clever he was and people like that just assume that everyone else is an idiot who will get things wrong, especially if you’re involved in the film business. His attitude was that anything that went right is a bonus because it will go wrong, this is a dreadful business. The Wicker Man was just another victim of that.
He had very meticulous memories and everyone else was drunk a lot of the time, it was a very convivial world, but Tony was hooking up with Diane Cilento and was on a different rail to everyone else who were just in these little pubs with nothing else to do but get utterly trousered every night.
The press notes on the DVD have Edward claiming he was trying to escape the character of Callan and chose this film to do that. Do you think that’s true, as it wasn’t exactly a big film?
You have to remember that this was a Tony Shaffer film and that was a big deal at the time. They didn’t make it to support Don’t Look Now, it was meant to be an A-line film, but the whole thing with Ingrid Pitt and Peter Snell happened which cleared the pitch, but as far as they were concerned it was going to be a big feature.
Christopher Lee is adamant he knew all along it could have been huge and that he’d have paid to have it completed.
His passion was sincere but I think he can see Robin Hardy far enough. For years Hardy was telling people Christopher Lee would be starring in the new film, The Wicker Tree, then Lee conveniently has an accident where he falls over and lands on a cable and forbids him from doing anything other than a voiceover cameo.
That says all you need to know about The Wicker Man, that Hardy could spend years with this quasi-fictional project, with this quasi-fictional star and when you finally get thruppence ha’penny from some producer in Germany to make it, Christopher trips up.
How did you approach writing the new edition of the book?
Part of the approach was to hose a lot of vomit of it, because it was the first thing of that length I’d done and the first book is like watching home movies of yourself at the age of three walking about with no clothes on. These ideas that I thought were great at the time were exposed by time as being extraordinarily stupid, so this was the chance to take chunks I was embarrased about and throw them away.
What sort of things?
The kind of theorising about what the film means, this pretend, ad hoc knowledge about Paganism, James Frazer and The Golden Bough, all that kind of stuff. I mean I have a degree in English Literature, so it’s not entirely spurious, but it was relatively spurious. I was trying to make the case for how I thought this film was quite profound, I thought it was a text with things to say, so I was desperately trying to make that case but I think I over made it, so I was desperate to get rid of that.
Then John Brown, the film’s photographer, tracked me down, as he had found the dusty shoebox in the attic with all the contact sheets of the photos he’d taken on set, so he tracked me down through the publishers and asked if I wanted them.
A lot of those contact sheets showed that certain scenes Lee claimed had been shot actually were, so that was another incentive. I originally wanted to do a pamphlet, using extracts from the shooting script next to the scenes from the contact sheet, so that the nearest we had to a complete Wicker Man was this brochure. I mentioned it to a few people, including someone from Polygon, and they asked if I could republish it as I owned the copyright.
I also wanted to bring in things like the Nic Cage remake, and so much had happened in the ten years since the book had been published that it seemed as interesting as the original story.
Partly the motivation was to claim the thing back from Robin Hardy. I became such good friends with Tony, he was like the perfect uncle, and I wasn’t sure how big Hardy’s contribution to the film really was: remember that the film’s original title was Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man.
I was always a bit dubious about that and after the book came out, Tony got more and more adamant in his anger towards Robin, because he was always turning up in those broadsheets talking about this sequel he was going to do, so one of the greatest joys is claiming it back for Tony. It always irked me that the guy whose film it was didn’t like this guy who was co-opting as his creation to the point where the sequel to it is his creation.
Was the sequel ever close to being made? Would Woodward have been in it?
No. I think it says in the book that they were approached and some people agreed, and Tony had some letters from people who said they’d do it, but Woodward said no. Just because of the whole conceit of how time passes, how they’re 25 years older. It’s interesting that Tony wrote the script in 1989, it must have been clear to him that there was enough of a sizzle around this thing to go back to it. It was very prescient of him and I wish I’d made that point in the book.
What do you know about The Wicker Tree?
It’s based on the novel, Cowboys for Christ, which struck me as an anagram of the film, and it’s such a shame: there but for the grace of God go we, that we only ever do one thing that people like and that we have to keep redoing the same thing, like Lulu with Shout.
It looks really cheap, has had co-production money from everywhere and it looks like it only has a £2 million budget. It’s full of actors from TV, so at least in that respect it’s consistent with the original. It’s filmed somewhere in East Lothian. I’ll go and see it in the same spirit I went to see the Nic Cage thing.
The Wicker Man was this weird, magical, mystical freak. It was the monster in the attic at Glamis Castle. The Wicker Man was this thing in the attic screaming to be let out and it got out eventually and I’m overjoyed I had a tiny part to play in that. It’s remarkable that it never went away.
Do you think there’s anything left to find?
Christopher Lee does and he’s convinced it’s sitting mislabelled on a shelf somewhere, some Dr No figure sitting in his globe chair, stroking his white cat with his archives of Casablanca: The Happy Ending, looking at all these things and laughing. Lee knows a thing or two. It taxes credibility that studio in such dire straits as British Lion and Shepperton Studios were at that time, could just take all this and [makes gesture of throwing in the bin] I just don’t think that’s the way the industry operates.
I half-believe Christopher Lee’s theory.
So in 10 years time you’ll be back?
Oh God yeah, I’ll be back, I’m the Rasputin of horror fiction, I just never go away!
Inside The Wicker Man is out now from Polygon