Saturday, 7 May 2011

Memories of Ingrid Pitt

I got back last night from a works trip that had taken me to Swansea and then Telford in Shropshire to find a message from Tony, the husband of actress Ingrid Pitt who so sadly passed on last November.

Tony enclosed the above photo and as part of the message he had written on the back said "Remember Wigtown and the Kirroughtree Hotel?" Ha! As if I could ever forget! This, then, is the story of one of the most amazing, happy, frightening, funny, frustrating and altogether fabulous weekends we've ever spent.

It was Mayday Bank Holiday weekend, 2006. We had heard that there was a celebration going on in Wigtown in Scotland. It is Scotland's National Book town. Almost every second shop is a bookshop and when we arrived in the late morning of 29 April 2006 there were books everywhere you looked. On the village green was a maze made up of old obscure books that were being sold off for next to nothing.

We weren't exactly there to celebrate books however. In 1972, the area around Wigtown had been home to a film production. The film, whilst not a huge success at the time, went on to become a cult classic. The Wicker Man.

The film starred Edward Woodward as a police officer conducting investigations into a kidnapping then running into a pagan cult led by Lord Summerisle, who was played by Christopher Lee. Ingrid played a rather sexy librarian (discovered at one point playing with herself in a hip bath) and was billed 5th behind Woodward, Lee, Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento.

A drive through the town showed us this straw man - close enough if you use your imagination - by the side of the Bladnoch Distillery. They were to host a showing of the film on the Sunday night which would be attended by Ingrid and the film's director, Robin Hardy.

We hadn't told Ingrid that we would be there and met up with her on Saturday night as she arrived to be interviewed in front of an audience as a build-up event to the showing of the film. She received an enthusiastic ovation from a very decently sized crowd inside the hall, where we had found ourselves front row seats.

Writer Allan Brown as the interviewer gave Ingrid a hard time, wanting her to recount wartime memories when she was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. Whilst this admittedly produced moments of great drama, it didn't endear him either to her or to the audience.

Afterwards we joined Ingrid and Tony behind the stage and were introduced to Robin Hardy (seen dancing with Ingrid above)and his wife.

We were there longer than we thought we would be. Wigtown is in the middle of a coastal and rural area. It took half an hour for a taxi to come and take them back to their hotel. Now came the frightening bit. As we went down the steps from the hall doorway Tony slipped and rolled, very elegantly I have to say, down the steps until the elegance stopped with his head banging the door sill of the taxi. He assured us all he was alright but we worried about it until we saw him the next day when, sure enough, there didn't seem to be any lingering effects at all. Phew!

We were staying in a small hotel, the Wigtown House Hotel. I'd recommend it to anyone it was wonderful. It overlooked the church and was quite close to the salt marsh that led eventually to the sea and had been the scene of a horrendous execution of two women in 1685. I've previously told the story on this blog.

We were back at the whisky distillery early enough to get fairly near the front and were looking forward to the evening.

The event was to start with Robin and Ingrid welcoming everyone and talking about the filming of The Wicker Man. Then the film would be screened and following that Ingrid was to set fire to the straw man we saw earlier.

All started according to plan and the two of them kept the audience enraptured with some hilarious tales including one about one of the film makers knocking up the owner of this very distillery early one morning, coming to an agreement to buy it for a six figure sum. This same film maker's first words the following morning were: "I did WHAT?!?"

The film was screened and we were the last out as Robin and Ingrid were in great demand for autographs and to chat to locals some of whom had been extras in the filming.

Then one of the frustrating bits. Some TV news crews, waiting for the straw man to be set ablaze had decided not to wait because it had started to rain outside. They had set the thing on fire and had gone. By the time we got out there, flames were shooting a hundred and fifty feet into the air!

"Noooooooooo!!!" cried Ingrid and dashed off through the crowd.
"Hey, where's she gone?" said Tony, "Go after her John!"

By the time I forced my way through - strange but the crowd that had just opened to let Ingrid through didn't do the same for me - she was far too close to the blazing figure and striking dramatic poses with a big grin. She had her back to it of course and could not see all the burning bits of straw flying through the air and landing near her!

The crowd were loving it and flashguns were going off on all sides. We managed to convince Ingrid to move away from the fire, but the straw burned quite quickly anyway. Either that or the rain was putting it out...

Well the jollity went on for a while until the crowds started to dwindle. It was raining and it was getting cold and Ingrid had undergone surgery not too long before all this. We knew it was likely to take at least half an hour for a taxi to arrive, so I offered to drive them back to the hotel.

"Do you know where it is?" asked Tony.
"Er... well don't you?" I said...

I got some directions from the organiser of the event. They sounded very complicated! Things went a bit surreal as Ingrid found a piper in full regalia and had to be photographed with him.
"John! Sing with him!" she said excitedly. He didn't know Johnny B Good though...

We set off down pitch dark country lanes. Then more country lanes... Then a l-o-n-g country road.
"I must say you're driving very confidently!" Tony said cheerfully, "I've no idea where the hotel is from here..."

We passed through a town and... "I don't think it's this far..." said Ingrid. I went back to talk to the smokers outside the town's pub. It was that far plus a bit...

We reached the hotel, the Kirroughtree House Hotel. It was 11:30pm and Ingrid and Tony had not eaten before going to the evening's event and so were starving. "Come in and eat with us!" they insisted. Well we all went in but, perhaps unsurprisingly the kitchen staff had long gone. The porter offered to make some sandwiches and bring them to the lounge so we went into this large and very nice lounge where another small family party were sitting.

Then followed one of the most excellent hours I've ever spent as both Ingrid and Tony regaled us with tales of TV, films and motor racing (Tony's background). We were, perhaps a little noisy for the other party but I settled them for the night when I mentioned to Ingrid that I had recently run a training event in the room that was used as the location for the nude wrestling scene between Ollie Reed and Alan Bates in the 1969 film Women in Love.

"Ohhhhhhhhhh!" Ingrid exclaimed at the top of her voice, "before they filmed that they went off to look at each other's pee-pees so they wouldn't be bothered when it came to filming!"

The other party hurriedly left the room...

Ingrid, you were one of a kind! We'll always cherish those memories! Tony, thanks for the photo and memories. We think of you often!

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