On behalf of all of the administration team here at Folk Horror Revival we would like to wish Robin Hardy’s family and friends our deepest sympathy.
Our very own John Pilgrim interviewed him last year for the Field Studies book, which may possibly be one of his final interviews and found him to be energetic and full of enthusiasm for his future projects.
It is with great sadness then that he has now kept his own appointment with The Wicker Man
R.I.P. Robin, your memory will live on through your fantastic work.
What follows is an abridged version of the Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies interview with Robin.
In the course of his career Robin Hardy has been a director of television dramas, a maker of commercial and informational films, a writer and a film director. His debut feature was The Wicker Man, a film that has been described as ‘definitive in its solidifying of the Folk Horror sub-genre’ (1). The Wicker Man is now widely regarded as a cult classic, and its themes and concepts continue to inspire Hardy’s own work, including his forthcoming film The Wrath of the Gods.
It was the privilege of Folk Horror Revival to speak with Robin Hardy on 17 August 2015.
Folk Horror Revival: Your work has been a foundational influence on the establishment of the Folk Horror genre. The Wicker Man is a primary touchstone in this respect. What were the critical influences that informed the making of The Wicker Man?
Robin Hardy: A lot of it has to do with the background that Anthony Shaffer (2) and I shared. We were both partners in the enterprise of a commercial television film company. We were both of a similar age and had fairly similar cultural backgrounds. I’m a Christian; Tony was Jewish. That’s a relatively small difference except that it meant we were both interested in comparative religion. While neither of us was practising our religion, it interested us how the negation of Christianity by the idea of devils and the remains of the pagan world was reflected in books and films and related to mythology more generally.
But the other very big factor in our relationship and which is reflected in the film is that Tony was a games player. He was fascinated by playing mental and sometimes physical games. This is first and foremost reflected in his well-known play Sleuth, which, as you may know, was made into a film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Considering that the work was really pure theatre this turned out to be a very good film. It was entirely about a game – or two games in fact – so his thinking about the notion of ‘the game’, which The Wicker Man undoubtedly is, was very much his influence on the film.
My contribution was much more in relation to the cultural survival of pagan ritual in our world today. I’m very interested in the notion that we carry so much from our dim early past into the present world without really knowing it. I don’t just mean the names of the days of the week and the months of the year, but all our superstitions and a lot of our rituals like Christmas and Easter come from that period. We share those traditions with Jews and Muslims to an enormous extent. So that in having the fun – and I do emphasise the word ‘fun’ – of recreating a pagan world today redolent of what it might have been like yesterday and making that part of the game we were creating an imagined (and maybe wrongly imagined) sexual liberty of our distant ancestors. We enjoyed creating this world in a modern setting, albeit one in which the paraphernalia of the 20th century was stripped away.
FHR: As a Christian you were clearly exploring these aspects with a sense of playfulness. But at the same time there must have been a frisson that came from bumping up against the orthodox and the traditional. Could you say a little more about that?
RH: Well, of course Howie was the personification of all of that. And I suppose there is the fact that I was raised in the Church of England without being spiritually religious. I always enjoyed the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible. I was interested in how those marvelous pieces of literature came to be, for example, through the influence of King James and the ability to write well—would that were still true! This was a slight difficulty because of course the Scots do have Episcopalian churches and a lot their history was spent in getting rid of bishops. Howie is seen celebrating the Eucharist at the beginning of the film; the glass of wine which is taken may have been true for a minority, but we deliberately didn’t cast Howie as a true-blue Presbyterian Scot. So when we found ourselves at the ruined church with the altar it was clear that this was quite different from an Episcopalian church. So the film reflects the way I was brought up rather than the precise details of historical reality in Scotland. Scottish history wasn’t particularly in our minds; rather, a focus on the Celts was more important to us thematically. That emphasis of course came into the music.
FHR: Music and song is an integral aspect of The Wicker Man. Do you intend to continue this musical dimension into the making of your new film, The Wrath of the Gods?
RH: Yes. Of course the musical aspect was also part of The Wicker Tree, a lot of which was Celtic, as it was in The Wicker Man. I researched much of this myself and then handed it over to Tony. A particular source was Cecil Sharp, the founding father of the folk-song revival in England in the early 20th century. Sharp was an eager-beaver Victorian, rather like Lord Summerisle’s grandfather. He was fascinated by folk music. He researched it in Britain and also in the United States, in the Appalachians, where much of the original music survived. Our aim was to capture and communicate the original piquancy of such music. Another point of reference was Robert Burns. That research was very important because Tony and I thought the lyrics of the music could be used as part of the dialogue; for example, the lyrics of ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ tell us an awful lot about what is going on at that particular moment. ‘Corn Rigs’ (3) too. One of the most lovely songs which the barbarians at British Lion cut out is ‘Gently Johnny’, sung beautifully by the late Paul Giovanni.
At the early stages in the making of the film Tony had to go over to New York because he was under contract to Hitchcock to write the screenplay for Frenzy. But fortunately he left his twin Peter behind. Peter and Paul Giovanni were a couple and worked together on the songs and music. They worked on the collection of the songs that I found, and we collaborated together very successfully in incorporating them into appropriate points in the film.
FHR: To my mind one of the strengths of The Wicker Man is that it draws out the danger of following any system of belief in an uncritical manner, whether this might be orthodox religion or paganism.
RH: In a strange way it is slightly academic. There’s quite a lot of talk in the film about the nature of sacrifice. But of course the Mass is a sacrifice and the Anglican Mass is not very different from the Catholic Mass, although it is characteristically absent in Presbyterianism: This was another reason for having Howie Episcopalian rather than Presbyterian and coming from the mainland it was not very likely that he would have been Catholic. The act in which we demonstrate the body and blood of Christ and see the wafer given and the wine drunk and the ritual burning in the final scenes of the film are both forms of sacrifice. We gave the Christian message quite a good outing in the scene where Howie is confronted by the girl who has been sent to the cliff top. As the showdown starts, Howie roars his Christian belief.
Curiously enough, a few years later when Christopher Lee and I took the film around the United States we met a very bright bunch of students whose topic was the distribution of film. We were quite nervous about this, as we were in the middle of the Bible Belt, where there was a very literal approach to traditional beliefs. We didn’t know what to expect and wondered what sort of reception we were going to get with the film. But the students took the bull by the horns and told us that they would take us to a prayer breakfast. As you probably know, politicians use prayer breakfasts to demonstrate how politically evangelical they are. To our surprise the people attending the prayer breakfast told us that they thought the film was quite wonderful. They saw it as an affirmation and cogent representation of a belief in the resurrection. They actually helped to sell the film on this basis. Quite unexpected but very welcome! The students who knew this part of the country had thought that this would probably be the case, but it certainly surprised us.
Howie’s fate, which is so transparent through the film, is conveyed perfectly by that wonderful performance of Edward Woodward. In my view this was the performance of his life. Christopher [Lee] was always very generous about Edward and his exceptional contribution to the film.
FHR: On behalf of Folk Horror Revival we wish you all the very best with the making of The Wrath of the Gods. Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiration to us all.
Robin Hardy as interviewed by John Pilgrim. August 2015
Read more and many other wondrous things in Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies. Available from –
100% of book sales profits are dedicated