"Christmas wouldn't be the same without panto"
Simon Sladen speaks to the star of Windsor's Sleeping Beauty, Britt Ekland.
Best known as Bond girl Mary Goodnight in 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun, Britt Ekland has enjoyed a long and varied career in show business and next year celebrates her 70th birthday. This year she plays her first ever Wicked Fairy in the Theatre Royal Windsor's Sleeping Beauty.
Born in Sweden in 1942, Ekland's first experience of pantomime wasn't until 1992, when producer Paul Elliott convinced her to take to the stage as the Genie of the Ring in Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
"I was thrilled," she says, "as I wanted to be able to do stage work, but had terrible stage fright. I thought that doing panto would help. I had of course heard of panto over the years, but had never seen one."
Ekland's Genie of the Ring was a great success, launching her pantomime career. "I loved the glamour and bright lights," she explains as she recounts her first season. "There's nothing more thrilling than when the wig and lashes come out!"
However Ekland's attractive Genie of the Ring had competition in the sequin stakes from Danny la Rue's extravagant Widow Twankey.
"I adored Danny and we were very good friends," she says fondly. "He truly was the most glamorous person I have ever met and he taught me so much about being on stage. I even stayed with him when we were in Plymouth as my apartment wasn't available for the first two weeks and he gave me great beauty tips!"
This season she stars in Windsor's Sleeping Beauty with none other than Tony Christie and Anita Dobson as the King and Queen and Christopher Biggins as the Voice of the Dragon. Having appeared alongside and worked with such a wide variety of people in television, film and radio, who have been some of her personal favourites?
"I loved working with Jason Robards in The Night They Raided Minsky's," she tells me. "He was married to Lauren Bacall and he invited me home to meet her. She was doing Applause on Broadway at the time and I remember being very scared, but she was so nice to me. I have always been a great fan of John Hurt, so when I was offered a part in the film Scandal I jumped at the chance of working with him; we ended up going to a George Michael concert together!"
Ekland's impressive filmography stretches from 1960 to 2002 and includes titles such as The Wicker Man and Get Carter. But how do gruelling film schedules compare to the two, sometime three shows a day of the festive pantomime run?
"Making movies is completely different to stage work," she explains. "It is not possible to compare the two. When I was younger, making movies was all I knew and some were great fun to do, others not, especially if you were on location in some terrible part of the world and far away from your husband and/or children."
So which ones were particularly enjoyable?
"Filming The Man With The Golden Gun with Roger Moore was one of the fun ones, with beautiful locations in Thailand and Hong Kong. My children stayed with me; I had a nanny for my 9 month old son Nicholai and a governess for my 10 year old daughter Victoria. Our producer 'Cubby' Broccoli was very family oriented and his own family, including a very young Barbara Broccoli, was there, as were Roger Moore's wife and children, so the children were always welcome on set."
"Being a Bond Girl has been nothing but fantastic throughout my life. There are so many fans and it gives you a chance to meet and talk with them during personal appearances. I would of course be happy to do more films, but I feel good on stage and am developing my One Woman Show, which is taking time, but will be out there soon."
Ekland's biography True Britt was published in 1980 and since then she has had many more adventures, which will no doubt make their way in to her one woman show, not least her 2010 stint on I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! and illustrious career in pantomime.
Since playing Genie of the Ring in Birmingham's Aladdin of 1992, Ekland has performed her fair share of Immortal roles. "The Good Fairy is always popular", she says, before explaining why in the past she avoided being cast as the Villain. "I did a couple of seasons playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White, but my youngest son TJ hated it when the audience booed me!"
In recent years Ekland has been Fairy Godmother at The Princess Theatre, Torquay, Shaw Theatre, London and Wyvern Theatre, Swindon. Last year she played Fairy Peapod at The Kings Theatre, Southsea. Now that her son has grown up, she's breaking with tradition and returning to the dark side as Sleeping Beauty's Wicked Fairy. "I didn't even know it was a panto," Ekland says, before explaining her excitement at the prospect of performing in Windsor.
"It is going to be so exciting as The Theatre Royal is such a special and traditional theatre. And of course, the Queen will provide us with a real castle, beautifully lit. I can't think of a more magical panto time than in Windsor."
Ekland has spent sixteen seasons in pantomime, making her one of the country's most sought after panto stars, but why does she keep returning to the genre?
"When I did my first panto, I was treated so well and made to feel so special, despite my lack of stage experience. Michael Elphick and Danny la Rue, whom I had known since the 60s, taught me how to interact with the audience and Brian Conley became a great friend, so I have a very special love for panto and will continue to do it and enjoy it as long as I am asked. Of course for the last eight years Tequila, my chihuahua, has joined me on stage and the children love him.
"Christmas wouldn't be the same without panto. I love meeting new people and the closeness you form during panto season. Yes, you have to be very fit and I am!"
Ekland doesn't think pantomime "would appeal to Swedish audiences" as it is "strictly a British institution", an intrinsic part of British culture, "where young children learn about theatre and its traditions. It is also a time the theatre can make a profit that will help keep it going for the rest of the year," she explains.
Having made over 45 films to date and having been in the spotlight for over 50 years, Ekland has witnessed great changes in the entertainment industry, one of which being the rise of celebrity culture. I ask Ekland what she thinks about the current state of celebrity and whether our fascination with the stars has changed much since her arrival in Britain in 1964 as a contract player for 20th Century Fox? As her website states, what with her marriage to Peter Sellars, her "life has been anything but private."
"I am an actress first and a celebrity second," she says, "though no choice of my own. I have worked very hard and like so many of my fellow actors made sacrifices when it comes to my family. Today's celebrities have been given an opportunity to appear in the public eye, whether on TV or in print media and then trade on that without any special skills, except good looks and clever management! Whether they will be around in fifty years? Who knows!"
Not many people can boast such a rich and fruitful career and Ekland's is far from over. A true pantomime stalwart, here's to many more seasons, be it as Bond Villain, or fabulous Fairy.
Britt Ekland plays the Wicked Fairy in the Theatre Royal, Windsor's 'Sleeping Beauty' from 7th December 2011 to 8th January 2012.