Britt Ekland

This first appeared in the Sunday Independent in June 2006

‘Who (italics) is (close italics) she?’ Britt Ekland demands, pursing those famously bee-stung lips. I look around for the source of her annoyance. We have just sat down and are, as far as I can see, alone in the room. I scan the doorway for possible eavesdroppers. She glances up angrily and I follow her gaze to a music speaker in the ceiling. ‘She’s (italics) screaming (close italics) in my ear’. I ask them to turn the opera down and ask Britt if she would like a martini.

‘Hmmm bit early for that’ she laughs, thankfully lightening up a little.

She may appear somewhat more uptight than in her sixties heyday but she has aged well. Of course it might not all be totally natural (she abruptly and pointedly cuts short a question about plastic surgery) but even so, not many 63 year old women can do animal print and leather and still not look like Bet Lynch. She had been losing her hair but after taking Nourkrin food supplements – she is here to promote them – her distinctively blonde mane slowly regrew (she lifts handfuls of fringe up to demonstrate).

In many ways it’s an apt endorsement for blonde is the key to Britt. The enduring image of her is of a pouting, elfin starlet with flaxen tresses. Spinning around in the Wicker Man or cavorting as a Bond girl in The Man with the Golden Gun, she exuded a blithe, sensuous persona that seemed, like her hairdo, to be modelled on Bardot. Today Britt’s blonde hair may be an icier Knightsbridge shade, but back then it was lighter and redolent of a carefree, naive sexuality.

But to be fair there are good reasons for this change in hair colour and demeanour. She comes, she admits, ‘with a lot of baggage.’ She once said ‘I would never sleep with a (italics) happily (close italics) married man’ (although she now distances herself from this quote) and two divorces have taken their toll. ‘The break-ups were the worst’ she tells me. ‘People always bring them up and there’s nothing I can do about that. I don’t need to hide anything in my past.’

Her career was launched at home in Sweden where she appeared in toothpaste commercial at the age of 15. She came to London (where she still lives) from Stockholm in the 1960s (She still has a faint Swedish accent) to appear in a television drama and her star continued to rise slowly. But though over the next fifteen years she would be cast in two cult films (Get Carter and The Wicker Man) it was always as someone’s girlfriend that Britt was best known. Warren Beatty and Ryan O’Neal are former boyfriends. In many ways you could say she was the Liz Hurley of her day. Or perhaps Penny Lancaster would be a better example for Britt was also one of the earliest blondes (in a very long line) on Rod Stewart’s arm. When the couple split she famously sued Stewart for 12 million dollars in ‘palimony.’ In an effort to placate his ex-girlfriend Stewart claimed his song ‘You’re In My Heart’ was about her. She eventually withdrew the action and the Scottish singer caddishly changed his story, claiming the song ‘wasn’t totally about Britt … it could have been anybody I met in that period, and there were a lot of them.’

She also had a tempestuous four-year marriage to Peter Sellers, which like her relationship with Stewart, generated acres of newsprint. The iconic British comedian was 17 years her senior with an off the wall sense of humour but she declared ‘I like my men quirky – like my movies.’ When HBO commissioned a biopic of the famous comedian – The Life and Death of Peter Sellers – Charlize Theron, fresh from her Oscar win in Monster was cast as Britt. Despite being flattered at being played by someone ‘so tall and thin – the two things I always wanted to be’, she was disgusted at the final cut of the film. ‘Everything was different to how they showed it in the film,’ she tells me. ‘That’s not how he proposed to me. They had us having picnics in a field but we got engaged in winter. I think they didn’t come to me because I had written a book (her 1980 autobiography True Britt) and they would have had to pay me or whatever. My life with Peter Sellers was infinitely more interesting than the life they depicted.’

Her gravest objection however was to the violence between the onscreen Britt and Peter. ‘Nobody has ever hit me’ she insists, ‘and I would never hit anyone.’

Theron eventually got wind of Britt’s disgruntlement and got in touch with her to smooth things over. She invited her to be her ‘date’ for the Cannes premiere of the movie and Britt agreed but was not mollified. ‘I was quite honest with her about what I thought about the film but at that point I don’t think she was interested. She’d just had her Oscar for Monster and this was just another small step in her career.’

Her other problem with the film was that its makers did not ‘look after’ her and Peter’s only daughter, Victoria. Of Britt’s three children Victoria was perhaps the problem child. In the 1980s she pleaded guilty to a charge stemming from her knowledge of a violent international cocaine ring. In the 90s she shared a house with Heidi Fleiss, ran the Hollywood madam’s nightclub and starred in a film with her entitled Sex Tips with Heidi Fleiss and Victoria Sellers, which instructed viewers how to ‘be a first class madam’. After she spent time in prison Fleiss publicly denounced Sellers saying she had ‘no integrity’. It’s not a subject that much engages Britt. Of Victoria’s association with Fleiss she tells me: ‘She’s put that behind her now. It was ten years ago. I didn’t know very much about, I was away at the time. I read about it in the papers. There’s always two sides and what I know is not so bad.’

Did she ever try to advise Victoria or offer wise counsel as the paparazzi swarmed? She eyes me suspiciously. ‘You don’t have children. I can tell. If you had you’d know that you can’t advise children on anything. That’s a fact of life. Later on they come back and say ‘mum we should have listened to you’, but not at the time.’
Most of the time during our chat she is defensive and vaguely imperious but when she mentions her children a different Britt comes though. As she discusses her son’s graduation for instance, unexpectedly her lip wobbles and she seems on the verge of tears. Its not a subject I want to press her on but she’s shown me something else and it’s a softening counterpoint to the controlled, hard-faced visage she has displayed up until then.

Similarly on the subject of grandchildren, or her lack thereof, she is more easygoing and human. ‘I’m the only person I know my age who doesn’t have any (grandchildren)’ she tells me, a little forlornly. ‘But maybe I only have myself to blame. I always told my kids ‘don’t do what I did. Don’t have kids in your 20s, go off and enjoy your life first. Travel and see the world.’’

There is a sense of humour in there somewhere too. In an uproarious episode of Ab-Fab she lampooned her image as a superannuated sex kitten and she tells me that ‘some of Patsy’s character was definitely part of me. But not all of it. I had children for one thing. But definitely there are a lot of women like that.’

One part of Britt’s character that she shares with Patsy is her taste in younger men. Rock musician (with the Stray Cats) Jim McDonnell whom she married in 1984 was, to the amusement of many, twenty years her junior. ‘Men peak quite soon’ she tells me, eyes twinkling, ‘I discovered that.’ Since splitting from him she has been mostly single. ‘I’m not looking for mister right’ she tells me. ‘It’s funny, old men come and say to me ‘oh you know when I was young I thought you were gorgeous’ and I’m looking at them and thinking ‘oh my God when you were young I can’t even have been born yet, can I?’’

Despite the onset of osteoporosis (brought on, she tells me, by constantly dieting and not drinking enough milk when she was young) she is comfortable with her age. For one thing there is no longer constant pressure to look good. ‘Up until I was about 50 there was a lot of pressure on that score. After that I was able to relax a bit more about how I looked. It was a relief.’

She is relieved too that her tabloid heyday is behind her. ‘We lived vicariously in the 1970s; there was no political correctness in those days. We did a lot of wild stuff –things I can’t really tell you about. But today everything is seen. Today they take pictures of young women puking, or their legs opening coming out of limos and it’s all so coarse. One thing I’m grateful for is that that wasn’t there in my day.’
She’s not quite sure she would describe herself as ‘happy’. ‘Do I really have to be happy? It’s such a big word. I don’t know. If my kids are happy and I’m healthy then yeah I guess you could say I’m happy.’

He mouth says ‘happy’ but her expression says ‘slightly weary and irritable.’ Robin Hardy, the director of the Wicker Man, recently gave an interview in which he said ‘Britt was a free spirit back then (when they made the film in 1975). I’m not sure how much of one she is now…’ She ponders this. ‘No … I don’t agree with him,’ she tells me. ‘I’m probably much more of a free spirit today than I was then because I don’t have society’s pressure or my upbringing so yeah I would say I’m free spirited, whatever that means. I don’t base my life on society’s expectations.’

It’s been written of her that she is the only one of Peter Sellers’ exes not to have ended up a drug addict or alcoholic and she smiles when I remind her of this quote. ‘Well I’ve done awfully well and have lasted the course. I work very hard. A lot of people from that time aren’t here any more and I think it’s wonderful that I have a high profile. When I was young I thought I’d never get to forty. But here I am.

‘And you know what?’ she adds tucking one of her newly grown-back blonde bangs behind her ear ‘I’m not going anywhere.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.

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