Piers Haggard: Film, television and theatre director and campaigner

Born – March 18, 1939; died January 11, 2023

Piers Haggard, who has died aged 83, was an award-winning director, who moved from theatre into television and film with a can-do sense of craftsmanship and getting the job done. This was the case both behind the camera on works such as Pennies From Heaven (1978), and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), and as a campaigner for freelance directors’ pay and conditions.

The latter saw Haggard at the centre of several organisations, which latterly included Stage Directors UK. As he explained in an interview with the Herald in 2016, SDUK had more members from Scotland than any other part of its geographical constituency. His voice of experience was an inspiration, and it was for this he was awarded an OBE.

On screen, Pennies From Heaven and The Blood on Satan’s Claw were probably Haggard’s best-known works. The Blood on Satan’s Claw was a 17th-century set affair in which the children of a country village appear to have become possessed by the Devil. Laced with an undercurrent of dark eroticism, the film helped define what came to be known as folk-horror, and is now regarded as a classic.

Haggard was hired for Pennies from Heaven after writer Dennis Potter saw his BBC Play of the Month production of The Chester Mystery Cycle (1976) starring Tom Courtenay as Jesus. Potter’s musical fantasia saw Bob Hoskins play a 1930s sheet music salesman, whose romantic inclinations are soundtracked by a series of song and dance numbers, with the cast lip-synching to original records. The non-naturalistic stylings of the six-part series saw it win a BAFTA for the most original programme.

“It showed that TV drama could be alive,” said Haggard of the series, “and less about realism and more about surrealism.”

Piers Inigo Haggard was born in London, one of three children to Morna Gillespie and actor and poet Stephen Haggard, who appeared in films by Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed.

In 1940, Haggard moved to New York with his mother and brother while his father served in the British Army during the Second World War. Shortly after their departure, Haggard senior published a letter in Atlantic Monthly magazine as I’ll Go to Bed at Noon: A Soldier’s Letter to His Sons. In 1943, he shot himself on a train between Cairo and Palestine. Gillespie, who was half Scottish, moved with her sons to a farm in Dollar, Clackmannanshire. Haggard’s exposure to rural surroundings had a long-term influence on his professional life.

Haggard started directing stage plays while studying at the University of Edinburgh, and put on shows on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 1960, he became an assistant director at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

He returned to Scotland to work at Dundee Rep, and at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, worked on productions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, and Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan. In 1963, Haggard joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company, where he worked with Samuel Beckett and Franco Zeffirelli as well as Olivier.

Haggard moved to television in 1965, directing ten episodes of The Newcomers (1966), a long running series about a London family who relocate to a country town.

The same year he was credited as dialogue assistant on Blow-Up, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language film, set in swinging London.

Haggard’s first film as director was Wedding Night (1969), starring Dennis Waterman and Tessa Wyatt as newly weds facing up to anxieties about marital sex and pregnancy. TV plays included Neutral Ground (1968) by Tom Stoppard, and No Trams to Lime Street (1970) by Alun Owen. Haggard oversaw episodes of many high profile series’, including Callan (1967-1970), Man at the Top (1971) and Public Eye (1966-1971).

After Pennies from Heaven, Haggard directed Quatermass (1979), a four-part reboot of Nigel Kneale’s heroic scientist first seen on screen in the 1950s. John Mills played the now elderly Professor, navigating his way through a dystopian near future in search of his missing granddaughter.

Haggard was hired to replace Richard Quine on The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980), clashing with Peter Sellers, who played the title role in what turned out to be the actor’s final film. On Venom (1981), Haggard had to navigate the alpha-male competitiveness between the film’s two stars, Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski.

Haggard had become president of The Association of Directors in 1976, and founded the Directors Guild of Great Britain in 1982. He started the Directors’ and Producers’ Rights Society in 1987, and sat on its board until it morphed into Stage Directors UK in 2007. He remained a board member until 2017. Haggard was also president and chair of FERA - the Association of European film directors - from 2010 to 2013.

Haggard reunited with Potter for Visitors (1985), a BBC Screen Two film, and worked with writers including Alan Bennett, Edna O’Brien and Howard Brenton. He also directed Liza Minnelli in Sam Found Out (1988), which saw Minnelli play three different women in a trio of short works. Haggard’s final feature film was Conquest (1998), and in 2006 he directed Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave in a two-part adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher’s novel, The Shell Seekers (2006). He was made an OBE in 2016.

Haggard summed up his approach by looking back again to his rural childhood in Dollar. “A local farmer ploughed our field for us,” he told the Herald, “and I walked behind that plough, and saw those horses pulling together and working together for the greater good of the land. That's really what building an organisation is like. You get the maximum effect from working together for the best results you can.”

He is survived by his second wife, Anna Sklovsky; four children from his first marriage to Christiane Stokes; Sarah, Claire, Rachel and Philip; and two with Sklovsky; Daisy and William. He is also survived by thirteen grandchildren.

Neil Cooper