Piers Haggard obituary

Dennis Potter’s 1978 BBC series Pennies from Heaven introduced audiences to the rough-and-tumble charms of Bob Hoskins, who played a pre-war sheet music salesman, and to its author’s habit, later seen in The Singing Detective and Lipstick on Your Collar, of mixing harshly realistic scenes with fantasy interludes showing characters lip-synching to nostalgic old standards.

The material’s blend of playfulness and foreboding were expertly managed in Pennies from Heaven by the director Piers Haggard, who has died aged 83. Writing in this paper, Nancy Banks-Smith called the series “quite extraordinary.”

Haggard considered the programme “a very rewarding mixture of things that I am quite good at. I love using music dramatically. I have a great empathy for the streak in Dennis Potter of the religious and poetic, and the moral depth of his writing.” He later directed Potter’s one-off BBC television drama Visitors (1987), about two couples on holiday, which the writer adapted from his own stage play, Sufficient Carbohydrate.

Most of Haggard’s career was spent in television though he did direct a handful of films. Wedding Night (1969), starring Dennis Waterman and Tessa Wyatt, was a story of sexual repression set in Dublin. Largely ignored, it nonetheless led to an invitation to direct a portmanteau horror film. Haggard persuaded the film’s producers to let him mould the three separate stories in Robert Wynne-Simmons’s screenplay into one, hence his co-writing credit for “additional material” on the finished film, The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971).

Not being a horror aficionado hardly mattered. “As this was a story about people subject to superstitions about living in the woods, the dark poetry of that appealed to me,” he told Fangoria magazine in 2004. “I was trying to make a folk-horror film, I suppose. Not a campy one.”

In that he succeeded. The picture, which begins with an unidentified “fiend” being dug up in an 18th-century English village, has evocative cinematography by Dick Bush, compelling performances and a preference for lingering dread over cheap scares.

Its admirers included the US film-makers Joe Dante, who called it “one of the best British horror pictures of the 1970s”, and Jonathan Demme, who later signed Haggard’s Directors Guild of America application along with Martin Scorsese and Alan Parker. The critic Vincent Canby commended the movie’s “style and intelligence” and compared it favourably to HP Lovecraft.

Less impressive was The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980), an unfunny farrago to which Haggard did his best to bring coherence before eventually being fired by its wayward star, Peter Sellers. “Peter began to get more and more ill, began hating me, began hating the film, and things just went rapidly downhill from there,” he said in 1981. (It was to be Sellers’s final movie.)

Next, Haggard was a last-minute replacement for Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the laughable thriller Venom (1981), in which a deadly black mamba is on the loose during a kidnapping. Haggard’s tales of off-screen tensions between its stars Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski, which he later divulged in a DVD commentary track, proved to be of greater interest than the film itself.

He also directed A Summer Story (1988), starring Susannah York and set in turn-of-the-century Torquay, and Conquest (1989), a whimsical small-town romantic comedy described as “slyly winning” by Variety magazine.

Linda Hayden in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, 1971, directed by Piers Haggard, and commended for its ‘style and intelligence’.
Linda Hayden in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, 1971, directed by Piers Haggard, and commended for its ‘style and intelligence’. Photograph: Ronald Grant

A great-grand-nephew of H Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, Piers was born in London, to Morna Gillespie, an assistant stage manager, and Stephen Haggard, an actor. He was evacuated with his mother and brother (who later died of diphtheria) to live with family in New York during the second world war. His father killed himself in 1943 while posted in Egypt in the Intelligence Corps, apparently after the end of an extra-marital affair. “I barely knew my father but I’m told that Corin Redgrave and I were once pushed on stage by him in our prams,” he said.

His mother remarried, moving the family to a farm in Clackmannanshire. Haggard was educated at Dollar Academy and claimed to have no contact with theatre until he was at Edinburgh University. As well as reading English there, he began to act and direct, and co-founded the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society in 1958. “Suddenly the old family tradition reasserted itself,” he said.

George Devine, a friend of his father’s, gave him a directing traineeship at the Royal Court, London, where he assisted Lindsay Anderson. A spell directing at the Citizen theatre, Glasgow (which he valued because it “toughened me up a lot after a rather sheltered bourgeois childhood”) ended with him leaving after clashing repeatedly with Iain Cuthbertson, the general manager and director of productions there – though not before he had directed Albert Finney in Pirandello’s Henry IV.

He took up an assistant director post at Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre at the Old Vic, and was also hired as an assistant to Michelangelo Antonioni – whom he found to be “dark, introvert, brooding” – on the set of his enigmatic thriller Blow-Up (1966), where he translated the director’s instructions to the predominantly British cast.

A scene from the 1979 TV miniseries Quatermass, directed by Piers Haggard, and starring, second from left, Simon MacCorkindale and, second from right, John Mills. It was later released in cinemas as The Quatermass Conclusion.

Haggard had already assisted another Italian film-maker, Franco Zeffirelli, during his production of Much Ado About Nothing at the National in 1965. Frustrated that Olivier would never give him full director status, he moved into television where he flourished. He did not direct at the National again until the 19th-century melodrama The Ticket-of-Leave Man in 1981.

His television work included episodes of the 1966 soap opera The Newcomers, the crime series Callan, starring Edward Woodward (1967-70), a 1976 BBC version of the Chester Mystery Cycle, which brought him to the attention of Kenith Trodd, producer of Pennies from Heaven, and Nigel Kneale’s science-fiction horror Quatermass (1979), starring John Mills, which was re-edited and released cinematically as The Quatermass Conclusion.

Best of all were the five Alan Bennett plays he directed for the BBC, broadcast under the umbrella title Objects of Affection (1982), and the two Jack Rosenthal plays, Eskimo Day (1996) and Cold Enough for Snow (1997).

In the early 1980s, Haggard set up his own commercials company. He donated his services free of charge to making party political broadcasts for Shirley Williams, and spent much of his career campaigning for the rights of his fellow directors.

He directed his daughter Daisy Haggard, now an accomplished comic actor and writer, in her first role at the age of 16 in a two-part episode of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, though not without protest. “The story goes that he didn’t want to cast me, but the producers overruled him,” she told this paper in 2015. “He had to admit I was totally right for the part of a complete psycho.”

She credited him with being her mentor. “He always says: ‘Create the circumstances in which you can shine without being an arsehole.’ And: ‘Hold. Your. Nerve’, in a very deep voice.”

He was married first, in 1960, to Christiane Stokes, with whom he had four children, Sarah, Claire, Rachel and Philip; the marriage ended in divorce. In 1972 he married the stained-glass artist Anna Sklovsky, and they had two children, William and Daisy. Haggard is survived by Anna, his children and 13 grandchildren.

• Piers Inigo Haggard, film and television director, born 18 March 1939; died 11 January 2023