Piers Haggard obituary: Pennies from Heaven and The Blood on Satan’s Claw director

Haggard, who has died aged 83, was the pioneering television director and cult filmmaker who went on to help found the Directors Guild of Great Britain.

23 January 2023

By David Parkinson

Piers Haggard

While admired as a meticulous craftsman, Piers Haggard, who has died at the age of 83, will be best remembered by his fellow directors for the battles he fought on their behalf with the Directors Guild of Great Britain (now Directors UK) to secure repeat screening fees from domestic broadcasters.

Born in London on 18 March 1939, Piers Inigo Haggard was the son of actor Stephen Haggard and the great-great nephew of H. Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines and She. Evacuated to New York during the war, Haggard was raised on a Clackmannanshire farm after his mother, Morna, remarried following her husband’s 1943 suicide. 

Pennies from Heaven (1978)

Haggard started acting and directing at the University of Edinburgh, where he helped establish the Festival Fringe Society in 1958. Following a stint at the Royal Court in London, Haggard staged plays for Dundee Rep and the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre prior to assisting Laurence Olivier and Franco Zeffirelli at the National Theatre.

In 1965, he was lured into television, where he directed plays for Thirty-Minute Theatre and Armchair Theatre. However, he largely had to settle for occasional episodes of such popular series as The Newcomers, Public Eye and Callan. Following notable contributions to The Love School (about the Pre-Raphaelites) and Churchill’s People (both 1975), however, Haggard was asked to direct the Chester Mystery Cycle (1976) for BBC Play of the Month. 

Producer Kenith Trodd was so impressed by Haggard’s pioneering use of blue-screen technology that he hired him for Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1978). Shot on videotape and 16mm, this dark fantasy starred Bob Hoskins as a 1930s sheet music salesman whose habit of breaking into song allowed Haggard to create a potent sense of dreamlike nostalgia. 

The series won the BAFTA for most original programme. But it proved a hard act to follow, despite there being much to commend the 1979 miniseries Quatermass, starring John Mills as Professor Quatermass, and Mrs Reinhardt (1981), with Helen Mirren. Haggard also delivered the Alan Bennett duo of Marks and Rolling Home (both 1982), a reunion with Potter on Visitors (1987), and Jack Rosenthal’s Eskimo Day (1996) and Cold Enough for Snow (1997).

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

Having acted as an interpreter for Michelangelo Antonioni on Blowup (1966), Haggard made his feature debut with I Can’t… I Can’t (aka Wedding Night, 1969), a provocative drama about marital consummation, starring Dennis Waterman and Tessa Wyatt. Switching genre, he scored a cult hit with the folk horror The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), which made evocative use of a youthful cast, forbidding angles and the eerie woodland setting. 

But a second venture into big-screen horror, Venom (1981), misfired as Haggard was distracted by the antics of feuding co-stars Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed. Peter Sellers behaved no better on his swan song, The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980), as he had Haggard fired after numerous rows. Later features A Summer Story (1988) and Conquest (1998) made little impact. But Haggard found a niche in teleplays, directing such names as Liza Minnelli (Sam Found Out, 1988), Hayley Mills (Back Home, 1989), Judge Reinhold (Four Eyes and Six-Guns, 1992), Donald Sutherland (The Lifeforce Experiment, 1994), and Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell (The Shell Seekers, 2006).

  • Piers Haggard, 18 March 1939 to 11 January 2023
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