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Piers Haggard - Pennies From Heaven, The Blood on Satan's Claw and Stage Directors UK

When Piers Haggard received notice that he was to be awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours List, the veteran theatre, film and television director might well have presumed it to be for his achievements on stage and screen. Haggard, after all, was the man who steered Dennis Potter's mould-breaking 1978 TV drama series, Pennies From Heaven, to international acclaim. By that time, Haggard had also directed cult folk horror flick, The Blood on Satan's Claw, and would go on to oversee the 1979 mini series of Nigel Kneale's seminal Quatermass saga.

This followed a checkered theatre career, which began for Haggard at the Royal Court under George Devine, and led to stints at Dundee Rep and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow before Haggard joined the newly founded National Theatre under Laurence Olivier. Haggard went on to work with Liza Minnelli on an American TV special, and more recently directed Vanessa Redgrave in an onscreen adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher's novel, The Shell Seekers.

Despite such an impressive CV, Haggard's invitation to Buckingham Palace comes for his work championing directors rights. For the last forty years, he has been at the forefront of an ongoing campaign for improved pay and conditions for directors, first as president of the Association of Directors and Producers, before founding the Directors Guild of Great Britain in 1982 and the Directors and Producers Rights Society in 1987. In 2014, Haggard founded a new body, Stage Directors UK.

“Rates of pay for theatre directors are appalling,” says Haggard, “and I think we have to be pretty blunt about that. If they're lucky and do four shows a year, a director in London could earn about twenty grand. The fees they're being paid cover the rehearsal period, but what they don't cover is preparation for a show. It's just sort of expected that a director prepares, but if there's a six week rehearsal period, some directors will prepare for seven weeks before that, and that's not really paid for.”

With the aim of addressing issues of intellectual property rights, royalties and the parlous state for emerging directors, SDUK published an earnings report a year ago, and are about to announce standard contract terms for directors in both the subsidised and commercial sectors.

At time of writing, there are more SDUK members from Scotland than from any other part of Britain. This was borne out at a meeting hosted at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow last October.

“That was down to Jemima Levick,” says Haggard of Dundee Rep's current artistic director. “She pulled together the threads, and at the meeting we were able to identify a set of issues particular to Scotland. People stood up and were very frank. The whole point of this is that people have to be honest. When I got into this forty years ago I learnt that you had to take a deep breath and say to your colleagues what you earn. If you don't, then the bosses win.

“Young freelance directors in particular think they're in competition with each other, but that's nonsense. The pretence of competition has to be done away with. I believe in being blunt about these things, and I can't let it lie. I'm no angel, but this is something I can't not do.”

Haggard was born in London, the son of west end actor Stephen Haggard. His mother, Morna Gillespie, was half Scots, and, after the death of his father, she moved the family to a farm in Dollar. Haggard took to theatre in earnest while studying at the University of Edinburgh, and directed on the Fringe, “when the Fringe was tiny, only about ten companies.”

In 1960, he “blagged a job at the Royal Court,” as an assistant director, before moving to Dundee Rep. At the Citz, he directed A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Good Woman of Setzuan, then in 1963 joined the National, working with Olivier, Samuel Beckett and Franco Zeffirelli.

After two years, Haggard moved into TV, and, with one eye on film, became de facto translator for Michelangelo Antonioni on the swinging London set Blow Up. Haggard directed various TV drama strands, and in 1971, came on board for The Blood on Satan's Claw.

“That was one of the projects that was very dear to me,” he says, “because it came out right. I knew nothing about horror, but I understood the poetry of a rural community. It used to take me half an hour to walk to the road, and if you do that every day in the dark, you start to understand how mysterious that world can be.”

Haggard moved the time frame of the original script back to the era of puritan witch-hunts, while the film's original title of The Devil's Touch was ditched by American distributors.

“That didn't do it any favours,” according to Haggard, “and the film did nothing. Only now do people realise that it's a poetic folk horror film that's about rural ignorance.”

After moving back into TV, Haggard's work on a version of The Chester Mystery Plays using pioneering blue screen techniques was spotted by Dennis Potter, and he was hired to direct Pennies From Heaven. The series, which starred Bob Hoskins as a 1930s sheet music salesman, was notable for the narrative being punctuated with recordings from the era lip-synched by the actors. For some viewers, this break from naturalism caused both confusion and controversy.

“People didn't understand it,” says Haggard, “but it was a dizzy delight finding out what it all meant. It was very much a one-off, and was full of complete opposites. Here was this bleak tale of a man and his girlfriend on the run, but which had all these saccharine songs in it. It was quite fruity too. It wasn't Downton Abbey. It showed that TV drama could be alive, and less about realism and more about surrealism.”

Haggard's work with SDUK, on the other hand, is as real as it gets, and he sees parallels with his rural upbringing .

“A local farmer ploughed our field for us,” he remembers, “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.

“Funding is tight, but it's still a good time for theatre. SDUK will back that, but it's important that we look at how directors are hired and how they're paid. One of the most precious things in that respect is about access. When I started out as a student, you could still get a grant that covered the holidays. You can't do that now, and it's no surprise that so many good people come out of Eton. Eton has three theatres and has professional directors coming in, but if you're really clever and come from Dundee or somewhere and have to work unpaid in London, not many families have got fifteen grand for their kids to work for free, and that needs to change.

“What SDUK is saying is that you shouldn't have to be rich already to get into theatre. Diversity is an absolute battle cry for SDUK, whether it's for economic diversity or ethnic diversity, or the fact that all theatres should have a creche so that mothers of young children can work in theatre and not have to pay for child care. We want to see true access for true talent.”

www.stagedirectorsuk.com
www.directors.uk.com

The Herald, January 11th 2016

ends

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