Top Welsh directors: William Haggar

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Last updated: 05 March 2010

William Haggar (1851-1925)

To this day, no other Welsh-based film director has matched the impact on the British film industry of William Haggar, a larger than life fairground showman who made most of his short movies in the first decade of cinema history.

Haggar, born in Essex but in Wales for his entire screen career, holds a unique place in British screen and popular entertainment. He's the only showman and filmmaker anywhere to run both a travelling cinema (bioscope) and travelling theatre, perform as stage actor and singer, operate permanent cinemas - and stage most of his early cinema shows in the fairground.

Yet even this fails to explain his status, for the bulk of Haggar's films are lost and he is chiefly noted for two of his five surviving films (of around 35 documented shorts). They reveal an extraordinarily progressive grasp of editing and screen framing techniques and an ability to stage action of rare gusto, drawing partly on his blood and thunder stage melodramas.

The films also featured members of his own family - with eight of his 11 children known to have appeared at various times. It seems small wonder that Haggar's films were distributed by Gaumont and major companies such as Charles Urban, Warwick and Walter Tyler, and in America by Edison and others (sometimes in pirate copies).

Haggar's The Life of Charles Peace (1905) was hugely popular in its day - a potted 'biopic' (before the term had even been invented) of a murderer executed at Armley jail, Leeds in 1879, and featuring his son Walter as the pintsized killer (and amateur violinist!).

Haggar staged the execution with aplomb - promoting the wrath of the rival Sheffield Photo Company whose own version of Peace's life came out later the same year. They drew attention in a catalogue entry to Haggar's lack of taste but the filmmaker knew the anti-authority inclinations of many of his proletarian fairground audiences, who wanted lively material as an escape from humdrum and arduous workaday lives.

In the most daring scene of Haggar's Gaumont short Charles Peace the killer disguised as a religious minister sends pursuing police the wrong way, then advances to the screen foreground and thumbs his nose (cocks a snook) at their retreating figures.

Other filmmakers of the day made fun of the establishment and law, no one else would dare to reveal implicit empathy with an actual (and working class) killer, disfigured in a Sheffield steelworks accident. The gesture also tells us about the curious 'celebrity' status of Peace, renowned for years and a hero of comics and the 'penny dreadfuls'.

Haggar's A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903) was Gaumont's most popular British film before the days of rentals or film hire, with around 480 copies sold. It's also now regarded by American and European academics as one of two British films - together with the Sheffield Photo Company's Desperate Daylight Burglary - that helped to launch the chase sub-genre and even influence Edwin S Porter's renowned The Great Train Robbery (1903).

The chase became a hugely popular feature of comedies, thrillers and crime films and the sub-genre in silent days culminated with the Keystone Kops.

Haggar's The Bathers' Revenge (1904) is a single-shot, park comedy, just a minute long, impeccably choreographed and framed and again featuring Walter, this time in drag as one of two canoodling lovers.

His other surviving films are Revenge! (1904) - only recently re-discovered in the U.S Library of Congress and the most excessively violent of all Haggar's films (if not the best choreographed) - and The Sheep Stealer (1908). The latter contains an oval portrait of Haggar above the film's only two intertitles (or explanatory captions) - the only known example of a British director publicised in this way so early in film history.

Haggar is also strongly believed to have helped out, as cameraman and/or director, when his son Will Haggar jnr. starred in his own Pontardulais theatre company's extant truncated screen version of the Welsh folk legend The Maid of Cefn Ydfa (1913).

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