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Haggar, William (1851-1925)


Main image of Haggar, William (1851-1925)

No other early British screen director shared Arthur William Haggar's range of experience in cinema, fairground and the theatre, but the Welsh-based pioneer is chiefly known for his filmmaking, and particularly for his advanced use of editing and depth of staging in his robust melodramas and crime films.

Of more than 30 documented films made between 1901 and 1908, only four shorts are known to survive in their entirety. Yet two of Haggar's extant films, A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903) and The Life of Charles Peace (1905), an early potted biopic of a murderer hanged in 1879, are among the most important British films of the 20th century's first decade.

Haggar, born in Dedham, Essex, in March 1851 was a peripatetic musician, then a stage carpenter before joining a travelling theatre company and later forming his own troupe as an actor-singer and manager, performing with his wife Sarah, often in Shakespeare. After acquiring a Wrench projector in 1898, he ran a travelling cinema (Bioscope), appearing regularly at fairgrounds in the West of England and the South Wales coalfields.

Haggar made his own films from around 1902, most of which were distributed by Gaumont, Charles Urban or the Warwick Trading Company. The filmmaker's 'stock company' was his own family (eight of his 11 children appeared in his films, with son Walter as lead in the Charles Peace film, for example). Haggar drew on his rural background and early experiences of impoverishment to make several poaching films. One, The Salmon Poachers (1905), sold more copies in pre-rental days than any other Gaumont film made in Britain up to that time. His screen melodramas included truncated versions of stage plays (sometimes derived from his company's own performances) such as Duel Scene from The Two Orphans (1902), The Sign of the Cross (1904), The Dumb Man of Manchester (1908) and the repertory staple The Red Barn Crime, or Maria Marten (1908).

Haggar's films included comedies, burlesques, crime thrillers and trick movies. His A Desperate Poaching Affray, including Haggar's earliest extant panning shot, is now regarded by academics as one of two or three British films which influenced early narrative drama in the United States, particularly the development of the chase film. It featured several shootings during the prolonged pursuit of the poachers. Haggar, steeped in the tastes of his proletarian fairground and theatre melodrama audiences, was never averse to using violence in his films even though his film-making middle period (1903-1905) coincided with the rise of puritan religious Nonconformism in Wales.

Mirthful Mary - A Case for the Blacklist (1903) was the first of a humorous trilogy featuring a violent fat woman at odds with the law; and his surviving 1904 film, The Bathers' Revenge is a perfectly constructed, one-minute park bench comedy, with son Walter Haggar canoodling in drag as one half of a courting couple. The Charles Peace movie - long mistaken for the now missing 1905 version by Frank Mottershaw of the Sheffield Photo Company - flaunted William Haggar's love of theatre. He employed overt stage sets in the film's first half, and the killer is in heavy stage make up throughout. The later location scenes are choreographed with typical energy and brio and include a rooftop chase and a hanging scene. The film, interestingly, also has content and stylistic similarities to Mottershaw's A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903).

Haggar displays fine use of mise-en-scene, and the film-maker/academic Noël Burch has emphasised his effective use of off-screen space. Haggar, as much as any screen pioneer of his period, made intelligent use of depth of staging and of the frame edges, with characters often running towards the camera before exiting to right or left, and then re-entering the frame after a cut, moving away from camera. This gave the film immediacy, and injected pace. Charles Peace also displays Haggar's empathy with the humours of his predominantly working class fairground audiences, often cowed at work, chapel and leisure by intolerant authority figures. He even invites the audience's complicity with ex-steelworker Peace in a tantalising close up of the criminal disguised as a churchman. He sends the police off in the wrong direction, then advances to the camera and thumbs his nose, or 'cocks a snook,' at the retreating officers - a familiar gesture in early British films but rarely carrying such radical connotations.

The Sheepstealer (distributed by Walter Tyler in 1908), was discovered in the 1970s in the extensive collection of the early film educator Abbé Joseph Joye in Switzerland, and identified in the 1990s after restoration by the British Film Institute. The drama includes over the film's only two intertitles oval portraits of Haggar. It is the earliest known UK film identifying a filmmaker in this way.

Following the death of his wife Sarah, Haggar ceased operating travelling shows and opened a cinema chain in Wales, with members of the family as managers. He died in Aberdare in February 1925. His son, William (1871-1935) and his wife Jenny, played the leads in 'Will jar's only known film as director, The Maid of Cefn Ydfa - The Love Story of Ann Thomas (1914) - a surviving version of a 'lost' film made by his father in 1908. It featured, in his film debut as comic relief, the then unknown Will Fyffe, a leading British screen comedian of the 30s. William Haggar senior's daughter Lily May Richards's unpublished brief biography of her father traces the main strands of his career and conveys the atmosphere of early Bioscope shows.

Berry, David, Wales and Cinema: The First 100 Years (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994)
Burch, Noel, Life to Those Shadows (London: BFI, 1990)
Burch, Noel, In and Out of Synch (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1991)
Jenkins, John, 'A Penny for Your Dreams', Film and TV Technician, Nov. 1987, p. 8-9
Richards, Lily May, unpublished biography of William Haggar held in the BFI library A Penny for Your Dreams (Ken Howard, S4C/BBC Wales, 1987)

David Berry, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Desperate Poaching Affray (1903)Desperate Poaching Affray (1903)

Pioneering chase film in which a gang of poachers falls foul of the authorities

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