Bill Hays

Maverick TV and theatre director
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The Independent Online

William Hays, theatre and television director: born Wingate, Co Durham 15 March 1938; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Bonneval, France 2 March 2006.

Always something of a maverick, Bill Hays became one of British television's most respected directors, a reputation which largely eclipsed his earlier theatrical achievements, not the least of which was his crucial role in the shaping and original production of Close the Coalhouse Door, one of the finest pieces of British documentary drama.

Hays was proud of his Geordie heritage. Born in 1938 in Co Durham, a miner's son, Hays was a bright child, educated at Edward VII Grammar School, Nuneaton and subsequently at the Birmingham College of Art where the training helped sharpen his eye and later informed the often striking design of so many of his productions.

Gradually, he became drawn to the theatre; his earliest work included several productions with an adventurous radical group, Living Theatre, in Leicester, after which freelance repertory work began to give him a reputation as a forceful young talent.

In 1967 Hays, the playwright Alan Plater and the singer-composer Alex Glasgow met in Newcastle with the remarkable Sid Chaplin, the Durham miner turned novelist. From their enthusiastic exchange of ideas - heavily influenced by Hays's input on the style of the project, using Glasgow's songs and Chaplin's stories with Richard Fynes's 1873 classic The Miners of Northumberland as historical background - Plater shaped Close the Coalhouse Door, which Hays directed (at the Newcastle Playhouse, 1968) with an ebullient onstage zest flowing out to charge the auditorium.

Using a couple's golden wedding celebration as the focus, the show had the party's guests recall the history of a Co Durham pit village from the 1830s to the 1960s, beginning in a documentary-realist style before gradually taking off into inspired, vaudeville-style surrealism - Lord Hailsham made a late appearance to sing a ditty called "My Little Cloth Cap", followed by a visit from Harold Wilson ("Good evening, brothers. I've just popped in to explain the Government's fuel policy").

Hays handled the piece's various styles with masterly aplomb but, despite strong reviews and unanimous praise for Bryan Pringle's central performance, Close the Coalhouse Door, somewhat surprisingly produced by Brian Rix, could not find a large audience when transferred to the West End (Fortune, 1968).

At a time of regional theatre expansion, Hays became closely involved with plans for, and the opening of, the Leeds Playhouse, of which he was the first Artistic Director (1970-74). This predecessor of the West Yorkshire Playhouse was a tricky space, but Hays's own productions there, always robust and packed with energy, sat well in it, especially larger-scale work including a sharp-eyed scrutiny of Congreve's Love for Love (1970) or his tense production of Pictures in a Bath of Acid (1971), structured round a celebrated murder-case.

Television had occupied Hays since the 1960s, including the series Codename: Portcullis (1969), which he also created, and a roistering version of Close the Coalhouse Door (1969), the tape of which the BBC subsequently wiped. There was little that Hays could not successfully tackle - classic Plays of the Month including a fizzing Pinero farce (The Magistrate, 1972) and countless episodes of such outstanding series as Rumpole of the Bailey, Rock Follies, Warship and, inevitably, the Geordie-based When the Boat Comes In. He did an especially fine job on the adaptation of Norman Collins's novel London Belongs to Me (1977), turning a commonplace family saga into something real and touching with a particularly fine central performance from a young John Duttine.

Similarly finely attuned work was evident in Hays's handling of J.B. Priestley's The Good Companions (1980), his slyly funny take on the adaptation of Molly Keane's novel Time After Time (1985) with a deluxe cast including John Gielgud and Googie Withers, and a searching production of Simon Gray's stage success Quartermaine's Terms (1987). As television's goalposts moved in the 1990s, his work-load decreased; his later ventures included some Lovejoy episodes and Raise the Hispanic (1991).

Hays could be outspoken; he was very much his own master, and his methods on occasion could make hidebound television executives uneasy. Actors, however, generally adored him ("Working with Bill was never dull," said his regular colleague James Grout), many of them benefiting from his advice and encouragement and not a few of them from his convivial enthusiasm for good food and drink.

Alan Strachan

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