David Leland obituary

<span>Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

Grittiness and compassion were the twin hallmarks of the writer and director David Leland, who has died aged 82. He scripted a clutch of uncompromising films that launched the screen careers of Cathy Tyson, Emily Lloyd and Tim Roth. Leland’s writing was distinctly British in flavour but without the parochial sensibility that might have limited its appeal.

His early draft of Mona Lisa (1986), an underworld thriller about the relationship between a sex worker (Tyson) and her driver (Bob Hoskins), was tougher and nastier than the finished film. Leland shared the screenplay credit with its Irish director, Neil Jordan.

He also wrote Personal Services and Wish You Were Here (both 1987), a pair of breezy comedy-dramas inspired by the life of Cynthia Payne, who famously handed out luncheon vouchers as tokens to be used for sexual favours at the brothel she ran from her suburban home in south London.

Though Leland spent several years interviewing Payne over poached eggs and cups of tea, his accounts were far from faithful. “Life stories don’t make good films,” he said. “What I did do was store up all the details and then dismiss them in pursuit of an original fiction.” His combined efforts won him the Evening Standard’s Peter Sellers award for comedy.

Personal Services, directed by Terry Jones of the Monty Python team, focused on the exploits that earned Payne notoriety and a six-month prison sentence. Julie Walters played Christine Painter, who holds sex parties frequented by esteemed members of the establishment (vicars, politicians, barristers) and even counts her own father among the ageing clientele. Derek Malcolm in the Guardian detected “an undertow of spleen that makes it very effective social satire”. Pauline Kael in the New Yorker praised the picture’s “screwball fizziness”.

She was an admirer, too, of Wish You Were Here, which drew on Payne’s teenage years growing up motherless on the south coast of England immediately after the second world war; Kael commended the film’s “satirical yet dreamlike texture”. Directing for the first time, Leland coaxed from the 16-year-old Lloyd a magnetic debut performance as the headstrong Lynda, whose catchphrase is: “Up yer bum!” Like Personal Services, this was a sane, sympathetic portrait of non-conformity – something of a Leland speciality, in fact.

He had already adopted that approach for Made in Britain (1983), which starred 21-year-old Roth as the feral skinhead Trevor, who has fire in his belly and a swastika on his forehead. It was directed by Alan Clarke, for whom Leland had written Beloved Enemy, about a British-Soviet business deal, and Psy-Warriors (both 1981), based on Leland’s own play about state-sanctioned psychological torture.

Made in Britain was the last of his quartet of television films on the theme of education, which were broadcast over consecutive Sundays in June and July 1983, and known subsequently as Tales Out of School. Preceding it were Birth of a Nation, directed by Mike Newell, with Jim Broadbent as an unconventional new teacher at a comprehensive school; Flying Into the Wind, about parents prosecuted for home-schooling their children; and RHINO (Really Here in Name Only), a study of a female truant.

Largely acclaimed, the films were not without their critics. The Telegraph compared Birth of a Nation to the 1955 US inner-city drama Blackboard Jungle, and expressed concern that Leland “appears to be on the side of the jungle rather than the blackboard”.

He had been given carte blanche by Margaret Matheson, head of drama at Central Television, to shape the films as he saw fit. “Kids eff and blind,” he warned her. She replied: “It’s your job to write it, it’s my job to get it on.”

The visual dynamism of Made in Britain, shot with a gliding, prowling Steadicam, grabbed viewers’ attention. So, too, did the flinty intelligence of Roth’s performance. It would have been hollow, though, without Leland’s conscientious writing, which understood Trevor to be a product of a system that could not recognise his qualities. Made in Britain won the Prix Italia. Leland called the film “alien enough to make people want to go round the back of the set to see if it was plugged in properly; in other words: ‘How did this get on our screens?’”

He was even approached about writing a sequel imagining what Trevor did next. “At the height of the Thatcher period I thought he might be working in the City, one of these guys opening Cristal in a bar ’cos he’d just made a killing,” he said.

David was born in Cambridge to Doris (nee Francis) and Jack Leland, raised nearby in the village of Waterbeach, on the edge of the Fens, and educated unsatisfactorily at Soham grammar school. “I suffered from a severe handicap, which was the school I went to,” he said in 1983. “When I left at the age of 15 without a paper qualification, the implication was that I could do nothing.”

His first job was as an apprentice electrician at his father’s electrical company. Hating that almost as much as school, he fell in with students at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology and enrolled there, studying English literature part time and becoming involved with the drama group. He trained in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama and then at the Drama Centre, and began acting professionally. His numerous television appearances included a 1971 miniseries adapted from The Last of the Mohicans.

After moving into directing, he became resident director at the Sheffield Crucible. It was there in 1975 that he commissioned Jones and another Monty Python member, Michael Palin, to write a series of short plays, Their Finest Hours. He also commissioned and directed Victoria Wood’s first play, Talent, on the strength of its plot, which she scribbled on an envelope and posted through his letterbox.

Following three years at the Crucible, Leland moved to London. He co-directed Tennessee Williams’s The Red Devil Battery Sign, starring Pierce Brosnan, at the Roundhouse, then spent several years at the Royal Court.

In 1991, he directed the stage musical A Tribute to the Blues Brothers. Other music-related work included videos for the Traveling Wilburys, the super-group featuring Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, and Concert for George (2003), a film of the tribute show at the Royal Albert Hall on the first anniversary of Harrison’s death.

Among the fiction films he directed was The Big Man (1990) starring Liam Neeson as a bareknuckle boxer and Billy Connolly as his trainer; and The Land Girls (1998), a keenly observed story of wartime farming volunteers, scripted by Leland and starring Rachel Weisz. He was reunited with Roth for Virgin Territory (2007), a comedy adapted from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

He won an Emmy for directing a 2001 episode of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s second world war series Band of Brothers. He also served as show-runner, writer and director on episodes of the colourful historical drama The Borgias (2012), where he worked again with Jordan.

Acting all but vanished from his life once he began writing, though there were occasional exceptions, including a brief appearance in Personal Services as Danielle, a timid partygoer in an unremarkable frock.

His most glorious performance came in Golden Gordon, a 1979 episode of Palin and Jones’s series Ripping Yarns. As Mr Dainty, manager of the hopeless Barnstoneworth United, Leland delivers a speech during which he chides his players for fretting over their kit. “Shorts don’t matter,” he insists, stepping out of his. “It’s what’s inside them that counts!”

Palin intended the speech to have “a Shakespearean, Henry V-type quality”. In his diary, he wrote: “David was excellent –efficient and very funny … The crew and onlookers applauded as he raced off into the distance with his trousers down.” Leland called the part “a gift to any actor. Any actor with a sense of humour and long, thin legs.”

He is survived by his third wife, Sabrina Canale, and by four daughters and a son, and six grandchildren.

• David Hugh Leland, film director and screenwriter, born 20 April 1941; died 24 December 2023