Wish You Were Here director David Leland dies aged 82

<span>Photograph: Casarotto Ramsay & Associates/PA</span>
Photograph: Casarotto Ramsay & Associates/PA

David Leland, the director behind popular 1980s hit Wish You Were Here and writer on a string of acclaimed British films including Made in Britain, Mona Lisa and Personal Services, has died aged 82. His agency Casarotto Ramsay and Associates said in a statement that Leland died on Sunday surrounded by his family. They added: “He is survived by his wife, Sabrina, his four daughters, his son and his six grandchildren … all of whom he loved almost as much as Arsenal football club.”

Born in 1941, Leland initially trained as an actor at the Central School of Speech of Drama, before becoming part of the breakaway that led to the creation of the Drama Centre in 1963. He secured small roles in 1970s films such as John Mackenzie’s directorial debut One Brief Summer, Gawain and the Green Knight starring Murray Head and Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper. However, he found writing and directing more to his taste, directing the world premiere of Michael Palin and Terry Jones’s pair of short plays, Their Finest Hours, at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield, in 1976, and commissioning Victoria Wood to write her 1978 play Talent for the same venue. In 1977 Leland cast Pierce Brosnan, who had also studied at the Drama Centre, in the UK premiere of Tennessee Williams’ play The Red Devil Battery Sign at the Roundhouse in London.

David was there at the very beginning of this crazy adventure. He changed my life, and I love him for it

Tim Roth

Having worked on the scripts of two BBC Play for Todays – Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors – for director Alan Clarke that were broadcast in 1981, Leland then made his name as a writer with Made in Britain, a standalone drama starring Tim Roth as a skinhead. It was a controversial but successful production for ITV in 1982. Leland would go on to produce a number of scripts for key films in Britain’s 1980s film industry revival. He was co-credited on the Neil Jordan-directed Mona Lisa, which featured Bob Hoskins as a bodyguard and Cathy Tyson as the sex worker he is protecting, and Personal Services, directed by Jones, about real-life brothel-keeper Cynthia Payne, played by Julie Walters.

Leland then made his own move into directing film, with the 1987 wartime comedy drama Wish You Were Here. Starring Emily Lloyd, it was again inspired by Payne’s experiences and proved a popular hit. He quickly moved on to the US-set comedy Checking Out, starring Jeff Daniels and produced by George Harrison’s HandMade Films; it was a financial failure. However, Leland returned to the UK and had success with The Big Man, starring Liam Neeson as a bare-knuckle fighter in Glasgow, and The Land Girls, another wartime drama featuring Catherine McCormack, Rachel Weisz and Anna Friel as women assigned farm work.

He did not give up acting completely however. Memorable screen appearances included the Golden Gordon episode of Palin and Jones’s Ripping Yarns, as the desperate, angry manager, philosophers’ union rep Majikthise in the TV series adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Gide to the Galaxy, and the puppeteer in Terry Gilliam’s epic fantasy Time Bandits.

Leland then directed an episode of the Band of Brothers TV mini-series in 2001, jointly winning an Emmy for outstanding directing, and in 2011 collaborated with Jordan on the historical TV series The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons. He wrote and directed a number of episodes in show’s second series, having joined as co-showrunner and producer.

Branching out into the music industry, Leland made a number of videos for Harrison’s Traveling Wilburys band. He was then was asked to direct the monumental Concert for George documentary, the 2003 film of the Harrison tribute concert that had taken place after the musician’s death in 2001. Olivia Harrison, George Harrison’s wife, said: “David Leland was a family friend and George Harrison’s trusted choice to direct three music videos in the late 1980s for The Traveling Wilburys; trust being the key word in the company of George, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan. Aside from one instruction from George to ‘just be cool’, David chose locations that captured and resonated the simplicity, complexity, respect, and friendship that brought those iconic musicians together. Over 20 years later, I asked him to create a movie of the Concert for George that we filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in celebration of George’s life. David and I spent many hours in the cutting room, all the while trying to fathom the passing of George, as we will all have to come to terms with the loss of David.”

In a statement Brosnan said: “David Leland holds a mighty place in my heart … It was the thrill of my young lifetime to be cast as McCabe, working with David and Tennessee. David will forever be an essential part of my story and of all who knew and loved him.” Roth added: “David was there at the very beginning of this crazy adventure. He changed my life, and I love him for it. I’ll keep him with me always.”

In the same statement Neeson said: “David was a dream to work with. He was a real collaborator; he genuinely loved and admired actors. We formed a close bond. I loved his mischievous sense of humour. You are always in my heart old friend. See you down the road.” Gilliam added: “The loss of David is very sad. As a friend, and as a writer/director, he was always solidly grounded … invariably sensitive and ruthlessly honest. His 1987 film, Wish You Were Here, is still one of my all-time favourite British films.”