David Hugh Leland (20th April 1941-24th December 2023) was a British theatre, film and television writer, director, and actor whose career spanned over five decades.
Leland initially trained as an actor at the Central Speech of School and Drama and appeared in multiple credits before moving into stage management and direction at the Crucible Theatre. Here, Leland collaborated with and helped inspire emerging talent such as Michael Palin and Terry Jones, directing the world premiere of ‘Their Finest Hours’. He recognised the writing and performing genius of an as-of-yet undiscovered Victoria Wood, who wrote her first play, ‘Talent’ for Leland to direct.
He also gave Pierce Brosnan his first opportunity to act on stage in the British premiere of Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Red Devil Battery Sign’ at The Round House, which Leland directed.
A long screenwriting career followed in both television and film, including the cult classic ‘Made in Britain’ (1982) directed by Alan Clarke and starring Tim Roth, which won the Prix Italia, ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1983) directed by Mike Newell, and Neil Jordan’s ‘Mona Lisa’ (1986), starring a BAFTA-winning performance by Bob Hoskins. The film also received Academy, Golden Globe, and Writers Guild of America Award nominations.
Leland wrote two films about the British suburban madam Cynthia Payne: the BAFTA-nominated ‘Personal Services’ (1987) directed by Terry Jones and starring Julie Walters, and ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1987), which marked Leland’s directorial debut and starred Emily Lloyd as a younger Cynthia. Leland won the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay, and the film also won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
His later films as a director include ‘The Big Man’ (1990) starring Liam Neeson, and ‘Land Girls’ (1998) starring Rachel Weisz, which Leland also co-wrote.
A passionate and life-long music-lover, particularly blues and jazz, Leland returned to the theatre in 1991 to direct the successful stage musical ‘A Tribute to the Blues Brothers’, which played in the West End of London and then toured for ten years across the UK and Australia.
Since his early days, Leland has worked extensively for television. He directed the episode Bastogne for HBO’s landmark miniseries, ‘Band of Brothers’ (2001), receiving an Emmy Award for his direction, and contributed as both a director and writer to Showtime’s ‘The Borgias’, starring Jeremy Irons. Leland returned as joint showrunner for the second series.
Leland was a close friend of George Harrison, with whom he worked on several occasions, chiefly as director on ‘Checking Out’ (1988) starring Jeff Daniels (which Harrison produced through HandMade Films) and as director for several Traveling Wilburys music videos including ‘Handle With Care’. Leland also directed the music video to Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ (which also featured George Harrison and Ringo Starr), and Sir Paul McCartney’s ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’.
Following George Harrison’s untimely passing, Leland directed the cinematic documentary ‘Concert For George’ (2003), a memorial concert event which took place at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring the remaining Beatles: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, and many others. Leland won a GRAMMY® Award for the cinematic documentary, and the DVD subsequently went platinum eight times over.
Since Leland’s passing, tributes have poured in.
Pierce Brosnan said: “David Leland holds a mighty place in my heart. He gave me my break as an actor in Tennessee Williams’ play ‘The Red Devil Battery Sign’. I was just out of Drama Center where David was also an alumni. 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.”
Tim Roth commented: “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.”
Liam Neeson remarked: “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.”
Terry Gilliam said: “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.”
David Leland passed away at home on the night of Christmas Eve 2023 held tight by his loving family. 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.
Leland was represented as a writer/director by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.
Share this story