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Leland, David (1947-)

Director, Writer, Actor

Main image of Leland, David (1947-)

David Leland has made significant contributions to British theatre and television as well as being British cinema's most ardent chronicler of the recent past. Born in Cambridge on 20 April 1947, Leland made a career as a stage and screen actor before extending into theatre management and direction, developing a considerable reputation for the nurturing of new talent and approaches. He distinguished himself as a television writer in the early 1980s, most notably with the iconoclastic director Alan Clarke on teleplays such as Beloved Enemy (1981), and the Prix Italia winning Made in Britain (1982).

Leland co-scripted, with the film's director Neil Jordan, the poignant and powerful Mona Lisa (1986). A major popular and critical success, the film established some of the key themes of Leland's bittersweet cinema: unconventional characterisations, relationships across the divides of class or race, gender tensions, sexual frankness, romantic aspirations and their exploitation within a fallen world. Similar ingredients were given a more comedic treatment in Leland's script for a (thinly disguised) bio-pic of the notorious suburban madam Cynthia Payne, Personal Services (d. Terry Jones, 1987). Research into Cynthia Payne's childhood experiences provided the catalyst for Leland to explore his own memories of a boyhood by the sea. The result was his assured debut as a film director Wish You Were Here (1987), a film that launched the career of its young star, Emily Lloyd, and effectively evoked the stifling confines of English provincial life in the 1950s and the spirit of youthful resistance. His directorial debut demonstrated that Leland could combine his gift for storytelling and dialogue with a strong cinematic sense of time and place, but it also confirmed a tendency towards overstatement. In Jordan's hands, Leland's characteristic mix of melodrama, pathos, comedy and social criticism had been kept in perfect balance. However, when Leland came to direct, that balance was more elusive. The Big Man (1990) is a case in point, its exploration of troubled masculinity overburdened by gangster melodrama and anti-Thatcher rhetoric.

For six years, Leland returned to writing, crafting a series of scripts that failed to make it into production. After directing a succession of rock videos, he finally found backing in England for The Land Girls (1998), his adaptation of Angela Huth's novel about sex, class and muck-spreading in wartime Britain. Many critics found Leland's treatment of the period too soft-centred and nostalgic after his anti-heritage work of the 1980s, but the film, sensitively played and genuinely moving, is one of the most lyrical evocations of the English countryside since Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth (1950).

Leland's maxim has been "ordinary people tell great truths", and he is continually drawn to the contradictions of gender and class. His films are populated by women who rebel against the constraints of conventional femininity and men who are victims of their desire or their notions of masculinity. However, beyond this, they deal with people who are ultimately obliged to confront not only the hypocrisy of society's attitudes to sex, but also their own fantasies of romantic rebellion. His most recent directorial work was on US television's Band of Brothers (2001).

Films and Filming, November 1987, p.22 (interview)

Steve Chibnall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Missionary, The (1981)Missionary, The (1981)

Gentle Michael Palin comedy about a missionary amongst 'fallen women'

Thumbnail image of Mona Lisa (1986)Mona Lisa (1986)

Neil Jordan's unlikely romance set in a vicious world of pimps and prostitutes

Thumbnail image of Made in Britain (1983)Made in Britain (1983)

Tim Roth's incendiary debut as an intelligent but nihilistic skinhead

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer

Thumbnail image of Jordan, Neil (1950-)Jordan, Neil (1950-)

Director, Writer, Producer