Alan James (Willy) Wands, film and television producer

Born: July 3, 1952;

Died: May 17, 2020.

WILLY Wands, who has died aged 67 after suffering from pancreatic cancer, was an international-level film and television producer who worked with actors such as Samuel L. Jackson and produced British films such as The Magdalene Sisters and the 2016 Whisky Galore! remake starring Gregor Fisher. He was also an Executive Producer on Guy Ritchie’s recent gangster hit, The Gentlemen.

In all, he racked up no fewer than 35 feature film credits and numerous TV dramas, the latter including Rebus, River City and The Field of Blood.

“Director Billy Wilder said a top director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant - and a b-----d,” says theatre and television producer/director Morag Fullarton, a close friend of his from teenage years. “Willy was all of those.” Wands was a master of psychology, able to command actors to do his bidding and yet be adored by them. He showed his charges incredible loyalty, as Libby McArthur and Sean Biggerstaff recall. His success lay in the fact he could separate himself from their vanities.

A film production insider recalls that during filming of Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s 2 Girls, one of the stars was unhappy when he saw that his photo was missing from the line-up of headshots of other cast members pinned to a cork board on the production office wall. “He left without knowing his mugshot was lying in Willy’s desk drawer, covered in stab marks where Willy had gone ballistic with a letter opener after one too many demands from the ‘pompous ******’.”

Sometimes, when directing and producing required a production to be grabbed by the scruff the neck, Fullarton recalls that Wands would do just that with an ego-crazed actor. “But he also knew also knew how to stroke egos. And even when the sharp-tongued b***** would come out on occasion it was never gratuitous. And when the shouting was all over he’d send the offending actor – or actress – a bunch of flowers.”

Wands and his younger brother George grew up in Maybole, Ayrshire, the sons of a British Aerospace worker, George snr, and Jean (nee Allan), an office clerk. Willie became an electrician on local building sites on leaving school.

Bookshop owner Cooper Hay had been Alan James Wands’ best friend since 1960, when the pair met at Carrick Academy. “Willy and I played together in the local green, at the beach”, he says, “and Willy’s grandfather was an estate manager so we’d play in the woods.”

There were hints that young Alan, as he was then, had an arts leaning. “Willy’s father played in a jazz band. Willy also loved music and travelling. Together we took off to Paris and Amsterdam in the late Sixties in search of adventure. We only split for a little while when he returned to Paris and I went to London.” (There was a young woman involved, it seems, in Wands’s decision to return to France.)

Wands, adds Hay, was an inveterate prankster, and a clothes thief. “If he fancied your jacket, or even your shoes, he’d be off with them. I can remember us several times having a bit of a rough and tumble with me trying to get my clothes back. Having said that, sometimes I’d ‘borrow’ his shoes at well.”

Wands toured a great deal on his own. He went to Israel in the Seventies, shaving his head before he left, “just for a laugh”. “He had a real curiosity for life,” says Hay.

The teenage Wands was deeply interested in theatre and joined an am-dram group in Ayr. When his actor friends Freddie Boardley and Hamish Taylor went to drama college in Glasgow, he went along too. “I think Willy tried to get into the drama college as a student but didn’t make it,” says Fullarton. “But he landed work at the RSAMD as an electrician, graduating to lighting shows.”

On Fullarton’s graduation, she, Wands and Patrick Doyle (today a well-known composer) launched themselves into the arts world with their own theatre company, Brass Neck, and staged a show, Glasvegas, in Edinburgh. Wands worked backstage; he would stage-manage, and handle the lighting and all the technical needs. Later, when Fullarton moved to Borderline Theatre company in Ayr, Wands followed soon after, as a stage manager. “He showed an incredible capacity for hard work, touring the country to tiny venues in Wick or Sanquhar.”

It was while working at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow that Wands met his future wife, Julia Colton. Gradually, he moved into television and film as an associate producer, working on the likes of David Hayman’s Silent Scream in 1990.

His path crossed yet again with Fullarton, now a director, when the pair worked on Taggart. “Willy was great to work with” she says. “He had no airs and graces. He was a decent, clever person who never lost his Maybole sensibility. He used to say to cast and crew, ‘We’re not going down a mine. We’re just making entertainment.’

“Willy reminded us all we’re here to entertain people, whether it’s Shakespeare or low comedy, that it’s a privilege to do this job. He was a great leveller.”

Cooper Hay says his friend’s connection with people crossed all classes and countries. “He really enjoyed working with Samuel L. Jackson on the film 51st State. They became pals. And on that film shoot I heard the company may have had to pay off local Liverpool gangsters when their equipment began to disappear.”

Alex Norton describes Wands as “a great producer and a great man” while Brian Pettifer says, “He was kind, funny and bad-tempered. And when he gets to the pearly gates St Peter better have the catering wagon up and running.”

Cooper Hay says his friend will be sadly missed. “What I loved about Willy was he learned his craft the hard way. He stuck at it. And he was loyal and funny.”

Wands, who died at his home in Bearsden, is survived by wife Julia and daughters Ola and Georgia.