Obituary: Alan J ‘Willy’ Wands, Scottish film producer and production manager

Alan J “Willy” Wands, film producer and production manager. Born: 3 July, 1952 in Ayr. Died: 17 May, 2020 in Glasgow, aged 67.

Willy Wands on the set of the 2016 remake of Whisky Galore (Pitcure: Graeme Hunter)

Willy Wands left school at 15, trained as an electrician and worked on Ayrshire building sites for years.

Then he got the chance to install the lighting for theatre productions, which in turn led to film and television. Forty years later he ended up as producer on Rebus and on Guy Ritchie’s recent hit film The Gentlemen.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He built a reputation in the film business in Scotland as a man who got things done. He had various job titles, starting off as production buyer, dealing with suppliers, on Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy in 1984, when Scotland had virtually nothing in terms of a film industry.

And although he ended up with the title of producer, more often he was assistant producer or production manager, making sure everyone and everything was in the right place at the right time.

No problem was too big or too small. Working on location in Nigeria on the 2013 film Half of a Yellow Sun, Wands had to deal with civil unrest, malaria, typhoid and “bureaucracy”, with local officials refusing to release film equipment from their customs sheds. Somehow he made it all happen.

Speaking after his death, contemporaries repeatedly used the words “legend” and “force of nature”.

He was a no-nonsense figure. He spoke his mind, employing the same colourful language and distinctive turn of phrase he would have used on the building site, and he was not slow to give his crew a dressing-down. Or his bosses. But he commanded huge respect and loyalty.

He worked with Steve Clark-Hall on a couple of films in the 1990s, including The Winter Guest, starring Emma Thompson. Clark-Hall was producer and Wands associate producer.

But Clark-Hall affectionately recalled one occasion when Wands told him he was out of order. “He took me aside and said ‘Steve, stop it – you’re behaving badly.’ I was his boss, but he was right.”

A few days later Clark-Hall thought he could get his own back when Wands turned up late on set with a piece of equipment everyone was waiting for.

But Wands beat him to the punch. “Don’t do it,” he snapped. “There’s nothing you can say to me that I haven’t already said to myself.”

Wands’s work often took him abroad and he loved travel. But, a passionate nationalist, he continued to live in Glasgow when many of those he trained moved to London or Hollywood.

He rubbed shoulders with Cate Blanchett and Liam Neeson, but he retained the common touch, maintaining he was just “a working-class boy from Maybole”.

Production designer Andy Harris worked with him on numerous films and television programmes over 30 years.

“I first met Willy in The Griffin Bar Glasgow in 1982,” he said. “On a glorious summer’s evening we forged a friendship that I cherish to this day. In the industry he worked as a buyer, location manager, first AD (assistant director), production manager and producer and as a consequence he knew every nut and bolt of a production.”

Harris and Wands spent 24 weeks in Romania, which doubled for Scotland in the 2004 mini-series Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, with Clemence Poesy as Mary Queen of Scots and Kevin McKidd as Bothwell.

“Willy was adored by the Romanians,” he said. “Willy threw a party for the construction guys at the end of the shoot and they were really moved. They said no one had ever done that for them before.”

He was born Alan James Wands in Ayr in 1952. His father George worked in aircraft construction, his mother Jean (nee Allan) was a clerkess.

He grew up largely in Ayr and Maybole, but spent a lot of time at Culzean Castle, where his grandfather worked on the estate.

It was his grandfather who dubbed him Willy or Wullie, after the Sunday Post character. After that he was always known as Willy, though his father disapproved and would snap “That is not his name. His name is Alan.”

While working as an electrician, Wands started acting in amateur drama.

Moving into professional theatre, he worked as a lighting technician with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, RADA in London, Dundee Rep and Borderline, the touring company based in Ayr.

By this point he was doing pretty much everything, including management and directing plays.

At the same time he began doing some work on commercials, as location manager and production manager, which in turn led to movies.

After Comfort and Joy, he was hired as location manager on Restless Natives and quickly promoted to production manager.

The arrival of Channel 4 and its commitment to film was a huge boost to Scotland and Wands became a regular feature of the developing industry, working on a string of Scottish films, including Venus Peter, Silent Scream, The House of Mirth and Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters.

More recently, as well as working on bigger international productions, he was producer on Rebus, River City, the mini-series The Loch and the little-seen 2016 remake of Whisky Galore!, with Eddie Izzard and Gregor Fisher, who Wands had known since their time together at Dundee Rep in the 1970s.

In recent months Wands wrote a blog updating friends about his struggles with pancreatic cancer, from which he died.

One actor prematurely posted on Facebook that he had passed away, only to have Wands post underneath, in typically forthright fashion, “F*** off, I’m not dead yet.”

He is survived by his wife Julia, whom he met during his theatre days, and by two daughters Ola and Georgia.

Brian Pendreigh