October 2, 2023

James “Jimmy” Ellis – an appreciation of a fine actor and man of the theatre

YET ANOTHER another good friend and lovely man …and one deserving of the title A “great” Man of Theatre, is away – away up to the great big stage in the heavens above.

To millions, Jimmy Ellis will always be Bert Lynch …and it is as PC Bert Lynch in a Z CAR that Jimmy will be seen on his journey up to the floodlit theatre amid the stars. It was that iconic Z Cars role that made Jimmy the instantly recognisable idol of countless TV fans of that legendary series, absolutely unmissable TV in its day.

But to me, it was not Z cars that made Jimmy one of the great heroes of the live theatre, a member of that brave group of thespians who were prepared to risk their professional careers for the theatre’s freedom of expression; for theatrical integrity.

Others will give Jimmy’s biog chapter and verse. A Methodist College lad who fulfilled the promise of his early career as an apprentice thespian, product of Queen ‘s University and the Bristol Old Vic, who became a “star”, leading the way of for so many other Northern Ireland actors who have become international household names, could sum it up.

But Jimmy Ellis was more than that: he was and he will remain a towering pesence in that small group of thespians who have had an enduring effect and played a pivotal part in the evolution of Northern Irish and indeed, Irish theatre.

It is in that light that I evaluate Jimmy’s greatest achievement. It was not in a stage, TV or film role but as a director, when he defied all to break away from the Group Theatre, in which he’d learned and polished his craft; where he began and developed, where he started and made his career as a leading actor, and director, when it caved-in to protests and agreed to throw talented Belfast playwright Sam Thompson, and his controversial play “Over the Bridge”, to the howling wolves and philistines who controlled this city, its politics and and its culture.

It was a fierce row: Sam Thompson’s play, born and bred in the vicious bigotry, and anti-Catholic, anti-Nationalist attitudes of the 1960s Belfast shipyards, and concurred with in the Boardrooms and City Hall, was verrissmo stuff, a hard hit at the bigotry and the widespread injustice that ruled in the Belfast of the day. The problem was compounded in that Thompson was a Protestant worker whose play came from his own roots exposed the very nasty sectarianism of his own folk.

After the legendary Group Theatre caved in to pressure and decided not to stage the Play, Ellis and several other actors resigned and Ellis led the breakway, himself directing the play in spite of a broadside of opposition. And as Sam’s wife later confided to me, her husband, Jimmy et al, in were threatened they’d never work again in Belfast.

That was widely known but what really shocked me was the discovery of a veritable who’s who of the Arts, theatre, big business and politicals, who were associated with threats of blacklist. Yet Jimmy and his fellows went ahead and the play, directed by Jimmy, with theatre legends Joe Tomelty, JG Devlin and Harry Towb in the defiant cast, was staged in the old Belfast Empire, more music hall than playhouse. Despite the pressures, in spite of threatening protests nightly, it was a success.

But in spite of that success, it drove Jimmy away, to London and later, fame and good fortune. His career and fame, was not however, just confined to Z cars…he made waves both as an actor and a director, plying many roles some of which many are now legendary, such as Norman Martin, the violend, heavy drinking father in Graham Reid’s Billy plays, yet another clutch of windows that opened up deep vistas of working class life in Belfast during “the Troubles” . Jimmy always favoured local writers -he led in two of Stewart Love’s notable TV plays, Randy Dandy, a real BBC “shocker” of its time, the so-called angry” era,and later, the Sugar Cube, both of which contributed to making him a familiar figure to millions before his Z cars exposure.

In his early days, in the group, Jimmy played in many of the great “Irish” repertoire among them JM Syng’s “Playboy of the Western World” where he made a big hit as Christy Mahon, “the man who killed his feyther (father) with turf loin” (peat spade). But he also played in and often directed more contemporary, occasionally controversial dramas.

Controversial drama was something of a magnet to Jimmy- he never shied away from challenging roles.I remember many of Jimmy’s contemporaries literally singing aloud praise of his work there and his directing ability. His kindnesses , care for and encouragement of young actors is the stuff of many other legends in the theatre.

I came to know Jimmy well much later, along with many other Northern Ireland artistic folk in London and much better as a daily newspaper theatre reviewer here in Belfast, where just about everyone who was anybody in the business would be found in the old York Hotel or the much loved (and much missed ) Ulster Arts Club. Well in those days, there wasn’t much anywhere else to go.

Jimmy came home a lot, to work…he never forgot his roots and fame never seemed to bother him. He wasn’t there one day but magically, he’d appear on another and just join his friends, mostly actors and actressed like John Hewit (RIP) Mark Mulholland, JD Devlin, Louis Rolston, Roma Tomelty, (I could go on but…..) in the York for a pint as though he’d never been away.

The loveliest thing about Jimmy Ellis was that it didn’t matter to him that he was famous. He talked and joked wkith anyone, friend old friend, or any of the myriad of fans and strangers who just wanted to shake his hand or say hello. Jimmy’s hand must sometimes been a lot sorer than the Queen’s but he never pulled it back.

Lovely lovely man!
May your Gods go with you, Jimmy Ellis.

By theatre reviewer and drama critic Charles FitzGerald, IATC.

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