James Ellis, actor and writer, born 15 March 1931, died 8 March 2014
Something there is about James Ellis and bridges. As the longest serving original cast member of the hugely popular BBC television series Z Cars, his unfettered Belfast accent built bridges between viewers in his native Northern Ireland and those in Wales, Scotland and England, unfamiliar with such impenetrable vowel sounds.
The son of a sheet-metal worker in the Harland & Woolf shipyard, Ellis had been advised at drama school to tone down his accent but, typically, he declined to do so. He loved his home place and, by sticking with his natural speaking voice, he made the character of Sergeant Bert Lynch a distinctive and much loved character.
It was not widely acknowledged that Ellis was a talented linguist and scholar, who studied English literature and French philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast before the lure of the stage took over. Dropping out of academic studies, in 1951, he took up the offer of a scholarship to the Bristol Old Vic.
Returning to Belfast, he pitched himself into the city’s flourishing theatre scene, as both an actor and a director. Never one to shirk a bit of political controversy, in 1958 he joined the cast of the Ulster Group Theatre’s world premiere of The Bonfire by Gerald McLarnon, which focused on the traditional bonfires which continue to blaze across the country during the July marching season. Alongside him was another distinguished Northern Ireland actor Colin Blakely, with direction in the assured hands of the legendary Tyrone Guthrie.
Then came another bridge, in the form of Sam Thompson’s explosive play Over the Bridge, set in the Belfast shipyard. Class politics and labour relations are placed centre-stage and socialist ideals are extinguished by sectarian violence. Ellis took the politically risky decision to programme it only to see it subsequently banned by the Group Theatre’s Board. His first response was to resign, along with the cast. His second was to set up Ulster Bridge Productions, which presented this landmark play to enormous critical and public acclaim in Edinburgh and London.
Time and time again, in the course of a long life on stage, screen and in print, Ellis would demonstrate a potent combination of awesome acting skills, a powerful way with words, an instinctive ability to inhabit a range of, sometimes unpleasant, often uncompromising characters and an irresistibly wicked sense of humour. He was a loyal friend, an entertaining companion and was, quite simply, unforgettable.
He never took his eye off his declared mission of bringing the culture and social history of his home place to a wide audience. As Norman Martin, the violent, hard-drinking father and paterfamilias of Graham Reid’s The Billy Plays, he was partnered by two of Northern Ireland’s finest actors. Bríd Brennan played his put-upon daughter Lorna while Kenneth Branagh, in his television debut, played the rebellious Billy of the title.
He would go on to notch up a long string of roles in television drama series and films. Memorably, in the later years of his career, he played the colourful character of Uncle Minto in BBC Northern Ireland’s long-running series Ballykissangel and is pictured here alongside Frankie McCafferty and Joe Savino as the local dodgy dealers.
Beneath his bluff, no-nonsense, larger-than life persona beat a sharp intellect and a love of poetry and languages. In the early 1970s, he began to translate the work of several French poets, including the so-called ‘prince of poets’ Pierre de Ronsard. He also wrote poems, some about his father, a self-educated man who loved to rummage in second-hand bookshops, searching for works that might improve his own and his son’s education and understanding of the world. A volume of his poetry Domestic Flight was published in 1998 and a book of short stories Home and Away in 2001, both titles reflecting the life and thoughts of a man who moved away from Northern Ireland but never left it in spirit.
Then, just four years ago, came a connection to a third bridge, the James Ellis Bridge on the Connswater Community Greenway, close to the Ellis family home in his beloved east Belfast. It’s a place where thousands of city dwellers enjoy cycling, running and walking in a traffic-free green space.
In celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday, a series of online events included an evening of reminiscence and readings, chaired by Claire Murray of the Lyric Theatre, led by Queen’s University playwright and translator Professor David Johnstone, with readings by old acting friends like Adrian Dunbar.
The final word rests with Robina Ellis, James Ellis’ widow.
“It is heart warming that so many people still wish to remember Jimmy, the man who made an early call that he was going to pursue his career with his native accent. One of the things that gave him the most pride was complete strangers coming up to him on the street, whenever he was home. All they wanted was to shake his hand and say ‘You gave us a voice’.”