Celebrated in London, Sam Thompson’s “Over the Bridge” is as powerful today as ever

Last Sunday the great James Ellis, still rockin’ at 82,  poet, translator and household name in the 1960s and 70s as Bert Lynch in the gritty TV cops series Z Cars, saluted the cast of the London revival of  the late Sam Thompson’s prophetic shipyard play Over the Bridge, just after the performance . Jimmy had special cause to salute and be saluted. He was the play’s first director in the Belfast of 1961 and thereby hangs a tale I’ll come to shortly. Martin Lynch brought the play back to Belfast at the Waterfront studio three years ago.  Coming to it fresh I was quickly convinced that this was no pious revival of a period piece. Over the Bridge probably resonates better now as a warning at a time of imperfect peace than it might have done when the Troubles were in full flood.

In early 1960s Belfast, Harland and Wolff’s order book keeps shrinking after the wartime boom. Job competition is growing fiercer. Work is still allocated rigidly according to the union rule book, wielded with fearsome pedantry by Rabbie.  While the “wee blue book” offers some job protection in  a wildly fluctuating labour market, the restrictive practices it spawned will help seal Harland and Wolff’s fate. (Did I catch a glimpse of the ghost of Margaret Thatcher shouting from the wings?)

But Union authority and solidarity are crumbling; the rules are being  broken, the mystique has  gone, not only in response to sectarian pressures.  Archie a former union militant has got religion and is bent on quitting the “ungodly” union. Upwardly mobile George “with his home in the suburbs” is in trouble for exceeding his overtime limit to hike up his take home pay. Peter a Catholic is defying pressure to quit from Billy a worshipful grand master on the floor.  Billy is blind to the fact that there’s something  wrong about promoting the interests of “good loyalists” at the expense of equally “good” Catholics. We’re depressed to learn that these awkward and quarrelling characters were all mates together in better times.

If this obstreperous crew persist in defying  union solidarity in their different ways, an all-out strike beckons. Mediation by Davy, George’s older brother and a veteran former militant, now a senior shop steward with a bad heart, is failing.

But worse is to come. A mysterious explosion in the yard kills a Prod worker. This, remember, was the era of the IRA border campaign when fears were rife  that it could spread to the city.

As anger at the death spreads throughout the yard, union power and  union disputes vanish like snow on the sun.  A howling mob with hammers and Belfast confetti at the ready are bent on expelling Peter the taig. The mob menacingly crowds round the door. Peter spurns all entreaty to take the afternoon bus home before the shift hooter blows and insists on returning to his bench. Davy the ailing veteran joins him in a martyr’s solidarity and they both walk out to face the mob – and their fate.

In a flash, the nice people who once seemed so totally in charge are exposed as  paper tigers.  In Belfast, sectarian war trumps class war every time.

Union power and the shipyard that built liners, bulk carriers and oil rigs may have long gone but are the  nice people any less impotent in the face of sectarianism today?  It was  the nice people who tried to ban the play in 1961 for fear, they said, of sectarian trouble.

Last Sunday in the tiny Finborough theatre off the Old Brompton Road, Jimmy Ellis was joined by a posse of veteran Ulster media and arts exiles gathered up by the late Sam’s friend and the play’s champion Brian Garrett, ex- chairman of the old NI Labour party. Among us were novelist Maurice Leitch ( formerly editor of Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and much else)  TV Arts editor and producer Derek Bailey,  and Pat Loughrey ex BBC NI  controller –  most of us of  the generation slightly after Sam Thompson’s.

In a few words after the performance, Jimmy captured the atmosphere of the time almost as well as the play itself. The Group theatre board chaired by the then BBCNI head of programmes Harry McMullan turned Over the Bridge down for fear of exciting sectarian passions.

“I resigned as director of the Group . But I was determined to have the play put on.  I went to Dublin and I asked Tyrone Guthrie to direct it. He said no. You direct it.  And so I did. We played to record audiences in Belfast and Dublin. Over 40,000 people saw it.  Guthrie wrote me a letter of support. It was headed “Censorship” underlined once: “Unofficial” underlined twice: “ By the Establishment” underlined three times.”

In the pub afterwards, we oldies agreed unanimously that Over the Bridge had not lost its power.   Pre-Troubles when the play was set represented  a gigantic opportunity lost to begin building a better and fairer society before old demons took centre stage. The tragedy was that the few warnings of  nemesis  were so often partly suppressed or arrogantly ignored. When partly addressed they were too little, too late. Over the Bridge is one powerful piece of contemporary evidence that this  verdict is not wisdom after the event.

Some people may congratulate themselves that we are not so crude and simplistic as the shipyard bigots of yesteryear. ( Though remember, the shipyard  also harboured union- inspired  schools of  ideas and ideology).   Today, a battery of fair employment and equality laws are barriers against institutional discrimination. The line drawn under the Troubles seems firm and final.

But Ballymacarrett has not lost its potential for trouble. Little has replaced the pride in shipyard craft skills. The vast once crowded  site of Queen’s Island has morphed into the shapes and silences of Titanic Quarter. It has little contact with life over the Dee St bridge. While an undoubted achievement in itself, the Quarter inevitably reminds us that we don’t make many world class things any more. Nor, despite all the blood and water that has gone under the bridge since,  have our  politics and  relationships  developed to the point  where Sam Thompson’s searing play can be relegated as a piece of literary history.

Over the Bridge  runs at the Finborough Theatre  to 14 May. It deserves exposure to bigger English audiences at say  the Tricycle theatre where the previous director Nicholas Kent welcomed Martin Lynch’s work or the National where it would follow in the worthy tradition of Belfast plays by Owen McCafferty. One for the Cottesloe perhaps, when it reopens as the Dorfman?

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