Is it nearly a year since I joined James Ellis and a bunch of oldies for a London revival of Sam Thompson’s seminal Belfast play Over the Bridge? That night he was in fine form as he congratulated the cast for their performance and reminisced about his own experience as director in resisting attempts to tone down the anti sectarian message of the play. From Z Cars on the BBC TV of the early 1960s, the first police drama with a touch of realism, to translations of poetry and his own original work Jimmy, had a far wider range than his gritty Belfast image might have suggested. Suffering the loss of two sons he didn’t have his sorrows to seek.
From the Times obituary (£)
James Ellis was born into a working-class family in Belfast. His father was a sheet-metal worker in the shipyards and his mother worked in a mill. He won scholarships to Methodist College and Queens University, Belfast, to read English and French literature. However, he preferred to pursue a new-found enthusiasm for theatre and he left after a year to join Belfast’s Arts Theatre.
He won an acting scholarship to the Bristol Old Vic, where he was urged to lose his Belfast accent. It was advice he sensibly ignored, for his Irish brogue became one of his assets. He returned to Belfast, joining the Ulster Group Theatre. Latterly he was also director of productions. He soon found himself at odds with the theatre board over Sam Thompson’s play Over the Bridge, which addressed sectarianism and mob violence in the Belfast shipyards in the 1930s. Anxious about political and religious reaction, the board wanted the script to be toned down. Ellis resigned, formed his own company and staged the play at the Empire Theatre in Belfast in 1960. It was adapted as an ITV Play of the Week in 1961, with Ellis appearing in one of the roles.
The BBC launched Z-Cars in January 1962; viewing figures doubled to 16 million in the first few weeks. PC Bert Lynch was one of the quartet of policemen patrolling a dysfunctional Merseyside town. Ellis soon found himself with a fan club so big that he had to employ a secretary to run it.
Ellis said later: “It was a huge show watched by the Queen and even Prince Charles visited us in rehearsals where he sat behind the wheel of a mock-up police car.” He also revealed that his character was originally meant to be called McGinty. “I reminded them about Paddy McGinty’s Goat and that villains would simply laugh at me, so they changed my name to PC Lynch.”
Ellis’s money troubles resurfaced and in 1974 he appeared in the London Bankruptcy Court admitting debts of more than £12,000, all of it in unpaid income tax. He blamed his agent for mishandling his money, but he also admitted his own extravagance.
When Z-Cars finally ended he went into a West End play, Once a Catholic. He began to build an impressive résumé as a mature character actor and played the drunken, bullying father of a troubled Belfast family in the TV play Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982) and its sequels, which also starred the young Kenneth Branagh.
He played an archaeologist in the Doctor Who story “Battlefield” in 1989, a security guard in the comedy series Nightingales (1990) and the landlord in a 1995 BBC production of Shadow of a Gunman, with Branagh and Stephen Rea. He also played recurring characters in Playing the Field (1998-2002) and Ballykissangel (1998-99). On stage, he played Christy Mahon’s father in a National Theatre revival of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (2001).
Robin Walsh, president, Cricket Ireland, writes in the Times’ Lives Remembered: Jimmy Ellis (obituary, March 10) had engaging stories for all occasions, not least when in the company of fellow cricket lovers. In the days of his off spin he played up and down the country for the Lord’s Taverners, the charity that aligns the sport to the world of entertainment. Somewhere there is an old scorebook that includes the dismissal: D. C. S Compton c J. M. Parks b J. Ellis.
In telling the tale, Jimmy’s modesty allows for the fact that Compton was well past his prime and had already taken a few boundaries off his bowling. But then the great man telegraphed his famous sweep shot, Jimmy changed the flight and an outside edge gave Jim Parks “the easiest catch of his life”. As an encore, Jimmy would then recite the 1946 Indian touring team to England, never fluffing a name.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London