Jimmy Ellis RIP



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.

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  • CW

    A great man and a fine character actor. Z Cars was before my time, but I remember seeing him play a zookeeper in a short-lived mid-80s series called One By One, which followed the fortunes of a zoo vet. One famous scene involved Ellis speaking Irish to an orang utan.

    Some readers may also be old enough to remember a very short lived chat show on BBC NI hosted by Barry McGuigan of all people, who following his retirement from boxing was flirting with various career options at the time – racing driver was another one! Ellis was one of his guests on the show and came across a real colourful character with a – to say the least – interesting past.

  • A great character. I wouldn’t miss an episode of Z cars just to watch him and feel a wee bit of pride that he was from N.I.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Great actor – one of the few NI faces and voices in tv drama in the 70s and 80s.

  • Certainly a great actor.
    I actually remember the very first episode of Z Cars.
    The pic in the main article here shows Ellis with Jeremy Kemp (Bob Steele) his partner in Z Victor 1 or was it 2?
    His very first scene (oft shown) was Bert Lynch as a cop on points duty and talking about horse racing to a motorist. Not knowing that he was being watched by Barlow and Watt. (His laid back street wise attitude being at odds with the Main TV cop of the day…George Dixon.

    PC Lynch, Sgt Lynch and Inspector Lynch was the character that gave the show continuity and as the steel shutter descended on Newtown police station to show the new almost paramilitary style of policing.
    Id disagree with mainland Ulsterman ….there were other faces from Belfast who were regulars on 1960s TV…JG Devlin and Lily Begley for example….and in the 1970s and 1980s Troubles Porn was very much a staple of BBC Play of the Week type shows…and career opportunities opened up for Adrian Dunbar (great actor), James Nesbit, John Lynch, Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson and then a newer generation Conleth Hill for example.

    All of them owe a debt to James Ellis.
    He glided effortlessly into the character parts.
    Was the undoubted star of the “Billy” trilogy.
    And my favourite part he played was the journalist in Resurection Man, one of only two good dramas about the Troubles. Almost unwatchable because its so truthful.
    There is too much nostalgia about “The Bridge” I still remember seeing that on TV with JG Devlin ….and my father (a trade unionist) talking about it to the Plymouth Brethren man from the “Cheque Company”.
    Thompson was a trouble maker, said the Plymouth Brother.
    But it somehow belongs in that vague late 1950s, early 1960s picture of “If Only” but really as irrelevant as Frank Carson and the Half Door Club.
    To me…James Ellis will simply be a great actor who showed the way to so many others.