Book Review: Troubles Over The Bridge

Troubles Over The Bridge
James Ellis

Lagan Press £9.99

This is a joy of a book. The life story of one of our best known actors in his own words. James Ellis is legend. Perhaps he’s best known for his role in Z Cars and more recently in the Billy plays playing the bully father Norman Martin opposite Kenneth Branagh who was freshly out of drama school. Aside from BBC’s Z Cars, a police drama set on Merseyside, he starred in some of the UK’s best-known programmes, including Doctor Who, In Sickness And In Health, Ballykissangel and Only Fools And Horses.

But you don’t get far into a conversation about Jimmy Ellis without the scandal of Over The Bridge coming up for discussion. There are myths and legends surround the 1959 head to head between Ellis and the chairman of the board of the Group Theatre, Richie McKee but now thanks to this new book, the facts are put down in black and white by the man himself. Over the Bridge is the story of shipyard bigotry and violence written by Sam Thompson, himself a former shipyard worker and His father was a sheet-metal worker in Harland and Wolff who worked on the Titanic. so the script was authentic and as raw as those days were. Catholic verses Protestent, unions verses unions, a teary who isn’t allowed to fill the protestant can because he fills the can of the catholic Peter O’Boyle. There are rumblings which explode quite literally and there are thoughts that this was an IRA bomb and the play kicks off with a tense story line developing into a tragic finale. 

Things were going well for Ellis, The actor who kept body and soul together by selling ladies’ shoes in Selfridges before Harry Towb offered him a part in a BBC television series and his career took off. he had just been appointed artistic director of the Group Theatre where McKee was chairman of the board, also chairman of the board of the Arts Theatre and chairman of CEMA, today the Arts Council. Oh yes, he was also regional governor of the NI BBC so an influential member of society and a formidable opponent to take on! 

 The cat was put among the pigeons at a press conference to introduce Ellis as the newly appointed artistic director of the Group and to announce the new season’s plays. Unfortunately the ebullient playwright spoke of his forthcoming play in some detail and so alerting McKee to the controversial nature of the work. The chairman demanded to read the script, not part of his remit so strangely there were no extra copies available. Each actor guarded their script with their lives. That included It mattered not. McKee, one of Ulster’s elite, suspected Thompson’s lay of being ‘subversive’; a script went missing and on the afternoon of the first rehearsal McKee summoned Ellis and actor’s union rep Maurice O’Callaghan to a meeting.

The outcome was predictable. The chairman of the board wanted sections of the play removed, even one major character was under threat, he criticised the language and claimed the play ‘could lead to civil unrest and even rioting,’ stating: “It is the policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage.” His board fell in behind him and the production was cancelled.  

The drama behind the scenes is documented in this throughly enjoyable book, the blatant censorship was appalling yet you’ve only to think back to Newtownabbey Borough Council’s failed attempt to ban The Reduced Shakespeare Company.  

Troubles Over The Bridge tells a tale of two cultures, the raw passion of the shipyard and the well known actors who believed the play deserved to be produced and the city fathers who just couldn’t understand that characters like Warren Baxter and Davy Mitchell existed let alone what they stood for.

What happened after that board meeting? With the courage of his convictions, Ellis resigned from the Group and started his own company and went from personal success to success. And the play? It too was a huge success and to this day is still being performed.

In ‘Troubles Over The Bridge’, Ellis tells how the Group Theatre’s Board of Directors shied away from producing what they deemed was too controversial a play. Ellis felt he had no choice but to resign his position as Theatre Director in order to direct the production he knew had to be seen. Together with Thompson, they went on to stage the play in Belfast’s Empire Theatre where it played to a welcoming audience of 42,000 people over seven weeks, with little of the anticipated resistance. 2015 marks 55 years since that first performance of ‘Over The Bridge’. Since then, the play has since been staged in Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Brighton and the London West End, all following a trail blazed by Ellis.

Ellis’ son, Toto Ellis, himself a writer and producer, said: “Whilst my father was rightly proud of his acting career, it was in fact his early days as a Director of which he was most proud. Specifically, his battle with Sam Thompson to stage ‘Over the Bridge’ in the face of censorship. To have become Artistic Director of the Group Theatre, as the son of a sheetmetal worker in 1950s Belfast, whilst still in his twenties, was a pretty remarkable achievement.

“So he certainly didn’t take it lightly when he resigned that post on a point of principle to stage the play Thompson had written. He risked everything at this point to try and stage “Over the Bridge”, with absolutely no guarantee that they would be able to put it on, or even ever be able to find work in the theatre in Belfast again.

“Dad died without knowing his book would ever be published. So this is a pretty special moment for us to be able to tell his story to the world. It’s a fascinating read and it documents an incredibly important moment in Northern Ireland’s history.”

The pages of ‘Troubles Over The Bridge’ are filled with amusing anecdotes and encounters with legends such as Orson Welles, all underpinned by the passionate story of how Ellis had the courage of his convictions and championed anti-sectarianism in the middle of the challenging post-war era.

Robina Ellis, Jimmy’s wife of almost 40 years, Robina, said: “The 1950s was possibly the most significant decade of the second half of the 20th century for drama on stage and film.  At a rebellious time when America and England in particular were breaking boundaries with kitchen sink dramas and angry young men, the likes of John Osborne and Arthur Miller were to the forefront.  Here in Northern Ireland, Jimmy was on a mission, also trailblazing, on behalf of Sam Thompson’s controversial play. The publication of his book, Troubles Over The Bridge, is the most important public tribute and lasting memorial to Jimmy from me and our son, Toto.

‘Troubles over the Bridge’ was funded through subscription, a fitting tribute to the high regard in which Ellis was held, with individuals financially sponsoring the publication of the book. All subscribers are mentioned warmly and include such well-known names as former BBC Controller and Head of UTV Robin Walsh, and the family of working-class hero Lord Billy Blease.

Longtime friend, actor Adrian Dunbar has referred to how the story has passed into folklore among actors in Northern Ireland, telling of how it set up a template for actors to use the theatre as a platform to explore difficult political questions. Adrian will also be playing Sam Thompson in a forthcoming production of a film about the book, being produced by Toto Ellis.

James Kerr from publisher Lagan Press said: “We are delighted to play our part in telling this enthralling story. This was a tale that needed to be told given its critical significance to the cultural and creative development of Northern Ireland. The achievement of this book is to reconfirm the ever present, unflinching commitment by artists in Northern Ireland to telling the story of this place without compromise or apology. This book is a glorious testimony to the resilience, perseverance and dedication of Jimmy Ellis a man who lived, breathed and personified the cultural personality, the creative DNA of Northern Ireland. Lagan Press is honoured to publish this work.”

Brian Garrett, Sam Thompson’s literary executor over many years, who helped to coordinate the appeal for funding support for the book, has said: “The response to the appeal was very reassuring and demonstrated the great affection for Jimmy Ellis.  Now we know how critical was his role in the struggle to bring Over The Bridge to the stage and ensuring its theatrical success.”

At the time of Ellis’ death in 2014, Northern Ireland playwright Martin Lynch paid tribute to Mr Ellis, and said his support for Over The Bridge, which dealt with issues of sectarianism, was a courageous move. He said: “He broke the back of conservatism in the establishment at that time and very, very courageously stuck to his guns. Him and Sam Thompson were a great team together to create and produce Over The Bridge when the establishment didn’t want it to happen.”

Post Author: Belfast Times

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