James Ellis was, at one time, one of the most familiar faces on our television screens. He was one the stalwarts of the BBC’s ground-breaking police drama Z Cars throughout the 1960s. The show ran for 803 episodes in over 12 series and James Ellis, as his character Bert Lynch, was in most of them.
Like many actors on television his popular persona obscured a serious man dedicated to theatre and politics, most specifically those of Northern Ireland.
Before his rise to fame and popular acclaim on the mainland Ellis ran, at the tender age of 27, the Group Theatre in Belfast, one of the provinces leading rep companies.
In 1959 Ellis was approached by local playwright Sam Thomson who had a new play he wanted staging. The play, Over the Bridge, was a powerful evocation of a sectarian dispute in the Belfast ship-yards. Ellis was keen to do it but the theatre’s board rejected it after being pressurised by the Unionist establishment. Consequently, Ellis resigned in protest and proceeded to find ways to mount the play independently.
In his book Troubles Over the Bridge, James Ellis describes the trials, tribulations and finally the triumph of staging the play which became a defining landmark in the history of Northern Ireland.
The book sets out the context of the struggle along with a poem by Ellis, a short synopsis of the story and a blow by blow description of the fight to put the play on.
Over the Bridge is a fascinating insight, not only into the troubles in the province but the often soul destroying struggle that writers and producers have to get new work performed – a struggle that is never easy in any context but when you are dealing with sensitive sectarian issues in what was to become a community at war with itself, well, you can imagine.
Sadly, James Ellis died of a stroke in Lincoln on 8th March 2014, aged 82. This book and the events it describes add to his substantial legacy. Michael Hasted April 2016
THE TROUBLES OVER THE BRIDGE by James Ellis
Published by Lagan Press, Londonderry, 2016