Jimmy Ellis

National Museums NI has recently acquired a collection relating to the life and work of James Ellis. Often known as Jimmy, the Belfast man is best remembered for his work as an actor of stage and screen, with a career spanning over 60 years. He became a household name in his television performance in BBC police drama Z-Cars, and later in the Billy plays, alongside a young Kenneth Branagh. His was the first recognisable, authentic Northern Ireland accent to be heard regularly on British television, and he was known for championing his homeland, and encouraging and paving the way younger actors from the province. He is remembered as ‘a true East Belfast son’ and celebrated by the city, most recently through the naming of a bridge in his memory. At the beginning of his career, his role in directing the now revered play Over the Bridge, forced him to seek work in London due to its controversial nature in addressing sectarianism.

An activist and trailblazer in the arts in the 1950s and beyond, Ellis was also a poet, writer and translator. He translated plays, prose and poetry using Latin, Italian and Romanian. He had a particular interest in French poet Pierre Ronsard, and was an honorary member of the Ronsard society. This collection story addresses some of the key parts of Ellis’ career through items held within the collection.

Early Life and Education

Early Life and Education

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Over the Bridge

Over the Bridge

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The Randy Dandy

The Randy Dandy

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Z-Cars

Z-Cars

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The Billy Plays

The Billy Plays

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Theatre

Theatre

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Television

Television

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Later Recognitions

Later Recognitions

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Early Life and Education

Image: This family photograph shows Ellis as a young boy, along with a  childhood friend, Valerie. BELUM.W2018.16.25
This family photograph shows Ellis as a young boy, along with a childhood friend, Valerie. BELUM.W2018.16.25

James Ellis was born in Belfast on 15 March 1931 into a working-class family. His mother Tilly was a mill worker while his father James was a sheet-metal worker at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, two industries notorious in the city’s history [1] . Along with his sister Eileen, he was raised in Park Avenue in East Belfast. Over the course of his childhood, the Ellis family took in lodgers, which was to be recollected and immortalised in his poetry anthology, Portrait of a House.

Image: A pamphlet entitled 'A Tribute to Sir Tyrone Guthrie'. BELUM.W2018.16.22
A pamphlet entitled 'A Tribute to Sir Tyrone Guthrie'. BELUM.W2018.16.22

A number of scholarships, recognising Ellis’ talent and ability, facilitated his education. The first of which enabled him to attend Belfast’s Methodist College. Even in these early years James displayed an interest in drama and theatre, and is named as providing stage decorations for the dramatic society’s performance of the The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1949 [2]. Supported again by a scholarship, Ellis studied English and French literature at Queen’s University Belfast. While there, he joined their dramatic society, and worked as a student actor in Hubert Wilmot’s recently opened Arts Theatre. In an interview for Ulster Television, Ellis recalled that these commitments caused him to neglect his studies so badly he lost his scholarship at the end of his first year.[3] Fortunately, through the success of his efforts to secure the Tyrone Guthrie Scholarship, he was able to pursue his love of acting at the Bristol Old Vic in 1951.[4]

[1] Jimmy Ellis RIP - Slugger O'Toole website

[2] Belfast Telegraph - Wednesday 02 Mar1949, p.3 

[3] James Ellis: An Actor's Life, 1987 - A Spectrum documentary

[4] James Ellis obituary - The Guardian

 

Over the Bridge

Image: Set design for Over the Bridge, 1960. BELUM.W2018.16.20
Set design for Over the Bridge, 1960. BELUM.W2018.16.20

On Bedford Street in 1959 Ellis was stopped in his tracks by the playwright Sam Thompson brandishing the manuscript for his latest work Over the Bridge saying ‘I have a play here you won’t touch with a bargepole’[5]. Like Ellis’ father, Thompson had previously worked in Belfast’s shipyard and his play told the story of sectarian division in Harland & Wolff. Ellis agreed to direct the play, but due to its perceivably controversial nature, the Ulster Group Theatre pulled the plug on the production just weeks before it was due to open there, leaving Ellis to quit and form his own company for the show to go on.[6] 57 years after the play was performed, the story of the fight to stage it was retold in Two Angry Men, a short film created by Ellis’ son Toto. It was also described by Ellis in his own words in his book Troubles Over the Bridge which provides a first-hand account of the attempts to censor the play, how these were overcome and the aftermath. While Over the Bridge proved successful in Belfast and beyond, the controversy of the play forced Ellis to leave his home country in search of work in London.

[5] Two angry men review - A Spectrum documentary

[6] Jimmy Ellis' battle to stage Over the Bridge' is recalled - Belfast Telegraph

 

The Randy Dandy

Image: A postcard from James Ellis to his family. BELUM.W2018.16.26
A postcard from James Ellis to his family. BELUM.W2018.16.26

Following Over the Bridge, Ellis sought work in London. In a postcard held in the collection, addressed to his parents and his sister Eileen, Jimmy stated that he had decided to stay there for a while longer as he had just got a part in a play for the BBC. He wrote that it was ‘wonderful, because some of the very big names were up for it. My agent is delighted + thinks it will lead to even bigger things’. It would indeed, lead to bigger things. The production of Stewart Love’s play, in which Ellis played Randy, a Belfast shipyard worker who refuses to strike, was deemed as controversial by some. Many reviews were, however, incredibly positive. One stated, ‘James Ellis was magnetic as this honest rebel. His strongly written part not only carried the play. It was the play. The other characters were props rather than people’.[7]

[7] Belfast Telegraph, 15 September 1961, p.3

Image:

 

Z-Cars

This magazine was issued in 1963 and the cover photograph shows Brian Blessed in his role as PC 'Fancy' Smith driving a Ford Zephyr Mk3 and Joe Brady as Jock Weir. BELUM.W2018.16.4
This magazine was issued in 1963 and the cover photograph shows Brian Blessed in his role as PC 'Fancy' Smith driving a Ford Zephyr Mk3 and Joe Brady as Jock Weir. BELUM.W2018.16.4
A photograph of Ellis playing Inspector Bert Lynch in Z-Cars in 1976 from the episode The Man Who Killed Songbirds. BELUM.W2018.16.5
A photograph of Ellis playing Inspector Bert Lynch in Z-Cars in 1976 from the episode The Man Who Killed Songbirds. BELUM.W2018.16.5

Ellis’ role in live BBC police drama Z-Cars is one of the most remembered and significant in his career. He was the longest serving cast member, working on the show from 1962-1978, making him a household name.[8] His performance as Bert Lynch, who rose from PC to Inspector during the 16-year period the show was aired, is significant not only due to the popularity and longevity of the character, but also due to the use of his Northern Irish accent, a first on British television at the time. Despite reportedly being advised to lose his accent while at drama school, his son Toto comments that ‘he blazed a trail for Northern Ireland actors, in that he was the first character not to change his accent’.[9]

Image: Part of the costume from Z-Cars, this is the jacket and hat worn by James Ellis in his role as Bert Lynch. BELUM.W2018.16.7, BELUM.W2018.16.6
Part of the costume from Z-Cars, this is the jacket and hat worn by James Ellis in his role as Bert Lynch. BELUM.W2018.16.7, BELUM.W2018.16.6

A range of items in the collection provide a glimpse into the show and Ellis’ character. These range from costume items like Bert Lynch’s police hat and jacket, and character photographs. These costumes are also of personal significance. Ellis met his second wife, Robina, when she was working behind the scenes on the show. In a recent interview, Mrs Ellis recalled that James was partaking in a midnight charity performance for Sir Terence Rattigan, but the BBC couldn’t let his costume out without someone accompanying it. She volunteered to collect at 3am, but he instead invited her for dinner. The couple married in 1976.

TV Tornado magazine, number 52, dated January 6 1968 with an illustration of James Ellis in Z-Cars on its cover. BELUM.W2018.16.15
TV Tornado magazine, number 52, dated January 6 1968 with an illustration of James Ellis in Z-Cars on its cover. BELUM.W2018.16.15
A board game for the television show Z-Cars made by Waddingtons. BELUM.W2018.16.16
A board game for the television show Z-Cars made by Waddingtons. BELUM.W2018.16.16

The popularity of the show is reflected in a number of associated collectable items and memorabilia. A copy of the TV-related comic book anthology TV Tornado from January 1968 featured a striking graphic of Ellis’ character Bert. A Z-Cars board game from the 1960s made by Waddingtons is also held in the collection.

[8] James Ellis obituary - The Guardian

[9] Open-hearted son of Belfast’s working class community - The Irish Times

Jimmy Ellis: Belfast-born Z Cars actor dies aged 82 - BBC news

 

The Billy Plays

Image: The televised drama Too Late to Talk to Billy was broadcast as part of the BBC 'Play for Today' series in 1982. BELUM.W2018.16.2
The televised drama Too Late to Talk to Billy was broadcast as part of the BBC 'Play for Today' series in 1982. BELUM.W2018.16.2

A number of items in the collection relate to another key performance in Ellis’ career; his role in the Billy plays. This series was the work of Graham Reid, who like Ellis, grew up in a Protestant working class family in Belfast. The trio of screenplays aired between 1982 and 1984 and were entitled, Too Late To Talk to Billy (1982), A Matter of Choice for Billy (1983) and A Coming To Terms for Billy (1984). The series centred on the life of the Martins, a Protestant working-class family in Belfast. This work had a wider social and cultural impact. A BBC report stated that, ‘up until then, the voice of ordinary Protestant as distinct from their politicians and paramilitaries had yet to be heard by a cross-channel audience. These plays, fashioned on the Donegal Road where Reid grew up, changed all that.’ Reid explained Ellis’ character, Norman Martin was based on men he knew growing up, stating, ‘I knew a lot of men like Norman Martin, who were devils in drink. Norman was a hard man, who didn’t give way to his emotions.’[10] Norman had a strained relationship with his son, Billy, played by a young Kenneth Branagh in his first television performance.

[10] Whatever became of Kenneth Branagh’s Billy? - The Irish Times

Image: A poster for Too Late to Talk to Billy. BELUM.W2018.16.18
A poster for Too Late to Talk to Billy. BELUM.W2018.16.18

A number of items also relate to a stage adaption of Too Late to Talk to Billy, commissioned by the Arts Council NI which James Ellis directed. Graham Reid had previously refused to adapt it for the stage but, working with Ellis, took the opportunity to re-examine the characters. In the stage version the Martins were a younger family and the title role was played by Peter Ferris. The designer was Rowel Friers.

Image: Photographic still from the play Too Late to Talk to Billy. BELUM.W2018.16.19
Photographic still from the play Too Late to Talk to Billy. BELUM.W2018.16.19

 

Theatre

Image: Group Theatre programme, a souvenir history- 30p. BELUM.W2018.16.21
Group Theatre programme, a souvenir history- 30p. BELUM.W2018.16.21

While Ellis became a household name through many of his memorable roles on screen, he made an impressive range of stage performances throughout his life. Ellis’ portfolio ranged from The Playboy of the Western World and Royal Shakespeare Company productions to a Dame in the pantomime Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Belfast’s Grand Opera House. A souvenir history of the Group Theatre, held within Ellis’ collection, serves as a reminder of his theatrical roots. Performing with the company as an actor, and then as Artistic Director, until they pulled the plug on Over the Bridge, Ellis was part of plays including ‘Watch it Sailor!’, performed in the Empire Theatre in 1960. The poster for this play can be seen below.

Empire Theatre framed poster for Watch it Sailor. BELUM.W2018.16.17
Empire Theatre framed poster for Watch it Sailor. BELUM.W2018.16.17
A programme for Once a Catholic a comedy by Mary O'Malley at Wyndham's theatre. BELUM.W2018.16.23
A programme for Once a Catholic a comedy by Mary O'Malley at Wyndham's theatre. BELUM.W2018.16.23

A programme for a play performed in 1979 is also held in the collection. Entitled Once a Catholic by Mary O’Malley, the comedy was staged at the Wyndham’s Theatre. In an advertisement for its national tour, this play was described as ‘uninhibited in its language and intended for an adult audience.’[11] Over a decade later, in 1991, he acted in Geraldine Aron’s Same Old Moon at the Globe Theatre. The play, about ‘an Irish girl who travels the world’ is represented within the collection by a photographic still of Ellis from the play, and a souvenir paperweight. [12]

[11] Aberdeen Press and Journal, 03 June 1980, p. 6.

[12] Illustrated London News - Saturday 01 June 1991, p.70.

Image: This photograph still shows actor James Ellis in Same Old Moon. BELUM.W2018.16.12. along side a paperweight relating to the play. BELUM.W2018.16.11
This photograph still shows actor James Ellis in Same Old Moon. BELUM.W2018.16.12. along side a paperweight relating to the play. BELUM.W2018.16.11

 

Television

Image: A photograph of actor James Ellis with co-stars from Dr Who: Battlefield, 1989. BELUM.W2018.16.8
A photograph of actor James Ellis with co-stars from Dr Who: Battlefield, 1989. BELUM.W2018.16.8

Throughout his career, Ellis appeared in a wide range of television shows, including Casualty, All Creatures Great and Small, Nightingales, In Sickness and in Health and Birds of a Feather. In 1989, he played archaeologist Peter Warmsly in Dr Who: Battlefield alongside the seventh doctor, Sylvester McCoy.

Image: A signed VHS Tape of Dr Who: Battlefield 1989. BELUM.W2018.16.9 and the hat worn by James Ellis in Dr Who: Battlefield, 1989. BELUM.W2018.16.10
A signed VHS Tape of Dr Who: Battlefield 1989. BELUM.W2018.16.9 and the hat worn by James Ellis in Dr Who: Battlefield, 1989. BELUM.W2018.16.10

A number of items, including a photograph of Ellis along with other cast members, the hat he wore in this role, and VHS tape of the episode, are held in the collection. Another photograph records Ellis in the hugely popular sitcom Only Fools and Horses, alongside actors David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst. He appeared in an episode entitled ‘Strangers on the Shore’ airing in 2002.

Image: A photographic group portrait of Only Fools and Horses cast members This images was taken for a 2002 episode entitled, 'Strangers on the Shore' and is signed by James Ellis. BELUM.W2018.16.24
A photographic group portrait of Only Fools and Horses cast members This images was taken for a 2002 episode entitled, 'Strangers on the Shore' and is signed by James Ellis. BELUM.W2018.16.24

 

Later Recognitions

Image: Photograph of James Ellis and Mayor at the opening of the newly refurbished St George's Market in Belfast. BELUM.W2018.16.27
Photograph of James Ellis and Mayor at the opening of the newly refurbished St George's Market in Belfast. BELUM.W2018.16.27

Ellis never forgot his roots, encouraging younger Northern Irish actors, and frequently returning home for visits and events. One photograph in the collection shows him making a guest appearance, alongside the Mayor at an event in Belfast’s St George’s Market. The pride Ellis had in his city was reciprocated, and in 2008, he received an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast. A photograph in the collection shows a smiling Ellis receiving his award from Professor David Johnston.

A photograph of James Ellis with Professor David Johnston receiving his Honorary Doctorate at Queen's University Belfast. BELUM.W2018.16.13
A photograph of James Ellis with Professor David Johnston receiving his Honorary Doctorate at Queen's University Belfast. BELUM.W2018.16.13
A paper copy of James Ellis' honorary doctorate from Queen's University Belfast, dated July 2008. BELUM.W2018.16.14
A paper copy of James Ellis' honorary doctorate from Queen's University Belfast, dated July 2008. BELUM.W2018.16.14

In 2017, three years after Ellis’ death the James ‘Jimmy’ Ellis Bridge was built in Belfast in his memory. Spanning the Connswater River, the footbridge was part of the community greenway project. Ellis was also celebrated and remembered through acting projects. In 2016, His son Toto’s short film production, Two Angry Men, recounted Sam Thompson and Jimmy Ellis’ battle to stage Over the Bridge. More recently, in 2019, Belfast-based Blunt Fringe Productions produced Jimmy Ellis: Home Again, a play based on the poetry of one the city’s most fondly remembered actors. The words, ‘The hills of Antrim etched upon my heart. For truth to tell, I never really left’ are engraved on Ellis’ headstone. Lines from a poem written by Ellis, they reflect both his creative talent and his love of home. While James Ellis never forgot Northern Ireland, his memory, legacy and contribution to the arts will be remembered in many ways, including his archive held by National Museums NI.