When the 1960s dawned I was an out of work actor who had come home to Belfast, after a few bleak months in London, to be housed and fed by my mother while I tried to find gainful employment.
I cursed myself for not having been around when Sam Thompson’s eagerly awaited Over the Bridge was being cast. The most controversial play in Belfast’s history was due to open in late January at the Empire Theatre.
It should have been staged by the publicly subsidised Group Theatre, but the Group’s board of directors had objected to Thompson’s powerful portrayal of sectarianism in the Belfast shipyard. “We are determined,” they declared, “not to mount any play which.. would give rise to sectarianism or political controversy of an extreme nature.”
In the uproar that followed that decision , James Ellis, the theatre’s artistic director, and many of its actors resigned and set up a new company, Ulster Bridge Productions, to stage the play at the Empire.
And where was I while all this was going on? Traipsing around London from one unsuccessful audition to the next. One day my mother showed me an advert in the Belfast Telegraph. BBC Northern Ireland was looking for an announcer/newscaster for television and radio.
“You should apply for that.”
“I’d be wasting my time,” I said. “They’ll give it to someone on the inside,or someone who knows someone on the inside. And anyway I’m an actor.”
“You’ve got no work,” said my mother, “I think you should apply.”
A week after I had posted my reluctant application I went to see Over the Bridge. Nothing like it had ever been staged in Belfast before. he play is rooted in Sam Thompson’s personal history as a shipyard painter and fired by his loathing of religious bigotry.
However, the view of the Group Theatre’s board that it might provoke civil disturbance had turned out to be nonsense. On the contrary, during a six-week run that drew record audiences — over 40,000 in all — it showed itself to be people’s theatre of a kind that has rarely been seen anywhere in these islands. In the forefront of those clamouring for tickets were shipyard workers, the very men whose attitudes and beliefs were being portrayed on stage — warts, prejudices and all. Few would have been regular playgoers but Over the Bridge, for them, was more than a play.
It was a communal experience. Enthralled as I was myself the night I saw it, I was all the more despondent that I had been out of the frame when it was being cast.
My fortunes were about to change. Belfast would shortly be hosting another momentous, though very different, theatrical event. At the Opera House the legendary Orson Welles was to star as Sir John Falstaff in the world premiere of Chimes at Midnight, a compilation of scenes from the various Shakespeare plays that feature the unruly knight.
I heard that extras were being recruited for Sir John’s private army of layabouts and fellow boozers. Somehow I was reckoned to be the right stuff.
Ten pounds was my pay for a week’s work but I would have accepted less for the privilege of sharing the stage, however humbly, with such a magnificent showman.
Even without costume the overweight Welles had a larger than life presence but the prodigious padding he wore as Falstaff made him look like Michelin Man. The range of his performance, though, all the way from boisterousness to pathos, was a masterpiece of vocal technique.
Then came my second break. I got a phone call from James Ellis for whom I had made my professional debut a few years earlier at the New Theatre in Bangor .
“What are you up to?”
“I’m in Chimes at Midnight. Well, slightly.”
“I hear it’s going to Dublin.”
“Yes, but not with me. They’ll be hiring local extras.”
“Have you seen Over the Bridge?”
“Well, we’re going to Dublin too. One of the cast — he plays Ephraim Smart, the tea boy — has to drop out. Would you read for it?”
It’s not a big part but pivotal to the plot, the young shipyard apprentice who fills the tea cans. A Protestant bigot warns the boy he’ll be in trouble if he continues to bring tea to one of the Catholic workers.
It’s from this early incident that the tragedy develops. At 22 I was probably six years older than the character Thompson had created but he and Ellis decided I looked young enough and I was in.
Over the Bridge was as big a hit at the Olympia in Dublin as it had been back home.
It was in its third sell-out week when a letter arrived from BBC Northern Ireland inviting me to an audition and interview for the announcing job I had all but written off.
More out of curiosity than realistic hope I bought a return train ticket to Belfast on St Patrick’s Day, of all days, wondering what snares might be waiting for me in Broadcasting House. The trickiest, as it turned out, was one that had never crossed my mind.
First of all I was taken to a studio where I read a news bulletin and the announcements for a concert featuring Mstislav Rostropovich and other pronunciation hazards. Then it was off to the boardroom to meet the interviewing panel, two men from London and two from Belfast.
Why had I applied for the job, I was asked. I talked about my extra-curricular pursuits at Queen’s University and suggested that acting, debating and student journalism had helped to develop skills that a broadcasting career would allow me to express. There were nods of approval from the other side of the table. All seemed to be going well, until suddenly it wasn’t.
Harry McMullan, BBC Northern Ireland’s Head of Programmes, cleared his throat. “You are currently appearing in a play called Over the Bridge in Dublin?”
He leaned forward. “Do you think it would have been justifiable for a Belfast theatre, supported by public funds, to stage a play that could have led to civil disturbance?”
I was stunned. Only later did I learn that McMullan had been on the board of the Group Theatre when it rejected the play, a decision he himself had wholeheartedly supported.
But what on earth had that to do with hiring an announcer? I could see, though, that the two out-of-town panel members, one of whom was the chairman, were mystified. Maybe I could help myself by helping them.
“Mr Chairman,” I said, “would you and your London colleague like to know something of the background to this question?”
“We would appreciate that.”
I gave what I hoped was an objective summary of the controversy and of the play’s box-office success. Egged on by further questions I then described the plot. The chairman said it sounded like a fascinating piece of theatre and hoped he’d
get to see it some day. He turned to McMullan who had been simmering in silence. Having set the hare loose he couldn’t stop it prancing around the boardroom.
“Sorry, Harry, you had a question connected with that?”
McMullan shook his head. He’d had enough.
“In that case, Mr Tuohy,” said the chairman, “thank you for your time.”
To be fair to Harry McMullan, he subsequently agreed with the others that I should be offered the job. I had some soul-searching to do when the offer arrived but I accepted and made my broadcasting debut soon after the last night at the Olympia.
However, the fact that I had been asked such a daunting question in such an irrelevant context showed how deeply the Northern Ireland establishment had been offended by the truth in Thompson’s play and dismayed by its success.
Earlier this year, on January 26, the 50th anniversary of Over the Bridge’s first night, I watched James Ellis unveil the Ulster History Circle’s blue plaque to Sam Thompson in the street where he was born in east Belfast, not far from Ellis’ own birthplace.
No one was better qualified to perform the ceremony. It was Ellis’ professional skills, allied with Thompson’s writing talent and the refusal of both to be thwarted by narrower minds, that made Over the Bridge a landmark in the history of Belfast theatre.
Only five years later, having written two more plays, The Evangelist and Cemented with Love, Thompson died at the age of 49. But his legacy is still with us.
After the blue plaque ceremony Martin Lynch, producer of this year’s Over the Bridge revival, paid tribute to the trailblazer from Ballymacarrett whose work has encouraged so many other writers, himself included, to tackle the harsher realities of our fractured heritage.
In the words of Stewart Parker, honouring Thompson’s commitment to cross-community tolerance, “he coaxed, commanded, persuaded and implored his mulish fellow-countrymen to make the journey.”
A new adaptation of Over The bridge by playwright Martin Lynch, directed by Rachel O’Riordan, will launch at St Kevin’s Hall, Belfast on March 12/13 and will run at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast March 13-April 3 at 8pm nightly, matinees Saturdays 2.30pm