Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Not too late to talk to Billy

The stage is set for a new episode of the landmark drama, but will Sir Ken return for the starring role?

Billy (kenneth Branagh and Norman (James Ellis)

Sir Kenneth Branagh could soon return to the role that launched his stellar career almost a quarter-of-a-century ago — as Belfast boy Billy Martin.

Barely out of his teens, Branagh tarred as the fresh-faced character in the popular BBC Billy plays during the 1980s which followed the lives of a Protestant working class family in the city.

But with a new production under way, the 52-year-old knight (right) is said to be “interested” in taking up the role once again, with the play’s screenwriter saying he would “absolutely love” to see him return to the role after 25 years.

It was 1987 when we last saw Billy Martin and the rest of his family, but now writer Graham Reid is to bring the characters back to the small stage in a new play at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre next May.

Belfast-born thespian Branagh made his name as teenager Billy, who struggles to come to terms with his on-screen father Norman, played by Jimmy Ellis, alongside his three sisters.

According to Reid, hopes are very much alive for Sir Ken’s grand return to the character, loved by so many right across Northern Ireland.

“He’s an international star and a knight. I spoke to him about it and he was very interested in it, but, as I say, it depends on commitments,” he said.

“We haven’t confirmed the cast yet and will be sitting down in early January. I would always be hopeful of Ken; But Sir Ken is a very busy man.”

The four plays featuring the stormy father and son relationship captured the imagination of viewers across the UK when they were first aired.

Reid said the new play takes place 25 years on from when we last saw the Martin family.

“Billy is coming back for a celebration of his father Norman’s 73rd birthday — the family are all coming back together again,” he said.

“We are picking up with the family 25 years on. Norman and the two girls have been in England and Lorna has joined the police.

“Billy moved away as well, but they are all coming back together, picking up some of the threads of their lives.”

Local people’s love for the Martin family doesn’t appear to have diminished in its 25 years off the screen.

Earlier this year a screening of the first instalment in the series drew in almost 300,000 viewers when it aired on BBC.

But according to Reid, he’s not concerned about revisiting an old friend.

“It’s not a worry and I hope people will embrace and enjoy it and go with it,” he said.

“But you can’t second guess what they will want.

“Hopefully they will see it as authentic.”

He added he would be “delighted” if Sir Ken could return to the stage in the role which launched his career in Britain and the United States.

“Absolutely, I’d be delighted. We had a chat and he’s interested in where it goes,” he said.

“It would be great to get some of the original actors, or as many as possible.

“It is very difficult and people have commitments for all sorts of reasons.”

The fifth instalment is set to run at the Lyric from May 1-26.

It will join a host of new productions staged at the theatre next year — including humour in the Marie Jones comedy Weddins, Weeins And Wakes, and The Seafarer by acclaimed writer Conor McPherson.

For more information or to book, contact the Lyric box office on 028 9038 1081, or visit the website at www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

Welcome home old friend, we’ve missed you these 25 years

By Grania McFadden

Love, Billy. An exhortation, or a last farewell?

It's been 25 years since Billy Martin walked off our TV screens and out of our lives.

Graham Reid's young hero, played so compellingly by Ken Branagh, gave viewers an insight — for the first time — of what Belfast looked like for many of those who lived there.

Billy invited audiences from all over the UK to sample life with a working-class Protestant family in a terraced house off the Donegall Road. Until then, the only thing viewers in London and Liverpool, Glasgow and Gwent and Galway knew for sure about Northern Ireland was that the natives were in revolt, chucking bombs and firing bullets at each other, or huddled down out of the line of fire.

Billy and his family — father Norman, three sisters including Lorna, and uncle Andy changed all that.

They lived with the Troubles as a backdrop, not as the main event. They struggled to make ends meet, to put food on the table and fags in their pockets.

They struggled with work, with love — with life.

Plus ca change — and 25 years later Billy is stepping back into the spotlight; this time not on the small screen, but on the stage of the Lyric Theatre.

Whether or not we really will love Billy in his latest incarnation, we'll be delighted to see him once again. And, once again, sorry to see him go...

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