Bridge over troubled waters
Ahead of a special screening in Belfast tomorrow, Ivan Little speaks to the cast of Two Angry Men, the new short film about the Over The Bridge censorship row that gripped the city in 1959
The controversy that exploded in Belfast nearly 60 years ago over a play about sectarianism in the shipyard is being revisited in a new short film based on the work of late writer Sam Thompson and actor-director James Ellis that speaks against the banning of Over the Bridge.
Line of Duty star Adrian Dunbar and Game of Thrones actor Conleth Hill are heading up the cast of Two Angry Men, which is written and directed by Ellis's son, Toto.
James's widow, Robina Ellis, said that her husband, who died in March 2014 at the age of 82, would have been thrilled by the new production.
The former Z-Cars star, who paved the way for scores of Ulster actors to break into theatre and film productions in England, wrote a book about the row over Thompson's no-holds-barred play, but he sadly passed away before a publishing deal could be struck.
Ellis, who saw the Over the Bridge row as a life-changing incident, was director of the Group Theatre in Belfast at the time, and he recalled how Thompson famously told him in 1959 that he had a play about the shipyard that he "wouldn't touch with a bargepole".
However, he was wrong. The 28-year-old east Belfast man saw it as a brave and uncompromising piece - a view echoed by his father, James Ellis snr, who worked in the shipyard as a sheet-metal worker and who helped to build the Titanic. He told him: "It's our play, son."
But the group's board of directors didn't share the enthusiasm of their young director or the playwright, who had been a painter in the yard.
They refused to stage Over the Bridge, claiming that it could lead to sectarian clashes on the streets of Belfast.
Ellis quit his job and eventually directed a production of Thompson's piece at Belfast's Empire Theatre, where it played to more than 42,000 people in just seven weeks with no hint of civil unrest outside.
Filming for Two Angry Men took place over two days at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra in June.
Belfast playwright Stewart Love, who championed the young Ellis as a fledgling actor in a number of his plays, including one called The Randy Dandy, completed something of a dramatic circle by portraying James Ellis snr in the film.
"It was a great pleasure to be involved," he said. "James jnr was a real son of Ulster, and I admired him greatly."
Robina Ellis, who has spoken of her pride at keeping her husband's legacy alive, added: "Jimmy regarded Over the Bridge as his most important contribution to Northern Ireland arts and culture.
"The message of the play was a plea for tolerance and that people should pull together and not pull apart.
"It has renewed resonance and relevance in the UK after the EU referendum result."
Robina's son, Toto, who works in advertising, is making his writing and directorial debut with the film.
"It was a labour of love," he said. "I wanted to get it historically accurate and make it interesting and involving for audiences from Northern Ireland, and for people who mightn't be from the province.
"We were lucky to get such a fantastic cast together, but most of the actors said they wanted to do the film for Jimmy."
Adrian Dunbar, who delivered a heartfelt tribute to Ellis at his funeral in east Belfast, said he was excited by the film and by playing the role of Sam Thompson.
He added: "It was lucky for Sam that he ran into a very young James Ellis, who decided to champion Over the Bridge. And they ended up not only doing it in Belfast, but also in the West End of London, where they had the help of people like Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Laurence Olivier.
"It played to huge acclaim and it was a real celebrity kind of thing at the time. It made a lot of noise, establishing Sam as a writer and Jimmy as a director."
Adrian said he would love it if the short, 20-minute film led to a full-length, low-budget movie.
He explained:"We hope we have done Jimmy proud. It felt like he was in the room during the filming."
Conleth Hill, who was cast as the chairman of the Group Theatre's board, Ritchie McKee, added of Ellis: "He was one of the first Northern Irish actors not to apologise about where he was from. His was one of the first 'native' accents you would have heard on television."
Michael Shea, who has just graduated from drama school in London, plays the young Ellis, who is still fondly remembered for his work on Graham Reid's Billy plays on the BBC, which also starred a youthful Kenneth Branagh in the title role.
Michael said: "I knew James was a legend of the theatre here, but after discovering more and more about him, I now realise that he was a giant of a man."
The part of the manager of the Empire Theatre, Frank Reynolds, is played by actor Michael Smiley, who starred in the television series Luther and who described James Ellis as his "mentor".
"He was one of the greatest human beings I have ever come across in my life," he said. "He was the first Northern Irish actor I ever saw on television, and the fact that he kept his accent was very important.
"I try to keep mine as much as possible. He was a patron saint of any actor from here who came after him. He was an incredibly intelligent and well-read man who could speak many languages and who wrote plays and translated poetry."
Michael was in a play with Ellis at the Edinburgh Festival, and shared a flat with him.
"It was a real privilege to have acted with him," he said. "And when I brought my son to Edinburgh to see the play, Jimmy made us a Hungarian goulash before we went out on the lash and left us a big plate of sandwiches for when we came home."
Two Angry Men will have its invitation-only Ulster premiere at the Strand Cinema in east Belfast tomorrow afternoon.
The Strand is only a few hundred yards from where James Ellis grew up in Park Avenue in a house that now has a plaque on the outside wall in his honour.
Afterwards, a documentary will be shown and Adrian Dunbar will take part in a Q&A with retired broadcaster Denis Tuohy, who acted in Over the Bridge in Dublin.
Robina Ellis said: "It would be marvellous if the film could reach as wide an audience as possible.
"Jimmy and Sam were part of a movement in the Fifties and Sixties, when we had Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront, and there were also the kitchen sink dramas in Britain and plays like Look Back in Anger by John Osborne.
"All that burst out around the same time and everybody knows about them, but they haven't heard of the shipyard writers, particularly Sam.
"It was very brave of him and Jimmy to take on so many people. Jimmy felt after he had offended so many people, he wouldn't be welcome in Belfast anymore and he had to go in search of work."
Robina insisted that actor Jimmy Nesbitt was right when he said that Ellis and Thompson were rebellious trailblazers who had resisted censorship in the arts.
"And that is still going on in various parts of the world now," she added.
"In Arabic nations and in places like Ukraine, they can't put on plays that they want to stage, which is why we are saying that the knowledge from Two Angry Men shouldn't be kept only in Northern Ireland."