'Poor Jimmy Ellis cried for days after he wiped the book's manuscript off his computer... he’d be so proud now'
Legendary actor Jimmy Ellis’ book about Sam Thompson’s iconic play Over The Bridge has made it into print after his death. Ivan Little talks to his widow about how the book was nearly lost
A wave of contrasting emotions swept over Jimmy Ellis’s widow a few days ago as she took delivery of her husband’s long-delayed book about the most challenging period of his colourful life in the theatre.
Robina Ellis was sad that her husband of 40 years wasn’t there to share the elation of finally the fruits of his labour; she was proud to revel in Jimmy’s masterly use of words but she also felt a massive sense of relief that the book ever got to print at all.
For Troubles Over the Bridge, about a controversial Belfast play that almost didn’t see the light of day, is a tome that almost vanished into the ether itself as Jimmy, a self-confessed computer Luddite, pressed the delete button after penning his final chapter in 2009.
“He cried for a couple of days after realising what he’d done,” says Robina. “We tried everything we could to retrieve what he had written. But it was all gone.”
In the frenetic days that followed, a printed copy of an early draft of the book was discovered and an IT expert was able to create a new computer file which Robina updated with alterations and anecdotes from Jimmy about his encounters with theatre giants like Orson Welles.
However that wasn’t the end of the tale of woe. For after the “new” manuscript was submitted to the publishers with an eye to a launch in 2010, nothing more was heard of the book.
“The months and the years went by, but the whole project appeared to have stalled,” says Robina. “Jimmy was always asking about it, but he never got any answers.”
Tragically, Jimmy died in March last year at the age of 82 having long ago given up any hope that his book would ever be published.
Just days before his death, though, Lagan Press, the award-winning Belfast publishers, contacted the Ellis family to say they wanted to release Troubles Over the Bridge.
Unsurprisingly a grieving Robina didn’t come across the email until after Jimmy had passed away.
“He would have been so pleased,” says Robina. “But it was uplifting news for me, our son Toto and for all the family that there was renewed interest in the book and that we could have an ongoing memorial to him.”
The job of retrieving all of the material relating to Troubles Over the Bridge wasn’t easy.
Robina recalls: “The Lagan Press editor Jonathan Dykes was amazing. For him, it was like throwing a box of confetti up in the air and sticking all the pieces back together once they’d hit the ground.”
But there were yet more troubles ahead for Troubles.
A savage round of Government and Arts Council spending cuts meant that the publishers didn’t have the funding to proceed with Jimmy’s book in the way they’d envisaged before the axe fell.
But an unbowed Robina and Lagan Press resolved to undertake what’s known as a crowd-funding project to seek the support of benefactors to finance the publication.
“It wasn’t a terribly new idea,” laughs Robina. “Charles Dickens got a lot of his books published that way. They called it subscription publishing back then.”
Robina recruited Belfast solicitor Brian Garrett, who is Sam Thompson’s literary executor, and former BBC TV news executive Robin Walsh to help her raise the thousands of pounds that were needed.
She says: “I was absolutely determined that if I did nothing else for Jimmy’s memory, I would push ahead with the publishing of the book. Getting the play staged all those years ago was Jimmy's proudest moment."
"The Fifties was possibly the most significant decade of the second half of the 20th century for drama on stage and film. It was a rebellious time when America and England in particular were breaking boundaries with kitchen sink dramas and angry young men and the likes of John Osborne and Arthur Miller were to the forefront. Here in Northern Ireland, Jimmy and Sam Thompson were on a mission, too."
Jimmy, who starred in the long-running TV series Z Cars as well as the Billy plays alongside a youthful Kenneth Branagh, saw the Over the Bridge saga as a life-changing time in his life.
He was director of the Group Theatre in Belfast and he was approached in 1959 by local playwright Sam Thompson who told him that he had a play he "wouldn't touch with a bargepole".
The play centred on sectarianism in Belfast's shipyard where Ellis's father had been a sheet-metal worker who helped build the Titanic.
Jimmy was transfixed by the play but the Group's board of directors reckoned it was too hot to handle and refused to stage it fearing a backlash over its uncompromising content of a dispute between Protestants and Catholics at the Yard.
However, Jimmy refused to take the board's censorship lying down. He quit his job at the Group and directed the play at Belfast's Empire Theatre where it played to over 42,000 people over seven weeks.
The play is still regularly revived here and in Britain, and Robina says that a little-known motivation for Jimmy in his quest to put it on in Belfast all those years ago was the reaction to the script from his shipyard father who was also called Jimmy.
"After reading it, his father said 'this is our play son' and once he got his dad's approval, Jimmy was even more insistent that it would be produced in his hometown," says Robina, adding that Jimmy first got the idea of writing a book about Over the Bridge after giving a Tyrone Guthrie lecture about the play in Belfast.
"It was something that was always on his mind," says Robina. "And to hold the hard copy of the book for the first time last week was just wonderful. I couldn't believe it. Mind you the nicest thing would have been if Jimmy had been with me when it arrived."
The book will be launched on Thursday evening at a function in Queen's University, Belfast, where Jimmy studied and where drama students will present scenes from Over the Bridge.
Actor Adrian Dunbar, who was a long-time friend of Jimmy Ellis, has also recorded a number of extracts from the play for the launch.
Adrian says that the story of Jimmy and Over the Bridge has set up a template for actors to use the theatre as a platform to explore difficult political issues.
Actor Jimmy Nesbitt, who's currently filming a TV drama about killers Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart in Northern Ireland, has also welcomed Troubles Over the Bridge.
He says the book is a "trailblazer's story of rebellious opposition to censorship of the arts in the Fifties".
Meantime it's been confirmed that Jimmy's son Toto has received backing for his plans to produce a film about his father's book.
Robina adds: "Northern Ireland Screen has given Toto a grant and the BBC is going to transmit the programme. So that's very exciting."
Adrian will play the role of Sam Thompson in the film which goes into production early next year.
Toto says he's thrilled that the publication of his father's book has given his family the chance to tell his story to the world adding: "It's a fascinating read and it documents an incredibly important moment in Northern Ireland's history."
Troubles Over the Bridge is published by Lagan Press. For more information visit www.laganpress.co