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Emotional day for widow of James Ellis as Belfast bridge named in his honour

By Ivan Little

The ghostly strains of actor James Ellis singing the Z Cars theme rang out in east Belfast yesterday as a tribute to him was unveiled on the third anniversary of his death.

And rather appropriately the memorial to the man - who was at the centre of a real-life drama surrounding the play, Over the Bridge by Sam Thompson - was a bridge.

In the shadow of the towering cranes at the shipyard where the controversial play about sectarianism was set, Jimmy's widow Robina wiped away tears as she opened the new bridge.

It is close to the house where her husband, who made his name in the police series Z Cars, grew up in Park Avenue.

She said Jimmy would have been humbled by the decision to name the bridge in his honour, but added: "Jimmy wore his fame lightly. He was very fiercely proud of his roots in east Belfast. And if he'd been here he would have wanted to dedicate the bridge to his father, because he was also James Ellis.

"Please take ownership of this bridge, because it's yours now."

The Ellis' son Toto said: "We are so lucky and grateful that there is now a physical legacy to my dad in the form of this wonderful bridge."

Echoing the words of murdered English MP Jo Cox, he added: "There's more that binds us than divides us in these particularly uncertain times that we live in and while bridges are good physically because they connect communities, they're also good metaphorically because they bring us closer together."

Children from Jimmy's old school, Strand Primary - now known as Victoria Park Primary - sang during the ceremony.

Jimmy, who was also famous for his role in the Billy plays alongside Kenneth Branagh, died in March 2014 at the age of 82 and after his passing, a book that he'd written about the Over the Bridge row was published.

He wrote about how rehearsals were under way for the production at the Group Theatre in Belfast when the board pulled the plug, saying it could cause disturbances on the streets.

Jimmy (left), then the theatre's 28-year-old director, was furious and after quitting his job at the Group, he eventually opened the play at the Empire Theatre in Belfast.

It played to packed houses there before transferring to London, where Sir Laurence Olivier championed it.

It's been revived regularly ever since, in Belfast and across the water.

Toto Ellis recently wrote and directed a short movie called Two Angry Men about the censorship controversy, starring Adrian Dunbar and Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill.

The new bridge is part of the £40m Connswater Community Greenway scheme and yesterday the latest section of it was opened, linking CS Lewis Square at the Holywood Arches to Mersey Street and Victoria Park.

In the park three years ago another bridge was dedicated to Sam Thompson and Jimmy Ellis was scheduled to perform the naming ceremony, but he died two months before it took place.

Yesterday's unveiling was hosted by former broadcaster Denis Tuohy, who is from Belfast, who described Jimmy as "one of Belfast's most talented sons and a wonderful friend."

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