Belfast Telegraph

Jimmy Ellis: An actor of courage and great talent whose performances opened door for Branagh and Nesbitt

His performances opened the door for Branagh and Nesbitt, but he never forgot his roots and a house in east Belfast

By Ivan Little

He couldn't have known it of course but that sentimental journey just a few months back to the east Belfast home, where the seeds of a life well-lived were sown, was the last one that Jimmy Ellis would ever make to number 30 Park Avenue – the house he moved from as an unknown actor but which he could never really leave behind even as a star.

The popular TV and theatre actor – who paved the way for the likes of Liam Neeson, Ken Branagh and Jimmy Nesbitt to become international successes by making the Northern Ireland accent easier on the ears of once-wary screen producers – said part of his soul was forever attached to the imposing terraced dwelling.

Jimmy, who died at the weekend aged 82, had told friends how Hitler's Luftwaffe had bombed the house – on a row called Brookvale Terrace – during the war but his shipyard worker father, who was said to have worked on the Titanic, bravely carried the unexploded incendiary from his home.

Four years before that final wander down memory lane, Jimmy had unveiled a plaque at the Park Avenue house which was the family home from 1939 to 2000, when Jimmy's sister sold up.

On the plaque is an image of Jimmy in the police uniform of Sgt Bert Lynch from Z-Cars, a ground-breaking BBC TV series from the Sixties and Seventies, which was broadcast in black and white but which one fan said yesterday brought colour into millions of homes.

From outside 30 Park Avenue, it's impossible to miss – even through the drizzle and clouds of a dismal Sunday afternoon – the Harland and Wolff cranes which serve as another reminder of Jimmy's remarkable legacy, this time to the Northern Irish theatre and society.

Samson and Goliath weren't there in Jimmy's day but sectarianism very definitely was.

And it was a play, Over the Bridge, about divisions in the shipyard which was to help define Ellis's life after he took a stand against a decision by the board of the old Group Theatre in Bedford Street to banish it from their stage because they reckoned it was too hot for Belfast to handle.

Jimmy rejected their decision to steer away from plays concerning religion or politics. He resigned as director of productions and set about ensuring the gritty and searingly honest play would have its day – and its audience.

He and the play's writer Sam Thompson set up their own company, Over the Bridge Productions.

Former Belfast Celtic football star Jimmy Donnelly, who was also an accountant, was recruited to advise Thompson and Ellis on their finances.

He told me: "Jimmy and Sam were very passionate and determined about getting it on. And they succeeded. It played to packed houses in the Empire Theatre."

The two Jimmys didn't meet up again until January 26, 2010 – the 50th anniversary of the opening night when Donnelly went to see Ellis unveiling a blue plaque to Sam Thompson on the site of his old home in Montrose Street in east Belfast.

Jimmy Donnelly said: "I didn't think he would remember me. But we had a great time reminiscing about Over the Bridge. Jimmy was a most delightful man."

Also there that day was Sam Thompson's son Warren, who died suddenly just a few weeks ago.

The faith which Jimmy Ellis showed in Over the Bridge was well-placed. Only last year it was revived for a new production in London.

A friend said: "Jimmy could talk about anything. And he did. But he was rarely more animated than when he spoke about the Over the Bridge controversy."

Launching "Six", a series of rehearsed readings of works from old Ulster playwrights by the Centre Stage company at the Group Theatre in May 1999, he over-ran his allotted time but no-one dared to interrupt him as the emotion of standing on that famous stage again moved him to tears.

Yet Jimmy Ellis had known even worse heartache. Personal heartache. His son Adam, from Jimmy's first marriage, was murdered in 1988 when he was just 28. He was beaten and stabbed to death while fishing beside the Grand Union Canal in London.

His killer got away with £1.20 but didn't escape a life sentence.

Another of Jimmy sons, 49-year-old Hugo, who like his father was an actor and writer, took his own life in January 2011 after a severe bout of depression.

Friends said the deaths shook Jimmy to the core.

One said: "But he still tried to cope for the sake of his second wife Robina and his other children Amanda and Toto."

He also managed to keep smiling when people remembered him for Z-Cars alone and forgot his other roles in a raft of hit shows like Doctor Who, Ballykissangel, Only Fools and Horses, One By One and In Sickness and Health.

But Jimmy Ellis and Bert Lynch had been inseparable for 16 years. And even though at its peak, Z Cars attracted 18 million viewers Jimmy lived to regret the longevity of the partnership.

"I was in Z-Cars for far long. It was too comfortable," he said, adding the rider that the good days were better than the bad days without any acting jobs at all.

No matter the part, Jimmy's patois was usually the same. He never lost his Belfast accent, even when he was advised in the early days at drama school in England to tone it down.

Most of his TV work was across the water but he relished the chance to come home in the 1980s to shoot a local story in a local setting – the Billy Plays, alongside a young Ken Branagh who portrayed the eponymous Belfast teenager.

To many it seemed that Jimmy Ellis had been born to the role of the hard-drinking bully Norman Martin who was Billy's father.

But Jimmy wasn't exactly a shoe-in. Producers thought audiences wouldn't accept the affable Bert Lynch as the brutish father. But they did. And two more Billy plays were to follow.

Jimmy told me: "They were among the best things I ever did. And yes, I did know that Ken Branagh was going places."

Sir Kenneth, as he later became, asked Jimmy to appear in a number of his productions but they couldn't find the dates to make it happen.

Jimmy came back to Belfast in May last year to see Love, Billy, a new stage version written by Graham Reid for the Lyric Theatre and was photographed beside a huge painting of him by the renowned artist Colin Davidson which hangs in the foyer.

But that was the way of Jimmy Ellis. He rarely turned down an invitation to show his support for the theatre, past present or future.

In 2008, Jimmy received an honourary doctorate for services to the performing arts from Queen's University, where he had studied briefly before going to Bristol Old Vic to train as an actor.

The PR people told me Jimmy wouldn't be doing any interviews, blaming his hearing and ill-health. But they had reckoned without Jimmy Ellis.

He did speak to the media pack and, as usual, he spoke well. He said he'd been humbled by the QUB recognition, which was bestowed on him at the Whitla Hall, right across the road from where he'd gone to school at Methodist College.

Off camera he also talked of his "wee scribblings", his poems and prose which he wrote on a regular basis. His early life in Belfast was a common theme.

One which he particularly enjoyed was about the wireless – the old name for the radio which helped him stretch his horizons from the streets of Sydenham to embrace the world. Initially his family couldn't afford a wireless so his father made one.

In an interview Jimmy said he recalled listening to a heavyweight boxing contest between Tommy Farr from Wales and the legendary Joe Louis in America. His father put the radio to his five-year-old son's ear and said: "That's coming all the way from across the Atlantic Ocean"

Jimmy, who has also translated poems of Greek and French writers into English, has written a memoir which as yet remains unpublished.

Belfast will undoubtedly be one of the stars of this particular Jimmy Ellis show.

David Lyle Hall, who now lives in the Ellis family home, said that on his visits to Park Avenue Jimmy made clear his affection for the house and the area.

David said: "Jimmy would call from time to time as we were renovating the house and saw the changes from what he remembered.

"It was clear he had a tremendous tie to the place."

The plaque on the house – there's also one at the nearby Victoria Park Primary School – also bears testimony to Jimmy's love for Belfast with a quote about how images were stored in his 'mental hold-all' and how the hills of Antrim were etched upon his heart.

"Truth to tell I never really left," he wrote.

And as his son Toto revealed yesterday in his moving tribute to his father, his family will be bringing Jimmy home to Belfast for his funeral for the final curtain to fall on a man rightly described on that Park Avenue plaque as a "world renowned legend".

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